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Around the Horn: Cubs 'pen a work in progress

Club could seek relief help with Morrow delayed by surgery
January 16, 2019

In the weeks leading up to the start of Spring Training, MLB.com will go Around the Horn, examining different facets of the Cubs' roster. This week: Bullpen.The Cubs headed into this offseason with the bullpen as an area in need of attention. That became even more true after last month's

In the weeks leading up to the start of Spring Training, MLB.com will go Around the Horn, examining different facets of the Cubs' roster. This week: Bullpen.
The Cubs headed into this offseason with the bullpen as an area in need of attention. That became even more true after last month's news that closer Brandon Morrow was recovering from surgery and is expected to miss a portion of the season's first month.
So far, the Cubs have only made minor tweaks to their relief-pitching depth.
"As an industry, that seems to be moving a little bit slower this year," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said of the relief market last month. "Last year, there were a couple early signings and that kind of set the market, and then everyone kind of slotted in around there. This year, for whatever reason, it's going a little bit slower."
Some names have come off the board since that statement. Most notably, Andrew Miller signed with the Cardinals, Zach Britton inked a deal with the Yankees and David Robertson went to the Phillies. Prominent arms, including Craig Kimbrel, remain available, but the Cubs are not expected to be in on the big-ticket names. The Cubs will likely wait out the market a little longer, hoping for some value deals as free-agent arms start to get antsy with Spring Training looming.
The Cubs will likely do something to strengthen the bullpen, though. On the surface, Chicago's 2018 bullpen was strong, finishing first in the National League in ERA (3.35), opponents' average (.225) and homers per nine innings (0.78). The primary flaws came in the form of both strikeout rate (22.6 percent, ninth in NL) and walk rate (11 percent, 14th in NL). The Cubs' bullpen also worked the fifth-most innings (588 1/3) in the NL.
Here is a rundown of how things stand for the Cubs' bullpen:
Virtual locks: RHP Steve Cishek, RHP Carl Edwards Jr., RHP Pedro Strop
Cishek and Strop will figure prominently into the Cubs' bullpen plans in the season ahead. Manager Joe Maddon's task will be to not lean too hard on either one along the way. Cishek worked 80 games (70 1/3 innings) last year, posting a 2.18 ERA with a 27.1 percent strikeout rate. Strop was also solid, fashioning a 2.26 ERA in 60 games (59 2/3 innings) with a 23.8 percent strikeout rate. Edwards' ERA (2.60) and strikeout rate (30.2 percent) were strong, but the righty will need to cut down on the walks (14.4 percent) to keep developing into a reliable back-end arm.

Swing man: LHP Mike Montgomery
Yu Darvish's steady offseason progress in his comeback from right elbow surgery could lead to him being ready in time for the Opening Day rotation. If that is the case, there will be no room for Montgomery, who would slide to the bullpen while still being the next man up for the starting staff. Montgomery was relatively effective against lefties (.299 wOBA) and righties (.321) in 124 innings last season, when he had a 3.99 ERA in 38 games (19 starts). Montgomery's solid walk rate (7.3 percent) could help a 'pen that struggled in that regard in '18.

Sidelined: Morrow
Shortly before the Winter Meetings, it was revealed that Morrow underwent an arthroscopic debridement procedure on his right elbow on Nov. 6 to clean up some cartilage in the joint. He is not expected to be ready in time for Opening Day, meaning the Cubs will have to mix and match some in the later innings. Morrow posted a 1.47 ERA in 2018 (his first season with Chicago), but was limited to 30 2/3 innings due to injury woes.
Comeback candidates: LHP Brian Duensing, RHP Brandon Kintzler
Duensing and Kintzler -- who will earn $8.5 million combined in '19 -- project to be in the Opening Day bullpen, but the Cubs will be monitoring them closely this spring. Duensing posted a 7.65 ERA in 48 games last year, ending with more walks than strikeouts. That showing came after he posted a 2.74 ERA in 62 1/3 innings in '17. Kintzler had a 3.59 ERA with the Nationals before posting a 7.00 ERA in 25 games down the stretch with the Cubs last season. Without any major additions, the Cubs will be banking on a return to form for both relievers.

Wild card:Tyler Chatwood
If the planned rotation is healthy and primed for Opening Day, the Cubs will need to determine the best way to utilize Chatwood (set to earn $12.5 million in '19). The righty worked 103 2/3 innings between starting and relieving last year, and his walk woes (19.6 percent) were well-documented. It is worth noting that he held righty batters to a .288 wOBA. So if Chatwood can get his command issues under control, he could be a useful option out of the bullpen. Perhaps less exposure (fewer innings) can lead to greater success.
Rostered candidates: LHP Ian Clarkin, RHP Dillon Maples, RHP James Norwood, LHP Randy Rosario, LHP Kyle Ryan, RHP Rowan Wick
Those are names on the 40-man roster worth keeping tabs on this spring. Rosario logged a 3.66 ERA in 46 2/3 innings for the Cubs last season, but he struggled with walks and only had a 15 percent strikeout rate. Maples (2.79 ERA and 17.5 strikeouts per nine innings at Triple-A in '18), Norwood (2.50 ERA and 10.2 K/9 between Double-A and Triple-A in '18) and Wick (2.67 ERA and 10.7 K/9 between Double-A and Triple-A in '18) are all intriguing righties. Ryan (added to the 40-man roster this winter via a Major League deal) has four seasons of big league experience with the Tigers and had an impressive showing at Triple-A last year (2.86 ERA, 61 strikeouts, 18 walks, 66 innings) with the Cubs. Clarkin (4.76 ERA in 85 innings between three affiliates in '18) was claimed off waivers from the White Sox on Wednesday.

Adbert Alzolay, Alec Mills, Justin Steele, Jen-Ho Tseng and Duane Underwood Jr. are also on the Cubs' 40-man roster, but they have collectively been used mostly as starters. Alzolay, who is No. 2 on MLB Pipeline's top Cubs prospects list, is coming off a right lat injury that limited him to eight Triple-A starts last season.
Prospect to watch: LHP Conor Lillis-White
Keep an eye on this 26-year-old, who was acquired from the Angels for pinch-hitting specialist Tommy La Stella this offseason. Between Double-A and Triple-A last season, the left-hander piled up 98 strikeouts against 32 walks in 72 innings, posting a 3.50 ERA. He held lefties to a .611 OPS and limited righties to a .666 showing.

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.