Chicago Cubs cannot bet 2019 success on Brandon Morrow’s health

(Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images) /

Despite his stellar performance in 2018, Chicago Cubs closer Brandon Morrow is too high a health risk to be the linchpin in next year’s relief corps.

When the Chicago Cubs opted to pass on high-dollar back-end arms such as Wade Davis last offseason, we all knew the risk. In signing former Los Angeles Dodgers fireman Brandon Morrow (and, thus, saving tens of millions of dollars), the team bet on his ability to stay healthy over the course of a 162-game season. And, in the end, they lost that bet.

Morrow, 34, did not throw a pitch after the All-Star Break, thanks to a bone bruise in his right arm. A guy with a deep injury history, the right-hander came with his share of risk. Despite this fact, manager Joe Maddon went to his fire-balling closer three consecutive days in early June. Since, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein pointed out multiple times this may have been the deciding factor in ending his season.

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"“He was someone we were going to stay away from,” Epstein said. “He came in. I think that’s a lesson learned — never to stray away from the structure we had for him no matter what’s going on in the game."

In wake of Morrow’s injury, Chicago went to longtime setup man Pedro Strop to fill their ninth-inning void. That was all fine and well until Maddon let Strop hit late in a ballgame and he tweaked his hamstring trying to leg out a ball. Of course, that injury cost him the final three-plus weeks of the regular season before he ultimately returned in the National League Wild Card game.

We all know the story of the Chicago Cubs bullpen. They led all National League relief corps in earned run average (3.35) while eating up the fifth-most innings. But they did this with an array of arms, many of whom performed in multiple roles. It wasn’t just a closer-by-committee. This was a bullpen by committee.

Morrow excellent, but unreliable health-wise

At least for the first few months of the season, Brandon Morrow came exactly as advertised. He made 35 appearances, picking up a career-high 22 saves in his first season as a big league closer.

The right-hander allowed just 24 hits in 30 2/3 innings of work, pitching to a 295 ERA+ in his first year on the North Side. But, regardless of how dominant he was when he did take the mound, the Cubs simply can’t bet 2019 success on his health.

Chicago has multiple pending free agents in the relief corps: left-hander Justin Wilson, right-hander Jesse Chavez, Anthony Bass and Jaime Garcia. The first two played integral roles in this year’s pen – namely Chavez, who did everything from pitch in long relief to close games out down the stretch. 

In other words, Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer will undoubtedly be active in both the free agent and trade markets this offseason – with high roster overhaul anticipated by many following the team’s early postseason exit.

And, while many are focused on offensive targets, at least one shutdown late-inning arm is a must for this team.

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There are nearly half a dozen closers poised to hit the market this winter, including Cody Allen, Craig Kimbrel, Jeurys Familia and Kelvin Herrera. Any of those four, in particular, immediately make the Cubs’ pen stronger and deeper than last year’s group. They all also come with lofty expectations in terms of contract demands.

No matter how it gets done, there’s no way Epstein gambles his team’s 2019 success on late-inning bullpen woes. Expect new faces under the left field bleachers come Opening Day next spring – and perhaps, some high-profile ones.