The signing of ex-Cardinals closer Seung Hwan Oh crossed another possible addition to the Cubs bullpen off the market. The Cubs seem to be content with going into the season with Brandon Morrow penciled in as the team’s closer… for now.
While there are many reasons to believe Morrow can have success in the ninth for the North Siders in 2018, there are also reasons to be concerned.
Morrow put together an excellent 2017 with the Dodgers in his role setting the table for the one of the league’s best in Kenley Jansen, but aside from that, he’s had just one full season as a reliever.
Since Joe Maddon took over as manager in 2015, Cubs closers have averaged 63 appearances per season, with Hector Rondon leading the way with 72 appearances in 2015. Morrow hasn’t made more than 45 appearances since being made a full-time reliever, his prolific use in last year’s playoffs notwithstanding. For a team with lofty expectations, the Cubs are putting a lot of faith in Morrow to not only his continue to pitch at a high-level, but stay healthy for a full 162-game season. Which is something he hasn’t been able to do throughout his career.
If Morrow struggles or gets injured, then, where will the Cubs turn?
How about Justin Wilson?
Let’s get this out of the way. Yes, Wilson was not good when he got to the Cubs after being acquired from the Tigers at the trade deadline, and he was a non-factor in the postseason, but revisionist history shouldn’t stop people from seeing why he could be the answer. While a 5.09 ERA in fewer than 18 innings is bad, his 3.72 FIP would argue that while he pitched poorly, he may not have been quite as bad as it appeared.
Wilson was arguably the most coveted reliever at last year’s trade deadline for a reason. The left-hander had success when given the opportunity to close, converting 13 of 15 chances for the Tigers in 2017. Wilson could be the first to get a shot at the ninth inning should Morrow struggle. He has a track record of being a reliable reliever and has been durable throughout his career (averaging 67 appearances in five seasons).
The Cubs could also turn to Steve Cishek, who has 121 career saves between the Marlins, Mariners, and Cardinals. Cishek, 32, doesn’t have overpowering stuff and might pitch to contact more than you’d want from a closer, but he put up sparkling numbers down the stretch with the Rays last year (1.07 ERA in 24.2 innings), and has a long track record of success. As Brad Ziegler showed in his run as Diamondbacks closer a few years ago, the change in arm slot out of the bullpen is a valuable weapon, especially in late game situations.
But if the decision to use Morrow as the closer and closer by committee strategy fails, the Cubs’ may be forced to turn to the trade market for a closer. The closer market at the trade deadline may not only be competitive, but also expensive. Some arms who may be available include Alex Colome, Raisel Iglesias, and AJ Ramos. The team could also buy low on a Kelvin Herrera or Jeurys Familia.
Despite the Darvish signing, the offseason feels a bit incomplete to me with these questions about who will pitch the ninth. If you look at all the teams that made the playoffs in 2017—including the Cubs—all had a solidified closer. Even the Astros, who changed closers during the postseason on their way to a World Series, didn’t get to the postseason without Ken Giles. It’ll be Morrow for now, but he’s still a bit unproven in the role, and that can matter come playoff time.
Wade Davis, Greg Holland, Brandon Kintzler, and the aforementioned Oh were all available for the Cubs and they decided to go with depth over a “star” closer option. The Cubs may be just fine this season with their current plan, but if their plan falters, the decision to not have a proven answer will loom large.
Lead photo courtesy Gary A. Vasquez—USA Today Sports