Brandon Morrow

Brandon Morrow, Craig Kimbrel and the 'puzzle' that is the Cubs bullpen

Brandon Morrow, Craig Kimbrel and the 'puzzle' that is the Cubs bullpen

From potential trades to payroll to their exact offseason checklist, the Cubs are playing things close to the vest early this offseason.

Which makes sense, as it doesn't do them any good to publicly talk about which players they're hoping to trade or exactly how much they have to spend to reshape a roster that missed the playoffs for the first time in a half-decade. 

But one thing is certain: The bullpen ranks very high on the Cubs priority list this winter.

At MLB's GM Meetings last week, Theo Epstein acknowledged the bullpen is a major focus for his front office and said, "we need to hit on a number of relievers this winter."

If the season started today, the Cubs bullpen might look something like this:

Craig Kimbrel (closer)
Rowan Wick
Kyle Ryan
Brad Wieck
Tyler Chatwood
Alec Mills
Danny Hultzen
Duane Underwood Jr.
Adbert Alzolay

That also doesn't take into account the potential of Chatwood, Mills or Alzolay getting a shot at the starting rotation (plus Colin Rea, who was added to the 40-man roster earlier this month).

There's not a whole lot of MLB experience in that projected bullpen beyond the closer. Kimbrel has 565 career big-league appearances under his belt, but the other eight names on that list have combined for only 329 relief appearances spanning 374.2 innings. 

That's not to say there's no promise in this group — Wick, Ryan and Wieck all impressed in varying degrees of sample size in 2019 while Mills and Chatwood also performed admirably in swingman roles — but there's simply not much of a track record. 

To some degree, the Cubs are going to be counting on guys from the aforementioned group (plus other internal candidates like James Norwood and Dillon Maples) in 2020, but there's also clearly a lot of work to do for a unit that struggled mightily in high-leverage spots last season.

"That's a puzzle we're going to be putting together all winter," Jed Hoyer said. "We'll look at every possible angle to do it — minor-league free agency, major-league free agency, trades. We're gonna be creative in how we put a bullpen together, but right now, there's a lot of flexibility.

"It's hard to picture that painting right now, but I think we'll be creative and try to put together a good bullpen."

As Hoyer indicated, there is no one way to put together a quality relief corps.

For example, the Cubs signed Kimbrel to $43 million deal, acquired Wick and Mills in under-the-radar minor-league trades, moved Chatwood from the rotation to the bullpen, drafted Underwood and picked up former second-overall pick (2011) Hultzen on a minor-league deal as he made his way back from a laundry list of injuries. Wieck is the most recent acquisition, quietly coming over from the Padres in exchange for Carl Edwards Jr. while everybody was focused on the Nicholas Castellanos deal.

One such unconventional option could be Brandon Morrow, the oft-injured former closer who initially signed with the Cubs prior to the 2018 season, but was only able to pitch for a few months before missing the last year-and-a-half with ongoing arm issues. The Cubs declined his $12 million 2020 earlier this month and thus owe him a $3 million buyout.

Morrow, 35, is reportedly healthy and has expressed interest in making a comeback. If he doesn't manage to land a big-league deal (which is unlikely given his recent elbow issue and track record of injuries), he is open to signing a minor-league deal with the Cubs, as first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times' Gordon Wittenmyer

The Cubs would be interested in that, as well, as it's a low-risk, high-upside move. When he's been able to get on a mound over the last four seasons, Morrow is 7-0 with a 1.79 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 24 saves and 12 holds.

"When healthy, he can certainly be a big part of the solution," Epstein said. "We appreciate his sentiments about if he's gonna sign a minor-league deal, he feels a responsibility that it should be here. That certainly seems like the type of thing that makes sense for both sides down the road."

The Cubs are already probably going to have to get creative to fit all their desired moves into the 2020 budget, so a reunion with Morrow makes sense as a potential piece of the bullpen puzzle. But obviously the Cubs cannot go into the season expecting Morrow to stay healthy all season or relying on him as a key cog.

The biggest key to the success of the 2020 bullpen will be Kimbrel, who had a very forgettable debut season in Chicago. 

Kimbrel went 0-4, posted a 6.53 ERA, gave up 9 homers in 20.2 innings and blew 3 saves in 16 chances with the Cubs after signing midseason. He also missed roughly a month of action between a knee injury and then an elbow injury that lingered into September.

Will a typical offseason and spring training be enough to get the 31-year-old back to his Hall of Fame-caliber form?

"Some of the injuries may well have been because of the lack of spring training, ramping up too quickly," Hoyer said. "Of course there's a lot of variables. I don't think we know exactly why he struggled. I thought there were some moments where he looked like he was about to take off and he looked really good and some injuries held him back. 

"Hopefully a really good spring training and he can get back on track, really stabilize our bullpen and allow us to build a bullpen without having to worry about the last three outs."

Regardless of how the Cubs build the bullpen this winter, all eyes will be on Kimbrel. If he can't regain his form, it's going to make life a lot more difficult on Epstein's front office and new manager David Ross. 

However, it does help that Wick, Wieck and Ryan got valuable experience pitching in high-leverage moments in the midst of a pennant race last season. All three figure to be big parts of that bullpen puzzle moving forward. 

Before a minor shoulder issue cut his season short, Chatwood was dialing it up to 99 mph out of the bullpen and impressing in short spurts or in a long relief role. After a long road, Hultzen finally made his MLB debut in 2019 while Underwood struck out all six batters he faced in his season debut in August and showed some promise.

If the Cubs are going to have to lean heavily on the group of relievers without much track record, at least they got a bit of a head start.

"Yeah, it gives us some comfort," Hoyer said. "We have a lot of uncertainty, a lot of moving parts in the bullpen. But the way some of those guys pitched at the end of the year does give us hope that we can find some diamonds in the rough and some of those guys that we found last year can continue to make strides and help us." 

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Cubs decline 2020 options on four pitchers, including former closer Brandon Morrow

Cubs decline 2020 options on four pitchers, including former closer Brandon Morrow

The Cubs have declined the 2020 team options on four pitchers, the club announced on Monday.

Tony Barnette ($3 million), Kendall Graveman ($3 million), Brandon Morrow ($12 million vesting option) had minimal-to-no impacts on the field for the Cubs in 2019. Barnette started the season in Triple-A, joining the Cubs in June for two appearances before getting sent back to Iowa. He went on the restricted list soon thereafter to contemplate his future in baseball.

The Cubs signed Graveman last offseason, a move viewed as more for the 2020 season than 2019. The 28-year-old right-hander — who holds a career 4.38 ERA in 83 games (78 starts) — underwent Tommy John surgery in July 2018. He was expected to miss at least a chunk of the 2019 season, at least, and while he made one rehab start with Iowa, he has yet to throw a pitch with the Cubs.

Morrow was stellar for the Cubs when healthy (35 games, 1.47 ERA, 22-of-24 save chances in 2018), but he last pitched on July 15, 2018. He missed the entire 2018 second half due to right biceps inflammation, eventually undergoing a debridement procedure on his right elbow last November.

That procedure was expected to keep Morrow out for at least the first month of the 2019 season. However, he suffered two setbacks during his rehab (in April and August), the latter of which ended his season. The Cubs bullpen missed Morrow dearly, struggling in high-leverage spots all season while blowing 28 saves (tied for sixth-most in MLB). Craig Kimbrel was supposed to help address these issues, but he struggled to get into a groove after missing spring training and seeing his free agency last into June.

Although Morrow didn't make any appearances to come close to qualifying for the vesting option, the Cubs do owe him a $3 million buyout.

The Cubs also declined David Phelps’ 2020 option, which rose from $3 million to $5 million because he made 40 overall appearances in 2019. Phelps joined the Cubs in a trade deadline deal with the Blue Jays, posting a 3.18 ERA in 24 appearances on the North Side.

While it’s very unlikely Barnette and Morrow will return, it’s possible that the Cubs could re-sign Graveman and Phelps. The former would provide starting rotation depth in a 2020 group that has some question marks behind Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester. And depending on the number, Phelps could be a solid bullpen piece in a group that the Cubs surely will address this winter.

The Cubs have no decisions left regarding 2020 team options. Over the weekend, they declined lefty Derek Holland's ($6.5 million, $500,000 buyout) and picked up the options of José Quintana ($10.5 million) and Anthony Rizzo ($16.5 million).

The Cubs also added right-hander Colin Rea to the 40-man roster and outrighted Allen Webster to Iowa's roster. Rea went 14-4 with a 3.95 ERA with Iowa in 2019 and was named Pitcher of the Year in the Pacific Coast League. Rea presents the Cubs with more rotation depth for 2020.

Chicago's 40-man roster now stands at 32 players.

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The end of the Brandon Morrow Era: Veteran reliever won't return to Cubs bullpen this season

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USA TODAY

The end of the Brandon Morrow Era: Veteran reliever won't return to Cubs bullpen this season

Veteran reliever Brandon Morrow won't be making a Kyle Schwarber-esque comeback for the Cubs this season.

Morrow has missed the entire year while dealing with the same elbow issue that forced him out of action in the second half last season. He was working towards a comeback and even threw live batting practice to hitters earlier this month, but the Cubs announced Wednesday he suffered a setback that will end his 2019 campaign.

Morrow will see a specialist next week and the likely next step would be a surgery to release the pressure on the radial nerve in his right elbow.

"He certainly worked very hard in an attempt to come back and tried a lot of different techniques and procedures and just wasn't able to get over the hump where he could sustain full exertion and progress past live BPs towards a rehab stint," Theo Epstein said Wednesday. "We feel bad for him, feel bad for us that he wasn't able to contribute this year. But we've kinda sensed this coming for a little bit now since he hasn't been able to get over that hump.

"We certainly were operating under the presumption that he wouldn't help us recently and saw it as sort of gravy if we could and unfortunately, that's not gonna happen."

The Cubs signed Morrow before the 2018 season to a two-year, $21 million deal that included a $12 million team option for the 2020 season. It's safe to say the team won't be picking that up for next year and now that he's 35, it's unknown what his future might be in baseball.

Morrow was fantastic for the Cubs last season when he was able to pitch, going 22-for-24 in save situations with a 1.47 ERA and 1.08 WHIP. He emerged as a bonafide lockdown reliever in 2017 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, when he posted a 2.06 ERA and pitched in all seven games in the World Series that fall.

The Cubs knew they weren't going to have Morrow for at least the first month of 2019 after he underwent a procedure on his elbow in November - the same procedure Darvish had a month earlier. 

But Morrow suffered setback after setback and had trouble recovering after throwing bullpens and ramping up his recovery.

Morrow would've been a nice addition to the Cubs' much-maligned bullpen down the stretch - and potentially in October - but that was always a longshot that he would be able to make it back in time to have a major impact.

He'll go down as something of a regrettable free agent signing for Epstein's front office, but nobody could've predicted this level of injury, even for a guy with a long list of arm issues earlier in his career.

"I think we were pretty confident he would pitch at a really high level when he was out there," Epstein said. "The stuff coming out and he did [pitch well] in the first half last year. I don't know. I look back, maybe we should've had even more conservative guidelines with him or maybe there's nothing we could do. It's impossible to say. 

"Obviously he's got a significant injury history, which makes him a calculated risk. When you sign someone like that, how good he was, you know you're gonna get quality when he's out there, but there's a risk of not getting the quantity. That burned us for the last year-and-a-half and that's on me."

Epstein and the Cubs know the bullpen has caused plenty of heartache for fans this season - including on the recent road trip - but now that everybody else besides Morrow is back healthy, they feel like things might finally fire on all cylinders down there.

"Obviously the pen's been a story this year, but I do think a lot of guys have stepped up in his absence," Epstein said. "I think it's coming together to the point where it can be a strength for us. We won't have Morrow to help the rest of the way, but we haven't had him all season."