Bryan Shaw

Brandon Morrow shows ways Cubs can rebuild bullpen

Brandon Morrow shows ways Cubs can rebuild bullpen

The Cubs could try to sign Brandon Morrow or find the next Brandon Morrow or maybe pull off both moves as they rebuild a bullpen that got exposed in the playoffs.

After another October featuring short-leash starters, hybrid relievers and managers on the hot seat, super-bullpens will again be a trending topic when the general manager meetings kick off on Monday in Orlando, Florida.

The lottery-ticket ideal is Morrow, the fifth overall pick in the 2006 draft who didn’t live up to the hype in the Seattle or Toronto rotations, a survivor of two Tommy John surgeries and a breakout playoff star after beginning the season with Triple-A Oklahoma City.

Morrow shut down the Cubs for 4.2 innings during the National League Championship Series, striking out seven of the 16 hitters he faced, working 14 of 15 playoff games out of the Dodger bullpen and generating some free-agent buzz.

Since the Theo Epstein regime took over after the 2011 season, the Cubs have handed out multiyear contracts to only two relievers — swingman Carlos Villanueva and Japanese closer Kyuji Fujikawa —  and neither deal totaled more than $10 million. Signing a top-tier reliever like Morrow might cost two or three times that amount and require a commitment of at least three or four years.

Even Pedro Strop’s low-risk extension announced in spring training came out of settling at a $5.5 million salary for 2017 before a potential arbitration hearing and then adding a reasonable guarantee for 2018 ($5.85 million) and a 2019 club option ($6.25 million or a $500,000 buyout).

This is more of an overall bullpen philosophy than a hard-and-fast rule, but the Cubs will probably have to get out of that comfort zone, whether or not they bring back All-Star closer Wade Davis.

“You’ve got to keep an open mind,” general manager Jed Hoyer said on NBC Sports Chicago’s Cubs Talk Podcast. “We’ve certainly had offers out there to different guys that have gone elsewhere. Building a bullpen is a very complicated thing, and probably one of the hardest things that we have to do. They come from all over.

“Pedro Strop had a 7.00 (ERA) with the Orioles and was in that (Jake Arrieta) deal and he comes over to the Cubs and he’s been fantastic for us. You can get guys off the waiver wire. You look at Brandon Morrow and the kind of season he had. That was obviously not expected.

“You have to always be vigilant trying to find guys and put guys in opportunities to succeed. Now, that said, having some stability in the bullpen —  and guys with a little bit more of a track record or a little better stuff —  is important as well.”

The Cubs completely rebuilt their bullpen on the fly in the middle of a 97-win season —  picking up Clayton Richard, Trevor Cahill and Fernando Rodney from the scrap heap — and made it to the 2015 NLCS.

Despite their postseason struggles, Epstein pointed out that Carl Edwards Jr. and Mike Montgomery got the three most important outs in franchise history —  the 10th inning of last year’s World Series Game 7 —  and will be vital parts of the 2018 bullpen.

Brian Duensing showed the Cubs enough in only 14 appearances out of the Baltimore bullpen in 2016 to get a one-year, $2 million deal that generated zero buzz last offseason —  and the lefty wound up being one of Joe Maddon’s most-trusted relievers.

The Cubs can also take advantage of the supply-and-demand dynamics this winter.

Addison Reed —  a reliever the Cubs have monitored at trade-deadline season —  will be 29 next year and has extensive experience as a closer (with the White Sox) and a setup guy for big-market playoff teams (Mets and Red Sox).

The Cubs showed interest in Greg Holland before trading for Davis at last year’s winter meetings. But that was as a bounce-back Tommy John guy, not someone who opted out of his $15 million player option for 2018 and will probably decline the one-year, $17.4 million qualifying offer from the Rockies.

Bryan Shaw just turned 30 and has made at least 70 appearances in each of the last five seasons for the Indians, plus five playoff series out of Terry Francona’s bullpen. Tony Watson had been a left-handed piece to that lights-out Dodger bullpen in the NLCS.

Steve Cishek and Pat Neshek can offer funky sidearm looks. Jake McGee has the Tampa Bay connection to Maddon and new pitching coach Jim Hickey. Chicago guy Luke Gregerson helped transform the Astros into World Series champs.

“There’s a little bit more depth in the reliever market than some of the other markets,” Hoyer said. “All in all, this is not a robust free-agent class, which may lend itself to some creativity by a lot of teams. But that is one area of the market that has a few more players than some of the others.”

How Albert Almora Jr. became part of the World Series puzzle for Cubs

How Albert Almora Jr. became part of the World Series puzzle for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – Theory and reality collided for the Cubs in the 10th inning, when Kris Bryant drove Bryan Shaw's 94.8 mph fastball out to Progressive Field's warning track. Pinch-runner Albert Almora Jr. alertly hustled from first base as soon as Cleveland Indians center fielder Rajai Davis caught it in front of the KeyBank sign.   
 
Almora had already launched his body into a textbook slide — his left arm raised in the air and his right hand scraping the dirt — before Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor even caught the ball several feet off second base.
 
"Tagging is Almora with great baserunning," Fox play-by-play man Joe Buck told 40 million World Series viewers, making this epic Game 7 Major League Baseball's most-watched TV event in 25 years.   
 
That moment of clarity — after the fog of a 17-minute rain delay and potentially the most devastating collapse in franchise history — illustrated why Almora became the first player drafted by the Theo Epstein administration in 2012. The Cubs projected the baseball IQ and self-confidence sharpened by a strong Cuban-American family and from playing on Team USA and year-round in South Florida.   
 
"Just those intangibles," new Cubs outfielder Jon Jay said. "Maybe he picked that up growing up in Miami, where baseball is serious. We were taught the fundamentals of the game — do the little things right — and everything was so competitive. 
 
"That's what I saw out of that play. I said: Man, he probably did that in high school or when he was 13 years old, because that's what we were taught when we were younger."
 
Almora scored the go-ahead run from second base when World Series MVP Ben Zobrist smashed a double past diving Indians third baseman Jose Ramirez. Four days before his 23rd birthday, Almora will receive the championship ring marking the end of the 108-year drought. 
 
"Why I was so confident had a lot to do with my teammates, what they allowed me to be when I first got to the big leagues," Almora said. "They allowed me to be myself. It was really awesome to feel that way. I knew nothing would really change in the playoffs. 
 
"Just go out there and be yourself. Go out there and have fun. Obviously, I was such a small piece of the puzzle for the World Series. But when they called my name there, I was just happy I could get the job done." 

[MORE: Cubs and Pedro Strop look to future with contract extension]
 
The Cubs didn't hand Almora an everyday job, signing Jay to a one-year, $8 million contract and expecting him to be a left-handed complement and a veteran mentor. Jay played at the University of Miami — while Almora committed to the Hurricanes before agreeing to a $3.9 million bonus with the Cubs — and the two had already paired up as offseason workout partners back home. 
 
"I can learn from such a great person and a great player as well," Almora said. "My goal doesn't change from last year to this year — it's to win a World Series. He brings a lot to the table. He brings experience in the playoffs.
 
"This isn't about me. This isn't about him. It's about us and whatever makes the team better."
 
The Cubs opened their Cactus League schedule on Saturday with split-squad games against the Oakland A's and San Francisco Giants, Jay starting in center field in Mesa while Almora did the same in Scottsdale. The Cubs will see the Indians again on Sunday afternoon at Sloan Park, another reminder of the instincts that might someday help Almora become a Gold Glove defender.
 
"He has a really good awareness of what's going on out there," manager Joe Maddon said. "This kid loves to play. He loves to be part of this. He's always looking for growth. He's always looking to get better at different things.
 
"Coming from Miami and his background, he's just kind of a baseball junkie."
 
To put Almora's focus in context, he married Krystal at a Chicago courthouse in late July last year, got sent back down to Iowa the next day and together they welcomed their newborn son, Ayden John, in August. By early November, Almora's father, Albert Sr., felt good enough after his battle with prostate cancer to ride in the bus in the championship parade down Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue. 
 
At this time last year, Almora envisioned himself in the World Series, even though he hadn't yet played above the Triple-A level and wouldn't make his big-league debut until early June. That didn't stop him from making 2016 the most unforgettable year of his life. 
 
"Yeah, I can honestly say that I had confidence in myself that I was going to be there," Almora said. "I didn't know what role I was going to have — that's something you can't control — but I knew from the bottom of my heart that I had worked hard enough, that I was going to get the chance to be on a playoff team.
 
"You have to (look at it that way). My goal was to be on that team to help win a World Series. And that's what happened."