Wade Davis

Mr. Underrated: Pedro Strop just keeps doin' his thing

Mr. Underrated: Pedro Strop just keeps doin' his thing

The Cubs have had four different closers over the last three seasons.

Beyond Aroldis Chapman, Wade Davis, Brandon Morrow and Hector Rondon, they've had a handful of other pitchers who could be "the guy" if an injury befell the back end of the team's bullpen — guys like Carl Edwards Jr. or Koji Uehara or Steve Cishek or even Justin Wilson.

Somehow, Pedro Strop always seems to get overlooked. 

The 32-year-old veteran has been one of the more underrated relievers in the game since he came over as "the other guy" in the Jake Arrieta trade with the Baltimore Orioles in July 2013. 

After two shutout innings Saturday in St. Louis — a ballpark and a team that has haunted him in the past (7.04 ERA, 1.76 WHIP at Busch Stadium, even after Saturday's outing) — Strop now has a 1.93 ERA and 1.07 WHIP on the 2018 campaign.

Overall, he's 16-18 with a 2.68 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 332 strikeouts in 285.2 innings in a Cubs uniform. He has never finished a year in Chicago with an ERA above 2.91.

Since the start of the 2014 season (his first full year with the Cubs), Strop ranks 21st in baseball in ERA among relievers, just behind guys like Cody Allen and Kelvin Herrera and coming in ahead of pitchers like Roberto Osuna, David Robertson and Greg Holland. In that same span, he ranks 13th in baseball in appearances (278), more than stud relievers Kenley Jansen and Andrew Miller.

This year, Maddon is using Strop more than ever, as he's on pace for 71 innings, which would represent a career high.

Even despite the consistency and regular season numbers, Strop still found himself outside Joe Maddon's Circle of Trust during the 2016 playoff run. However, that was more due to a knee injury that sidelined him to end that regular season, leading to a bit of rust entering October.

Pitching in a Cubs uniform on the postseason over the last three years, Strop has only allowed 7 hits in 16.1 innings, sporting a 2.20 ERA and 0.80 WHIP in 19 appearances.

What's led to that consistency?

"I think it's routine," Strop said. "Be professional in what you're doing, even when the day doesn't go well for you. OK, it's in the past, keep looking ahead and just try to do better whenever you get back in there. Stuff like that.

"Little things can change the whole thing. I'm really mentally tough to walk away when things are bad. I think that's been a huge part of me being consistent — just let everything go and keep going."

Strop has admitted he hasn't always been very good at letting the bad stuff go.

The only reason he was even available in the deal five summers ago was because he had posted a 7.25 ERA in 29 games in Baltimore after looking like one of the game's bright young relief stars the previous two seasons (2.34 ERA).

Strop has spent a lot of time learning from other veterans in his career and has now gotten to the point where he's now one of the seasoned, wise vets in the Cubs bullpen, lending counsel to younger guys like Edwards.

"I've been learning a lot and I think [the mental aspect] is a really important part, especially for relievers," Strop said. "You don't have as much time to be thinking about bad outings. You just gotta put it away and get back in there the next day.

"I don't want to say starting is easier, but when you have a bad outing as a starter, you have another five days to put everything together in bullpens and stuff. But as a reliever, you gotta be ready the next day."

Brandon Morrow has been a huge pickup for the Cubs — even when he doesn't pitch

Brandon Morrow has been a huge pickup for the Cubs — even when he doesn't pitch

The symbolism is undeniable.

When Brandon Morrow first walked out to the Imagine Dragons song "Whatever It Takes" at Wrigley Field, I couldn't help but think how it was the perfect song.

The 33-year-old pitcher has done whatever it takes to stick around in his career, withstanding injury after injury to reinvent himself from a top starter to one of the more dynamic relief pitchers in the game.

Morrow is the man the Cubs tabbed to replace Wade Davis, who set records as the Chicago closer in 2017 and then showed his "big balls" in the postseason.

The move has worked out just fine in the first month of the season, with Morrow yet to give up a run and going 6-for-6 in save opportunities. (He did, however, allow an inherited runner to score in that 17-inning marathon in the second game of the season in Miami.)

But Morrow's greatest impact may not even be when he pitches.

Carl Edwards Jr. has looked absolutely dominant as Morrow's main setup man and earlier in the season, the young right-hander credited the Cubs veteran pitchers with helping him fully realize the need to attack hitters.

[READ: Carl Edwards Jr., self-actualized]

Edwards has had issues in the past in getting too fine with his pitches instead of going right after guys with his A+ stuff.

"He's been awesome," Morrow said of Edwards. "Talking about it all spring — attacking. You see when he puts guys on the defensive what he can do. It's impressive.

"His shit's great and when he throws it in the strike zone, they really have no chance."

Edwards and Morrow set down the Brewers in the first two games of this weekend series, working the eighth and ninth inning, respectively, in one-run Cubs victories. 

On the season, they've combined to allow just 1 run and 13 hits in 21.2 innings with 30 strikeouts.

"They've been outstanding," Maddon said. "The thing with those two guys is let's not overuse them right now. It's early. You want to make sure they're frisky all year long.

"They've been really good. Morrow, this is his first taste of doing this thing. I love the look. He comes out there and he's focused, man, and he's got the look. I like that a lot. I think that the way he's doing it rubs off on the guys in front of him."

Morrow throws 98 mph like it's nothing — "I just make it look easy," he quipped — and said he's actually still felt rusty to begin the season before a shutdown inning Friday was the best he's felt his stuff play.

When the weather starts heating up, watch out.

"A well-located fastball — regardless of speed — is always weapon No. 1," Morrow said. "I try and spot the fastball and put them on the defensive by attacking and getting them into swing mode and you'll see some swings out of the zone. You can get ahead and then dictate pretty much whatever you want."

That mindset has worked for Morrow the last few years, as he's walked just 15 batters in 68.2 innings as a reliever since the start of the 2016 season.

He's always had strikeout stuff, even leading the league in K/9 in 2010 (10.2) while working as a starter with the Toronto Blue Jays.

The thing with Morrow has always been health. He appeared in 45 regular-season games with the Dodgers in 2017, the first time since 2012 he's pitched in at least 20 games in a year.

The Cubs definitely want to be cautious of him moving forward, especially after he appeared in all 7 World Series games last fall and pitched in 14 of the Dodgers' 15 postseason games.

Maddon is certainly glad to be on the same side as Morrow now.

"He might've thrown the best game I've ever seen that was not a no-hitter against us in Toronto a couple years ago," Maddon said, referring to his time as the Tampa Bay Rays manager. "... He's different in all the best ways. His stuff is that good.

"Combine that with the way he goes about his business and it's kind of interesting to watch."

The Long Game: How Joe Maddon is navigating 'awkward' first week in Cubs bullpen with the future in mind

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AP

The Long Game: How Joe Maddon is navigating 'awkward' first week in Cubs bullpen with the future in mind

Joe Maddon was just chilling in the first-base dugout, enjoying the Miami weather and taking in the undeniable beauty of Opening Day.

Then, suddenly, he was forced into action.

Cubs Opening Day starter Jon Lester was unable to make it out of the fourth inning against the Marlins and Maddon had to think quickly on how to save the first game for a team with World Series expectations.

Spring training was officially over.

"That was not what I was looking for. I'm not trying to match up in the fourth or fifth inning of the first game! I'm over there enjoying myself on Opening Day and now all of a sudden, I gotta start thinking a little bit," Maddon joked with reporters.

Yes, it was all in jest. Maddon and his coaching staff are always thinking ahead. Things rarely come as a total surprise for big-league managers...even on Day 1. They think about almost every scenario before it happens.

And Maddon is already thinking about August, September and October, even though the Cubs are just five games into the 2018 campaign.

A huge part of that is the craziness and "awkwardness" of an opening week where the Cubs' bullpen has emerged as the superstar during a 2-3 start.

The bullpen was Public Enemy No. 1 last postseason and for most of the offseason with Cubs fans. Theo Epstein's front office retooled the relievers, adding veterans Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek to replace Wade Davis and Hector Rondon.

Through five games, the bullpen has recorded 78 outs, one more than the Cubs' starting rotation (77 outs). 

That'll happen when you're forced to play 17-inning and 10-inning games on back-to-back nights and when a rotation that may be the best in baseball has just two quality starts once through the order.

"[The relievers have] proven their mettle already," Maddon said. "...There's a lot of confidence to be derived from these games from their part."

The Cubs skipper knows he's had no choice but to lean heavily on his bullpen so early and thus far, they've responded with a sparkling 0.69 ERA (2 ER in 26 innings) while allowing just 17 hits and 10 walks.

But wearing down the bullpen early is what got the Cubs in trouble last year. From Maddon to Epstein to the relievers themselves, there was an open admission that the bullpen was tired and worn out by the time the playoffs hit.

Maddon is always tuned in to getting his team to play at their peak performance in August and September and heading into the postseason on a high note.

Baseball has changed, however. With everybody around the league now "woke" to most pitchers' struggles facing an opposing lineup for the third time in an outing, managers are going to their bullpens earlier and earlier.

So this year, the Cubs hoped to go easy on their bullpen so they, too, would be fresh for what they hope is a run into the end of October. That should've been made easier with two guys — Mike Montgomery and Eddie Butler — stretched out as starters coming from spring training and capable of pitching long relief outings.

It just hasn't worked out that way, though Maddon won't ignore the long game.

"I'm trying to keep in mind August and September," he said. "I want us to play well and strong in those months and we have. And if you don't keep an eye on it right now, you will not play well in those months.

"It's hard to keep pushing, pushing, pushing, especially when you play as deep into the year as we have. I think it's wise to keep an eye on the end of the year right now."

MLB teams typically get an off-day in the first few days of a new season, but the Cubs were thrown into the fire immediately with six scheduled games in six days. And the first three of those games featured four games' worth of innings with a pair of extra inning contests.

"The three games for the first three games of the year are so awkward," Maddon said. "The pitching didn't want to work. ... The bullpen was extended."

No pitcher was taxed more than Montgomery, even though he threw only 36 pitches. The 28-year-old pitcher worked each of the Cubs' first three games of the season, marking the first time he's ever worked three days in a row in the big leagues.

Montgomery said his arm still felt fine after those three games thanks to being stretched out as a starter in spring training and only needing to go one inning at a time in each outing. But this is also not something he wants to make a habit of all season to the point where he's completely worn down in September.

The Cubs did catch a break thanks to the weather in Cincinnati, however. A rainout Tuesday night affords them back-to-back off-days heading into a crucial early-season series with the Brewers in Milwaukee this weekend.

Every Cubs reliever will be rested entering Thursday night as the team's first true test of 2018 will emerge against a retooled Brewers team that has its sights set on the division.