Brandon Morrow

Cubs shut down Brandon Morrow after setback

Cubs shut down Brandon Morrow after setback

Brandon Morrow will not be ready to join the Cubs bullpen in the near future.

It was expected the closer would miss at least the first month of the season after recovering from November elbow surgery, but now the Cubs say Morrow has suffered a setback and they're shutting down the 34-year-old pitcher.

Morrow threw a bullpen at the Cubs' complex in Arizona earlier in the week and experienced some of the same issues in his arm after.

"The bounceback after the last time out wasn't as good, so we gotta back off him once again and just slow things down," Joe Maddon said Saturday morning. "It's just where he's at. It's not unlike what had been going on earlier.

"It was all trending very well and this last time, just not as good. So we have to pay attention to what he's saying."

Morrow will not pick up a baseball for a little while, though the Cubs didn't specify exactly how long that would be. This obviously pushes Morrow's timeline back significantly and raises serious questions about his status moving forward this season.

He has not appeared in a game since July 15 last year, hitting the shelf with what was classified as a biceps issue initially and then later revealed as a bone bruise. The surgery in November was a debridement procedure similar to what Yu Darvish underwent in September for his own bone bruise.

The Cubs have been very conservative with Morrow throughout his entire recovery, especially given his long injury history. 

Yet even with that conservative approach, nine months away from game action to let the injury recover and the procedure on his elbow to clean things up, Morrow is still experiencing similar issues to what he went through in the second half of last year. As he tried to come back and join the Cubs' pennant race last August and September, Morrow also struggled bouncing back after throwing sessions.

It will be a bit until the Cubs have any sort of definitive timeline on Morrow, but in the meantime, they'll continue piecing together a bullpen that has found its footing lately after a brutal stretch to begin the season. 

The Cubs also have some reinforcements on the way soon in the form of veterans Xavier Cedeno and Tony Barnette, who both signed free-agent deals with the team over the winter. Cedeno, a 32-year-old lefty, is throwing another rehab game in Double-A Tennessee Saturday while Barnette — a 35-year-old righty — is expected to make his first rehab appearance with Triple-A Iowa Sunday.

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Chronicling Brandon Kintzler's transformation from doghouse to circle of trust in Cubs bullpen

Chronicling Brandon Kintzler's transformation from doghouse to circle of trust in Cubs bullpen

Brandon Kintzler's 2019 season has been night and day compared to his debut campaign in Chicago last year.

It's still very early in the season, but the veteran reliever never had even a small sample size where he pitched this well in a Cubs uniform in 2018.

As the Cubs begin their series with the Marlins in Miami Monday night, Kintzler leads the bullpen in appearances (7), innings (7.2), strikeouts (9), WHIP (0.52) and is second in ERA (3.52) behind only Allen Webster (who has pitched just 3 innings). His lone mistake was a 3-run homer surrendered to Eric Thames in Milwaukee and he's the only Cubs reliever who hasn't walked a batter.

That's a far cry from the 25 games he pitched with the Cubs after a midseason trade a year ago, posting a 7.00 ERA and 2.00 WHIP in 18 innings. 

What we're seeing in 2019 is a lot more indicative of the pitcher Kintzler's been in his career prior to 2018 — 3.16 ERA, 1.23 WHIP in 291 career appearances.

"I threw like crap last year," Kintzler said. "Every once in a while, I'd make a good pitch, but I wasn't consistent enough to go, 'Oh, I'm having bad luck.' I just wasn't throwing well. Last year to me, it's just a wash. This year is a new year and every day is a new day."

So why was last year a wash? 

For starters, there was the rumor that Nationals GM Mike Rizzo traded away Kintzler last summer because he felt the veteran reliever was a bad influence in the clubhouse and was leaking information to the outside world. 

Kintzler has been adamant he wasn't the problem and has also admitted the negative rumor weighed on him in the final months of 2018, when he was supposed to be trying to fit in a new clubhouse and help the Cubs in a pennant race.

"I think the drama of my trade last year, you couldn't really be yourself because there's all this media about whatever they tried to say I did [in Washington]," he said. "It kinda hurt. It messes with your mind a little bit so you don't really wanna be yourself."

This spring training was huge for Kintzler, because he got to know his Cubs teammates and coaches under completely different — and better — circumstances. 

That includes first-year pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, who won over Kintzler immediately when he went out to the reliever's home outside Las Vegas in December. Hottovy was in Vegas with the Cubs front office as part of MLB Winter Meetings and took a quick detour to watch Kintzler throw in the offseason.

The Cubs declined Kintzler's $10 million team option earlier in the winter, but the reliever had a $5 million player option that he exercised, so he was already on the books and a part of the bullpen. It was a matter of making sure 2018 was the aberration and he and the Cubs could get him back to his pre-2018 form.

Kintzler said Hottovy's visit meant a lot to him. Instead of the new pitching coach simply writing off the veteran as a lost cause based on the 2018 struggles, he instead believed in him and that's made all the difference.

Because of that, Hottovy earned Kintzler's trust and he used that relationship to fine-tune Kintzler's mechanics. 

"Tommy simplified my delivery," Kintzler said. "He's got my body and my arm slot back. He's getting my body in a good place to repeat my delivery. We got my arm slot back to where I needed to be from a couple years ago. When you feel comfortable where your body's at, you don't need to think about anything else — you can just go. 

"If I just worry about throwing strikes and I'm not worried about where my hands are or what my arm's doing, it makes my job a lot easier. Especially for me, I'm a very emotional, aggressive guy when I'm out there. So if I can just use my emotions to my strength, I think that's more on my side."

Kintzler and Hottovy worked on the new delivery throughout the spring and the first step was paring down a leg kick. Kintzler said he immediately gained three inches of sink in his next outing and continued to trend in the right direction from there. That's huge for a groundball pitcher who doesn't get a lot of strikeouts (6.2 career K/9). 

"He's shortened his movements up and with that, the command has been a lot better with great sink," Joe Maddon said. "He's got his delivery under control — that's it. Otherwise, everything looks the same to me."

Kintzler's resurgence has come at a very important time for a Cubs bullpen that began the year without Brandon Morrow and was forced to send Carl Edwards Jr. down to the minor leagues barely a week into the season. The Cubs are also without Mike Montgomery (lat injury) and Brian Duensing (designated for assignment during spring training) in the bullpen and a pair of veterans they signed over the winter — Xavier Cedeno and Tony Barnette — are still recovering from their respective injuries. 

Newcomer Brad Brach has had some good outings out of the bullpen, but he's also struggled badly with his command — 10 walks in 6.2 innings — which leaves essentially only Kintzler, Steve Cishek and Pedro Strop firmly within Maddon's circle of trust. 

For a bullpen with major control issues thus far, Kintzler's control stands out even more.

"I'm in attack mode and making action happen and forcing the issue," he said. "The main thing is just throwing strikes. If I'm in the zone, throwing strikes, more than likely, it's gonna go my way."

Cubs see light at the end of the tunnel with bullpen

bullpen_reinforcements_cubs.jpg
AP

Cubs see light at the end of the tunnel with bullpen

The Cubs always knew they were going to need more than the eight relief pitchers they broke camp with, but they weren't necessarily expecting to have to dip into the reserves before they even played a home game.

Theo Epstein's front office tries to plan for everything and they understood this was a possible scenario, with Carl Edwards Jr. being sent down to the minor leagues to hit the reset button on his career and Mike Montgomery hitting the injured list with a left lat strain.

In their place, the Cubs called up left-hander Kyle Ryan and righty Allen Webster and after a tough debut Saturday, the pair of relievers combined for 2.2 shutout innings in Sunday's ballgame.

Who knows how long these two pitchers will stick, but the entire bullpen has started to look better of late and will take a string of 12 straight scoreless innings into Wednesday night's game with the Pirates at Wrigley Field.

That streak was boosted by a great outing from the group in Monday's home opener, as Brad Brach, Brandon Kintzler, Randy Rosario and Pedro Strop combined for 7 scoreless innings after Jon Lester left with an injury.

Could this be a sign of things to come for this bullpen?

"The good pitching can be contagious, but at the same time, the bad pitching can be contagious,"  Brach said. "I think now we're ready to get on a little bit of a role and hopefully 7 innings can go a long way to the next game."

"That'll build their confidence," Joe Maddon said. "They need that, the group needs that. They're all really good. ... I want to believe that an afternoon like today is gonna help build that confidnce out there that they sorely need."

Prior to this scoreless stretch, the Cubs bullpen carried a 9.85 ERA and 2.26 WHIP on the season. They're now at 6.92 and 1.86, respectively, which are still unsightly numbers, but obviously starting to trend in the right direction.

"There's a clear path to us having a really good bullpen and the primary factor in that is there's a lot of talent up here and we have depth and options, too," Epstein said Monday morning. "We'll just try to use good judgement and move along that path as quickly as we can. I think we're gonna get there."

Ryan and Webster could be part of the solution. The Cubs like how Ryan pounds the zone and induces a lot of weak contact and Webster has great stuff — an upper 90s fastball and a hard slider — plus the pedigree of a former top prospect. 

There's also more help on the way eventually, as injured veterans Brandon Morrow, Xavier Cedeno and Tony Barnette are all on the comeback trail. 

Morrow is recovering from November surgery on his elbow to clean everything up after a forearm bone bruise knocked him out of action for the second half of the 2018 season. He was expected to miss the first month of the season and is still on track for that.

"There's been no change to his timetable," Epstein said. "It would be impossible to say right now because a lot of it will be determined by how it responds to game action. He's completed all his 'pens so far without incident."

The Cubs will have more information on Morrow's next steps later in the week, though they don't have a set plan for a rehab stint yet. 

Cedeno (wrist) and Barnette (shoulder) were two of the Cubs' free agent additions to the bullpen this winter and Epstein confirmed Monday they're each nearing a rehab assignment.

It's still unclear how all these pieces will fit into the bullpen when they're all healthy (and nobody knows when or if Edwards will be back up in Chicago), but adding reliable veterans to this group of relievers is far from a bad thing.

Morrow is expected to serve in a high-leverage role upon his return, but the Cubs will exercise caution and don't plan on using him on back-to-back days initially. So even if he slides right back into the closer's spot, it won't be on an everyday basis.

The Cubs don't care as much about the names or roles in the bullpen so long as the production is there, which it wasn't for the first eight games. Some pitchers have admitted they're pressing and all trying to be the hero to lift the group out of the rut, and manager Joe Maddon believes they might be attempting to do too much at times.

For the Cubs to put their 2-7 start behind them and move forward, they're going to have to lean heavily on their relievers. 

"The stabilization has to come out of the bullpen," Maddon said. "We do have to pitch better in general, but we've done a lot of good things on the field. We've swung the bats pretty well. We have to stabilize the bullpen. 

"... So as you continue to move it forward, you're always looking for that formulaic method of playing the game — you get on top, your bullpen does the right job, you finish it off in the end. Always looking for that."

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