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Morrow's injury adds intrigue to Cubs' bullpen

MLB.com @MLBastian

MESA, Ariz. -- Brandon Morrow worked through a series of throws in the left-field grass on one of the Cubs' practice fields on Wednesday morning. As Morrow played catch, the veteran reliever kept moving a few steps back.

During Wednesday's workout, which was the first official practice for Chicago's pitchers and catchers, Morrow was permitted to build up to 90 feet. Then it was back to his regularly scheduled rehab program. A comeback from a right elbow injury will keep Morrow out of the picture for the season's first month, contributing to a spring bullpen competition that features a long list of arms.

MESA, Ariz. -- Brandon Morrow worked through a series of throws in the left-field grass on one of the Cubs' practice fields on Wednesday morning. As Morrow played catch, the veteran reliever kept moving a few steps back.

During Wednesday's workout, which was the first official practice for Chicago's pitchers and catchers, Morrow was permitted to build up to 90 feet. Then it was back to his regularly scheduled rehab program. A comeback from a right elbow injury will keep Morrow out of the picture for the season's first month, contributing to a spring bullpen competition that features a long list of arms.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

"I have utmost confidence in those guys," said Morrow, who hopes to be cleared for daily catch by next week. "There are plenty of guys to step up and step in."

The ninth inning is not where the intrigue exits. Veteran reliever Pedro Strop will handle the closing duties while Morrow works his way back from the injured list. The makeup of the rest of the relief corps, however, will take shape as Spring Training progresses, and the team might not be done adding candidates for manager Joe Maddon to consider.

The Cubs have added right-handers Brad Brach and Tony Barnette on Major League contracts, but president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said Tuesday that the team still has its toes in free-agent waters. Even with the field already extremely crowded, Epstein said the club might try to "squeeze one more in" to enhance the depth of options as Chicago maps out its Opening Day roster.

"We'd love to be in a position where we can withstand a couple injuries in Spring Training," Epstein said, "and still put a really quality bullpen out there. That's one area where the market's been pretty soft and pretty slow developing and we've been active. So, we'll stay in touch with everybody."

Video: Maddon, Epstein and Hendricks looking forward to 2019

Epstein did not take long to add another arm to the fold, either. On Wednesday night, MLB.com confirmed that the Cubs reached an agreement on a non-guaranteed contract with lefty Xavier Cedeno, who will have a base salary of $900,000 with incentives available. Last season, the 32-year-old Cedeno had a 2.43 ERA with 34 strikeouts and 16 walks in 33 1/3 innings (48 games) between stints with the White Sox and Brewers. The deal might become official as soon as Thursday.

The addition of Cedeno would give the Cubs 42 pitchers in camp in total, including starters, injured arms and non-roster invitees. Looking at the bullpen specifically, Chicago has virtual locks in Strop, Brach, Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards Jr. and Mike Montgomery. Barnette is strongly in the mix, while relievers like Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing and Brandon Kintzler will be looking to prove they still belong.

Behind that cast of arms, the Cubs have hard-throwing prospects like Dillon Maples and James Norwood, an offseason pickup in Rowan Wick and a lefty with big league experience in Kyle Ryan. The non-roster list features a little bit of everything. There's Minor League prospect Dakota Mekkes, and a host of relievers with varying degrees of success in the Majors (George Kontos and Junichi Tazawa, among them).

And that is only scratching the surface when it comes to the volume of pitchers in camp this spring.

Video: Edwards on Cubs' long offseason, preparing for 2019

For all the question marks, though, Maddon likes the potential of his many options.

"Do not underestimate how good this bullpen can be," he said.

Maddon has pointed out numerous times that the Cubs had the lowest bullpen ERA in the National League last season (3.35). The group also paced the NL in opponents' average (.223) and home runs allowed per nine innings (0.78). That said, Chicago's relievers were ninth in the NL in strikeout rate (22.6 percent) and 14th in walk rate (11.0 percent).

"It wasn't a punchout bullpen," Maddon said. "We have to catch the ball on defense for the group to be good, which we were. So I think this bullpen has an equal opportunity to be as good as that one. And eventually, getting Morrow back will be wonderful. But in the meantime, the additions have been subtle, but really good."

Morrow posted a 1.47 ERA in 35 appearances last season after signing a two-year, $21 million contract that includes a $12 million team option for 2020. He was shelved on July 19 with right forearm inflammation and MRI exams revealed a bone bruise. After that healed, and Morrow was still experiencing pain, a subsequent CT scan identified an osteochondral defect in the joining of the humerus bone.

Morrow described it as a "divot" in the bone, which was cleaned up with a debridement procedure in November.

"Especially when you're having a really good year -- maybe your best year -- it's disappointing," Morrow said. "You feel like you let the team down and fans and things like that. There's nothing you can do but try to get back. And unfortunately it didn't work out. Just missing the first month this year will be better than the last three months last year."

Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook.

Chicago Cubs, Carl Edwards Jr., Brandon Morrow