Chicago Cubs: Brandon Morrow as the closer is far from a disaster

(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) /

For the first time since 2015, the Chicago Cubs won’t rely on a rental to close games out. Offseason pick-up Brandon Morrow is ready to silence the critics.

The names to nail down saves for the Chicago Cubs over the last two years include two of the best in all of baseball in Aroldis Chapman and Wade Davis. The former played an integral role in bringing a World Series title to the North Side. Davis, meanwhile, did exactly what Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer had hoped for in his lone season with Chicago before departing to Colorado on a massive free agent deal this winter.

Cubs fans – at least those of the newer variety – have grown accustomed to star power in the ninth. This offseason, Epstein and Hoyer went in a very different direction. Chicago inked former Los Angeles Dodgers fireman Brandon Morrow to a two-year, $21 million option with team option for 2020.

Compare that to Davis’ three-year, $52 million with an option for a fourth year tacked on. That deal set the all-time record for a free agent reliever in terms of AAV – and it makes sense the Cubs took a pass on the right-hander at that price.

In addition to Morrow, Chicago brought in Steve Cishek and Dario Alvarez, while re-signing Brian Duensing. This group will join forces with Justin Wilson, Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm and Carl Edwards in hopes of giving the Cubs one of the better relief corps in the game.

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Those men will be tasked with getting the ball to Morrow, who will handle ninth-inning duties as a team’s anointed closer for the first time in his career – at age 33. With a whopping 18 career saves to his name, he’s out to prove himself on a Cubs ball club looking for a fourth-straight NLCS berth and a third-consecutive National League Central crown.

A career year for the veteran right-hander

Last season, Morrow finally put it all together. Tying a career-high with 45 appearances, the former first-rounder pitched to a 2.06 ERA – and an even more impressive 1.55 FIP. Across 43 2/3 innings, Morrow averaged fewer than two walks per nine, striking out just over 10 batters per nine.

Come October, he was even better (as the Cubs can confirm). Between the NLDS and NLCS, he made seven appearances and allowed just one earned run across 8 1/3 innings of work. Despite an unsightly 8.44 ERA in the World Series, he became the first player to ever pitch all seven games of a Fall Classic.

Four of his five allowed earned runs in the World Series against Houston came in one outing – an eventual 13-12 Astros win in extras. Take that away and he did what he’d done all year – limit opponents’ opportunities in big situations.

Where do the concerns come from?

I can’t fault those who are wary of trusting the ninth to Morrow. Between 2015 and 2016, he totaled just 23 appearances and 49 innings due to injury. But I don’t have the same level of concern as others – because it appears the Cubs are going into this with a clear plan of action.

Similar to how Joe Maddon utilized Wade Davis for much of 2017, the Cubs are going to primarily bring Morrow into save situations and keep him to one-inning outings to preserve his arm (and overall health). With the added bullpen depth Epstein brought in this winter, it’s not hard to imagine this working better than it did last year.

People forget that, by multiple measures, the Chicago bullpen was hardly a problem for much of the year. Once October hit, of course, the wheels fell off and that’s what’s remembered as we near Spring Training. But, make no mistake, with a guy like Cishek in the eighth inning – as well as Strop and Edwards – the Cubs are in good shape.

Morrow 2020 – just kidding

Morrow has a chip on his shoulder. He knows there are a lot of people who don’t trust him to stay healthy and effectively close games out. Once again, the Cubs have a World Series in their sights but they’ll need pitching to live up to the hype in 2018.

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The veteran right-hander has nothing to lose. He landed a big contract this offseason and the closer’s job is his. Now, it’s all about the Cubs using him effectively and managing his workload. By doing so, Chicago may have landed the biggest bargain of the offseason in their new closer.