Yu Darvish

Brandon Morrow and the state of the Cubs bullpen ahead of the trade deadline

Brandon Morrow and the state of the Cubs bullpen ahead of the trade deadline

Brandon Morrow is getting an extended All-Star Break.

For the second time in the last month, the Cubs closer is heading to the disabled list to get another break, this time with inflammation in his right biceps.

That leaves the Cubs without their best relief pitcher — a guy with a 1.47 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 22 saves in 24 chances — for the next week as the team hits the ground running in the second half with 12 games in 11 days against the Cardinals and Diamondbacks.

"It's been bothering him a bit, but we thought it was manageable," Joe Maddon said before the Cubs kicked off play Thursday evening. "But now it's not [manageable], so just have to take a little bit of a break. 

"We don't anticipate him being gone for a long time, but it seems to be prudent to go this course right now."

Maddon pointed to a bit lower velocity Morrow had in San Diego Sunday and believes now is "the right time to back off for the latter part of the season."

The Cubs do have Carl Edwards Jr. back from the paternity list and the 26-year-old flamethrower already got a "break" of his own earlier this season when he missed about 5 weeks with a shoulder issue.

The word "break" is key here because that's how Maddon and the Cubs characterize these little stints on the disabled list.

After all, they are "breaks," even if they're not built into a season like the All-Star Break.

The Cubs want both Morrow and Edwards to be healthy and dynamic in late September and throughout the postseason in October. They've been uber-cautious about the two pitchers throughout their respective Cubs careers and a stint on the disabled list serves to save bullets and wear and tear on their right arms in the dog days of the season.

After all, Morrow has already appeared in 35 games this season, which he's only done once since 2008 — last year, when he pitched in 45 games. Morrow has a long history of arm issues, so the Cubs have given him plenty of slack as they try to keep him healthy for the most important stretch of the season.

But that's also why the Cubs are looking to add some reinforcements to the bullpen before the trade deadline. They were linked to Brad Hand before the lefty was traded to the Cleveland Indians Thursday and they've also been linked to Orioles closer Zach Britton.

If Britton's healthy, he could serve as a perfect fit for the Cubs as a rental with closing experience and a guy from the left side to help fill both needs in the Chicago bullpen.

The Cubs currently have Justin Wilson, Randy Rosario and Brian Duensing as left-handed options in the bullpen, but all are at varying levels of confidence at the moment.

Wilson still has some issues with control, but otherwise has been very good of late. Rosario is a rookie and his outlying numbers indicate his 1.95 ERA is a bit of a mirage. Duensing just recently returned from the DL himself and currently boasts a 6.59 ERA and 1.83 WHIP on the season.

Then there's Mike Montgomery, who right now has a stranglehold on a spot in the Cubs rotation while Yu Darvish gets healthy. There is currently no update on Darvish, which means Montgomery won't be moving back to the bullpen anytime soon.

With less than 2 weeks left until the trade deadline, Maddon would be all for adding another arm or two to his pitching staff.

"Sure. All of the pitching, they're definitely going to want to look at it," Maddon said. "Our numbers are among the best in the NL both overall and as a bullpen and then even into the starters.

"But you're always looking to make it better. That's what GMs do. We'll see how it all plays out. We're hoping the [Morrow] thing is a shorter situation, which we believe it will be."

5 reasons for optimism surrounding Cubs in the second half

5 reasons for optimism surrounding Cubs in the second half

The Cubs enter the second half of play with the best record in the National League — only the fifth time they've accomplished that feat — and a 2.5-game lead in the division.

If that's not enough optimism for you, we've got you covered elsewhere.

The Cubs are obviously in a good spot for the final 69 games of the 2018 season.

Here are 5 other reasons for Cubs fans to be feelin' sexy as the second half gets underway:

1. The Brewers aren't getting Manny Machado.

The Cubs trailed Milwaukee by 5.5 games at the break last year and wound up tied for first less than two weeks into the second half. So this 2.5-game lead could evaporate in a hurry.

It's going to be a dogfight with the Brewers all season and the good news for the Cubs is Manny Machado — a rumored Brewers target — won't be joining the division after he was traded to the Dodgers officially Wednesday.

Which means the best player on the trade market will not be duking it out with the Cubs for the NL Central title for the last 2.5 months of the season.

Whether that means the Brewers go out and add to their pitching staff or not remains to be seen, but either way, it's not adding Machado to a lineup that already includes Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich, Jesus Aguilar and Travis Shaw.

2. Never forget the back of the baseball card.

Neither Kris Bryant nor Anthony Rizzo went into the All-Star Break feeling great about their overall body of work in 2018.

Yet somehow, the Cubs offense is the best in the National League in just about every category that matters.

Imagine how well this team is gonna be clicking when Bryzzo returns as the best hitting tandem on the Cubs.

Bryant actually got off to a fantastic start to the campaign, but since May 14, he's been a different hitter — .277/.352/.409 (.761 OPS), 3 HR, 21 RBI, 48 K in 37 games.

Rizzo got off to a dreadful start in March/April and though he's leveled out a bit since then, he's still hitting only .246 with a .748 OPS on the year.

The two sluggers are on pace for only 38 combined homers in 2018; they teamed up for 61 dingers last season.

They've also posted a combined OPS 230 points below where they were at last season — Rizzo (.748) is 151 points below his .899 OPS from last year while Bryant (.867) is 79 points below his .946 mark.

MLB players reference "the back of the baseball card" often because it happens to be a cliche that's true more often than not. Both Bryant and Rizzo are well-established stud hitters and chances are high they'll return to that form in the second half.

Mix that in with the development the Cubs' young lineup has shown (fewer strikeouts, using the whole field more, etc.) and Jason Heyward's re-emergence and you have yourself a formidable offense for the stretch run.

3. The Cubs are due for some good luck on the injury front.

"Yu" can never predict injuries with any sort of precision and it's safe to say the Cubs did not expect their first half to go as it did on the injury front.

Yu Darvish hasn't pitched since late May and has accounted for only 40 innings this season. 

Both Rizzo and Bryant had stints on the disabled list and have missed other time with ailments, as well. 

The Cubs were without their top relievers — Brandon Morrow and Carl Edwards Jr. — for 10 days at the same time and Edwards missed more than a month overall.

Throw in the Jason Heyward concussion DL stint, Brian Duensing hitting the shelf and a few other minor injuries and the Cubs have had their fair share of injuries already in 2018.

So the luck's gotta turn eventually, right?

That's what they're hoping, though much of that depends on Darvish, who still hasn't progressed much since receiving a cortisone shot in his elbow three weeks ago.

For a team with championship aspirations, the Cubs badly need Darvish to return to the mound and return to form. But if they're concerned about his stability in the rotation moving forward, there's still enough time to rectify that for 2018, with nearly two weeks left until the non-waiver trade deadline.

4. All-Star confidence

Players like Javy Baez, Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber don't lack for confidence, that's for sure.

But there's something to be said for being voted to start for the National League in the All-Star Game or picked for the Home Run Derby. That's a confidence that can only be provided from the outside. 

All three of these young Cubs sluggers got that boost this week and can carry that over into the second half. Especially with the showing they put up — Baez leading off with a single, Contreras sending the first pitch he saw into the bleachers, Schwarber very nearly taking down the hometown favorite (Bryce Harper) in a thrilling Derby.

These guys had already proved they belonged in the spots granted to them and certainly were able to rise to the occasion.

Joe Maddon has talked about how he loves when young players get to go to the All-Star Game because of how it can impact a player's confidence moving forward. We could see that with this trio, even if Baez is already playing at an MVP level.

5. Rotation normalizing

This one's a double-edged sword. 

Jon Lester has obviously pitched at an All-Star level and carried the Cubs rotation through much of the first half. But despite a 2.58 ERA, he has a 4.34 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and a 4.59 xFIP (expected FIP), which would both be Lester's worst marks since becoming a full-time starting pitcher in 2008.

What does that mean? Lester has been a bit lucky so far and all that contact he's given up — his K/9 is at its lowest since '08 — may come back to haunt him at some point.

Which is fair. Lester has admitted he's a different pitcher now after all the wear and tear on his arm at age 34. He's focused on pitching to contact now and sometimes that can hurt you with some bad luck.

That being said, the rest of the rotation should be able to return to form.

Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood are all pitching below their career norms and working individually to get back to that level. 

And while Mike Montgomery has been a godsend to this rotation, getting Darvish back and pitching at the elite level he's capable of would do wonders for this team.

The Cubs need a whole lot more from their rotation in the second half and history indicates that "more" should be coming. Remember that whole "back of the baseball card" thing. 

Bonus: Reinforcements are coming.

If the rotation cannot return to form immediately coming out of the break (and Darvish still isn't showing signs of progress), the Cubs can bolster their starting staff with a move, as we already mentioned.

They could also add another member or two to the bullpen to help counteract the weight that's been placed on the shoulders of the Cubs' relievers to date and the weight that's surely coming in the postseason. 

The Cubs will make a move or two before Aug. 1 and that only figures to make this team stronger for the stretch run.

Manny Machado as a Dodger creates a formidable foe out west for the Cubs

Manny Machado as a Dodger creates a formidable foe out west for the Cubs

Well, it's finally happening, or at least it's going to happen. The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal reported during the MLB All-Star Game that the Baltimore Orioles had agreed to officially move their franchise player Manny Machado. Neither team has confirmed anything at this time, but the deal has reportedly been close to a done deal for the last day or so, and it would seem Machado is destined to finish his 2018 campaign in Hollywood. 

With this addition, the reigning National League champions look primed for another deep postseason run. Though the club is clinging to a half-game lead in the NL West, with Machado in tow the Dodgers are right with the Cubs and Brewers as the elite squads in the National League. It could be argued the Dodgers didn't necessarily need Machado, with an offense that was already in the top 10 in runs scored, but Machado might be the perfect addition for the Dodgers. 

After losing their young star shortstop Corey Seager for the season with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, the Dodgers were in need of a more permanent solution at shortstop. And despite Machado's defensive metrics showing a steep decline in his glove at shortstop, the Dodgers will welcome his robust slash line of .315/.387/.575 while ignoring any shortcomings on defense. 

But what this means for the Cubs, who are only two games off the 2016 World Series club pace, is the path to another championship will likely require another run-in with the Dodgers. The club's biggest NL threat has been the Brewers, but it's not hard to envision the Dodgers distancing themselves as the clear favorites in the National League with Machado in the heart of the order.

The good news for the Chicago is at least Machado didn't end up in Milwaukee, but that also could mean the Brewers make a more concerted effort to acquire pitching before the July 31st deadline. The Cubs will also see the return of Yu Darvish, who despite only managing to win one game this season in a Cubs uniform, will be a massive upgrade over the scuffling Tyler Chatwood. If the Cubs pitching can start producing like many expected them to before the start of 2018, and guys like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant start to hit alongside All-Stars Javier Baez and Willson Contreras, it's not hard to imagine the Cubs separating themselves from the pack in the 2nd half of season. 

The Dodgers are no strangers to blockbuster deadline deals, acquiring Yu Darvish in a similar three-month rental situation, but the Cubs getting a bat like Rizzo right and an arm like Darvish healthy would be better than any deal Theo Epstein could make to improve this team. And if it's not enough, the Cubs have a solid track record of grabbing former Dodger rentals in the off-season. The push for the playoffs starts Thursday for the north-siders.