From the moment they saw their 2017 season end at the hands of the Dodgers in last year’s NLCS, the Cubs’ plan of attack for the 2018 offseason was clear: Restock a tired and largely ineffective bullpen.
It wasn’t that the bullpen was necessarily bad by traditional measures — their 3.80 ERA ranked third in the NL and their 620 strikeouts were second), but those don’t tell the story. Their 4.11 FIP was sixth in the NL and their 4.25 BB/9 mark was tied for the sixth worst in all of baseball since 2013. And that might not be what really hurt them.
Despite some personnel changes along the way, the sheer volume of regular season and playoff innings eventually takes its toll. That associated fatigue of three consecutive deep runs appeared to creep up on the club, eventually coming to a head in the wake of a grueling five-game series against the Nationals.
That is why Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer sought to augment the high-leverage depth of the bullpen with Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek. They also engineered the return of Brian Duensing and had faith in the return to form of Justin Wilson. All told, the ‘pen complements the overall roster flexibility and affords Joe Maddon additional options as he mixes and matches this summer.
But Wade Davis’s departure still left questions about how the Cubs would handle the end of the game. While many were initially discussing a closer-by-committee situation that resembled Maddon’s handling of his position players, the Cubs quickly established that Morrow is the man for the 9th inning.
Relatively inexperienced as a big league closer — amassing just 18 career saves, and only two for the Dodgers in 2017 — Morrow has the kind of makeup this front office look for in a closer. Never mind that he went six seasons between save opportunities, the Cubs all but assured him of the role at the time of the signing. Epstein has gone on record as saying he prefers to take a more traditional approach with closers, and psychological studies have suggested that having a set role could actually aid a reliever’s performance.
Morrow flashed top-of-the-rotation potential during his time in Seattle and Toronto but was hamstrung by a plethora of injuries. It all came together in 2017 out of the Dodgers bullpen for the flame-throwing righty, who posted a 2.06 ERA and 0.92 WHIP in 45 appearances. Fatigue seemed to have gotten the best of Morrow in the bullpen, however, as he appeared in 14 games and became just the second pitcher ever to appear in all seven World Series games.
Following Game 5, manager Dave Roberts went into detail about his decision to (over)use Morrow, who allowed four runs and did not record an out:
“He called down and said that he felt good” said Roberts. “He was throwing today, he felt good. He called in the middle of the game, said, ‘Hey, if we take the lead, I want to pitch. I want the ball. My body feels good.’ So in the 7th inning there, you can’t turn him down. He’s felt good, he wanted to be in the game. It’s a credit to him to be used the way he has been and want the baseball.”
Poor results aside, you have to like that Morrow wants that opportunity on the biggest stage. But even though he possesses some qualities the Cubs want to see in their next closer, fans may be wondering what happens if he struggles or goes down with an injury. After all, he has been on the DL six times throughout his career for various ailments.
So, who steps into the closer’s role should the need arise?
Justin Wilson, who struggled upon coming over to the Cubs from Detroit at last season’s trade deadline, is expected to put forth better results this season. He has a fairly successful track record in the majors (3.30 ERA, 3.24 FIP across six big league seasons) and logged 13 saves in 15 opportunities with the Tigers in 2017, but The Athletic’s Sahadev Sharma wrote about potential “onboarding” issues that Cubs have had with new players (subscription required/recommended).
Wilson’s improvements have been notable thus far during Spring Training (1 ER over four innings), and changes to his delivery — including a lower leg kick and some other tweaks — that may be aiding his performance. I know it’s only a few spring innings, but issuing zero walks thus far is great to see after the control issues last season once he got to Chicago (19 BB in 17.2 IP).
Justin Wilson talks about fresh start going into 2018 season
— NBC Sports Chicago (@NBCSChicago) March 2, 2018
Pedro Strop is among the most underappreciated Cubs pitchers and seems to catch the ire of fans based solely on how he wears his hat. But he is also third all-time among qualified Cubs relievers with 10.57 K/9 and is sixth in WAR (3.3) and FIP (2.93). Strop has had limited opportunities to close, but he would not likely be the guy that you would go to in a pinch for an extended period of time. That’s less because of his makeup, and more because he excels in his traditional mid-to-late inning roles.
The pitcher you could probably pencil in as closer is a name we mentioned at the top, one with whom new pitching coach Jim Hickey is familiar with from their Tampa Bay days: Steve Cishek.
Cishek comes to the Cubs with a great deal of experience as a closer, boasting the most accumulated save opportunities and conversions (121/146 SV/OPP) on the team. He amassed 88 saves in 98 opportunities from 2012-14 with the Marlins and was exceptional down the stretch for the Rays last season following a trade from Seattle (24.2 IP, 1.09 ERA).
Earlier in the offseason, Cishek discussed his desire to help the Cubs no matter what role he’s in when he joined Spiegel and Parkins on 670 The Score. Cishek relies a great deal on the groundball, with a 56.1 percent rate in 2017. His soft contact rate of 22.4 percent was up roughly four percent from 2016, which, as we know, bodes well when pitching in front of one of the best middle infields in all of baseball.
As the Cubs open the season with their fourth closer in as many years, they also feature a slew of pitchers that can take the ball in the ninth. Morrow is clearly the first guy up and projects for somewhere from 32-36 saves, which is really more about circumstance than anything. Perhaps the biggest factor there is health, which will be key to Morrow’s success.
But the Cubs weren’t content to simply roll the dice on a relatively unproven stopper, even one with lights-out stuff. The redundancy they’ve created will serve as a solid insurance plan should anything happen to Morrow. And if the former Dodger pitches to expectations, all that additional talent will give the Cubs a very formidable bullpen.