From Kris Bryant’s left shoulder to Tyler Chatwood’s control problems, the Cubs have plenty of internal fixing before pitchers and catchers report to their spring training complex in Mesa, Ariz., in mid-February.
Here are the issues, hopes and fears of the following players:
The issue: Bryant’s injured left shoulder.
Bryant disclosed on June 25 that he hurt his shoulder on a head-first slide one month earlier and tried to play through the pain with the help of anti-inflammatory pills. Bryant was placed on the disabled list and missed 16 games.
Bryant hit a home run in his return on July 11, but he had only three extra-base hits in 10 games before returning to the disabled list and missing 35 more games.
Manager Joe Maddon spent most of a 50-minute batting session with Bryant at Comerica Park on Aug. 22, emphasizing keeping both hands on the bat on the follow-through on his swing to provide “a little bit of protection in (the left) shoulder.”
Bryant returned Sept. 1, but he hit only two home runs and struck out 32 times in 99 plate appearances.
The hope: “I do not believe he’ll need surgery,” President Theo Epstein said in his end-of-season address four weeks ago.
And extra month of rest and a full offseason to regain his strength and preferred swing should bring Bryant back to 100 percent. Personal hitting coach/father Mike Bryant, who himself is recovering from a severe knee injury, knows his son’s swing as well as anyone and will be determined to find the right swing path at their Las Vegas batting cage.
The fear: The shoulder doesn’t heal completely and Bryant is forced to undergo surgery or cope with an array of treatments and time off. The Cubs, however, have known of the severity of the injury since June, so they apparently are very confident the shoulder will heal properly with rest and exercises.
The Cubs desperately need Bryant’s power — especially if they don’t acquire a slugger such as Bryce Harper or Manny Machado in the offseason.
The issue: Darvish’s stress reaction in right elbow/triceps strain.
Darvish’s frustrating season started with an upset stomach that caused him to miss his first spring start, followed by cramping in his right wrist during his first regular-season start against the Marlins on March 31.
But the major cause for concern started, ironically, a few days after he limited the Reds to two hits while striking out seven in his lone victory May 20. Darvish was diagnosed with a triceps strain and five weeks later he wasn’t completely convinced he could come back even after throwing five innings of three-hit ball in a rehab start at Class A South Bend.
Four days later, Darvish didn’t complete his bullpen session at Dodger Stadium because of discomfort. Keith Meister, the Rangers’ team doctor when Darvish played for them, subsequently diagnosed an impingement and inflammation for which he administered a cortisone shot.
After an extended period of rest, bullpen sessions and simulated games, Darvish returned to the mound Aut. 19 at South Bend. But he left after one inning because of discomfort. Cubs team doctor Stephen Gryzlo’s subsequent exam included an arthrogram and MRI. Those revealed the stress reaction and strain that ruled out any return for 2018.
The hope: Darvish underwent Tommy John surgery in 2015, but the Cubs were relieved to learn through their tests that his ulnar collateral ligament remained stable despite the stress reaction and strain.
The late August diagnosis provided more time for Darvish to heal and strengthen his arm in time for spring training. The expectation is that the three-to-four month window for recovery will allow Darvish to be ready.
The fear: Darvish, 32, made only eight starts last season, so he will need plenty of time to shake off the rust. Before his latest arm injury, Darvish still threw in the mid-90 mph range. Darvish possesses a wide array of pitches, but relying on some of those pitches could put more stress on his elbow if his velocity dips.
The issue: Chatwood’s control problems.
Chatwood threw only 58 percent of his first pitches for strikes in 2017 with the Rockies, but the Cubs thought his high spin rate and their pitching infrastructure would help him improve. Chatwood walked 11 in 21 1/3 innings in spring training, but his 23 strikeouts overshadowed that.
Chatwood won three of his first seven starts, but his control problems grew worse. After walking 85 batters in 94 innings, Chatwood was dispatched to the bullpen with the acquisition of Cole Hamels on July 27. Chatwood walked at least five in 11 starts and at least six in six starts. Chatwood led the National League with 95 walks despite pitching only 9 2/3 innings in the final two months.
The hope: In mid-May, Chatwood switched his approach and worked exclusively out of the stretch, separating his hands sooner. But his walks and high pitch counts persisted.
Two seasoned pitching experts believe they can correct Chatwood’s wildness. But this merely may require a back-to-basics approach, with Chatwood studying more video of his 2016 season when he walked 70 but struck out 117 to go with a 3.87 ERA in a career-high 158 innings.
The fear: Chatwood still possesses a 95 mph fastball, but the Cubs have more starting pitching depth with left-handers Drew Smyly and Mike Montgomery, and Alec Mills fortifying a rotation comprised of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, Yu Darvish and, likely, Cole Hamels.
Chatwood is owed $25.5 million on the final two seasons of his contract, but the Cubs were willing to eat more than $15 million on the final 1 ½ seasons of Edwin Jackson’s contract. After winning 95 games but falling one game short of the National League Central title, it’s hard to see any wiggle room should Chatwood’s control problems persist.
The issue: Morrow’s bone bruise on his right elbow.
Morrow’s history of medical issues is well-documented, but the first signs of arm trouble weren’t disclosed until late September, when Epstein revealed Morrow felt some discomfort after pitching three consecutive nights and four games during a five-day stretch in early June.
Back tightness sent him to the DL for 11 days and allowed his arm to rest, but his velocity dipped 4 mph to 94 in his final appearance of the first half, and numerous attempts to return failed.
The final straw occurred in mid-September when Morrow felt pain while lifting a cup of coffee.
The hope: Morrow probably won’t pick up a baseball until after Thanksgiving, but the extra rest should make him stronger. He had a short offseason in 2017 after pitching in all seven games of the World Series for the Dodgers.
Mills rebounded from a similar injury in 2017, but he and Epstein emphasized this injury requires three to four months of healing.
“It resolves itself,” Epstein said on Sept. 18 after Morrow was ruled out for the rest of the season.
The Cubs vowed to stick to an original plan that virtually would rule out using Morrow for more than two consecutive games.
“Next year when he’s down, he’s not allowed to have spikes on because he can talk his way into a game,” Epstein said.
Arizona-based orthopedic surgeon Don Sheridan has treated Morrow for the last three seasons and will continue to keep a close watch on his patient.
The fear: Like Darvish, the hope is that rest will cure Morrow’s bruise. But Morrow, 34, has been on the DL with assorted injuries every season since 2011 except 2017.
Given Morrow’s medical history and Epstein’s emphasis on not stretching his workload, getting 50 appearances out of Morrow in 2019 might be realistic. Regardless of Morrow’s health, the Cubs will need to acquire late-inning insurance for 2019.