Though Cubs fans are hoping that the new year will mean a new outfielder in Bryce Harper, the team’s biggest weakness is elsewhere on the roster. The offense certainly struggled throughout the 2018 season and sputtered especially in the final weeks, but the Chicago front office needs to get help for the bullpen.
The team gambled on Brandon Morrow to be their closer a year ago with a two-year, $21 million contract and based on the first year, they’re not reaping the expected return. Morrow pitched well but couldn’t stay healthy and missed all of the second half of the season. And right now, he’s not expected to be healthy for opening day this year.
Currently, their expected reliever corps of Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Steve Cishek, Mike Montgomery, Brandon Kintzler, Brian Duensing, Alec Mills, and Tyler Chatwood hardly inspires confidence.
The group lacks a clear closer, and even when Morrow does return, he hasn’t shown that he can fill that role consistently enough to be relied upon. Strop has been a steady setup man for the Cubs since 2013 and he picked up 13 saves last season filling in for Morrow, but if he has to serve as the closer with more regularity this season, the Cubs are in trouble.
To address this issue, the Cubs will probably look to lean on internal options like James Norwood and Dillon Maples, but they would be well served to add from outside the organization as well.
Assuming that they are looking to remain below the 2019 luxury tax threshold of $206 million, the Cubs are a bit hamstrung here. Their current commitments sit just a few million dollars below that number, and a significant acquisition would almost certainly put them above the luxury tax. Of the free agent relievers available, Adam Ottavino and Craig Kimbrel are arguably the best options, but both would likely prove far too expensive.
Instead, they could look to someone like 33-year-old David Robertson. Fresh off of a four-year, $46 million contract, Robertson has said that his desire is for a three-year deal, but the trend this offseason has been for shorter deals so he could be had for less. The former closer had 21 holds for the Yankees in 2018, and in the event that Morrow is unable to pitch through the season, Robertson would provide a viable setup option in Strop’s place.
The Cubs could also explore relievers like Sergio Romo, who was perhaps surprisingly effective for the Rays in 2018, or Zach Britton, who pitched in the 8th and 9th innings for the Orioles and Yankees last season. Otherwise, a reunion with Justin Wilson might not excite Cubs fans, but he would help fill the 8th-inning role when needed. Wilson was brutal to watch after the Cubs traded for him in 2017 thanks to an inability to find the strike zone, but he cut his walk rate nearly in half last season, and he was effective enough to earn 16 holds for Chicago in 2018. The Cubs paid him $4.25 million on a one-year deal last year, and if they want to stay below the luxury tax threshold and save some wiggle room for another reliever, Wilson is worth consideration.
If the Cubs do stay within their organization, both Norwood and Maples have made appearances with the big-league club and both could help fill the bullpen void. Norwood has late-inning stuff with an upper 90s fastball and a changeup and slider with swing-and-miss potential. Maples is the more intriguing pitcher of the two thanks to a fastball that averaged 97 miles per hour last season and a cut fastball/slider that moves like a frisbee. If Maples can continue to better harness that pitch, he could quietly and quickly become one of the most exciting relievers in baseball.
Whatever course they take, the Cubs have a need to address in their bullpen. The rotation is strong, at least on paper, and the offense can bounce back from a shaky 2018 with resurgences from Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras, but all of that might be for naught if they can’t get outs in the final innings in 2019.