Chicago Cubs: It’s not time to panic about the bullpen

(Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images) /

On Tuesday, the Chicago Cubs lost their best relief pitcher for the rest of the season, but the team has enough bullpen depth to make up for his absence.

Seemingly out of nowhere, the Chicago Cubs‘ best bullpen arm was shut down for the remainder of the 2018 season.

After reports that Brandon Morrow was nearing a return to the mound surfaced over the past few weeks, fans were shocked by the news that he would be sidelined for the rest of the year.

Morrow felt his arm tighten while reaching for a cup of coffee on Monday. Feeling that pain doing a normal, everyday task was the final signal to Morrow that he wouldn’t be returning to the mound in 2018.

Losing Morrow is a big blow to a club that has been the best team in the National League for most of the season, but it certainly doesn’t mean that it’s time to panic.

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The Cubs have a wealth of solid bullpen arms ready to step up and get meaningful outs when needed.

Perhaps the best of the group is offseason acquisition Steve Cishek. His 2.32 ERA places him 19th among all qualified relievers. He’s served as the shutdown man for manager Joe Maddon, pitching in whatever high leverage situation he’s needed, whether it’s the fifth or ninth inning.

Carl Edwards Jr., despite his recent struggles, has the skill to be the best reliever on the team. His 2.39 ERA is nearly as good as Cishek’s, but Edwards really shines by punching batters out.

In his 54 games pitched this season, Edwards leads the Northsiders’ bullpen in strikeout percentage at 30.8 percent. That’s not only the best on the team but also good enough for the 24th best mark of all MLB relievers. If he regains his stride as the season draws to an end, he’ll be the biggest weapon in the bullpen.

Justin Wilson is also another key guy in the ‘pen. He occasionally loses control and walks too many batters, but his 2.85 ERA, 29.8 percent strikeout rate, and previous experience as a closer make him a candidate for tight situations, especially when facing a left-handed batter.

Jesse Chavez has been phenomenal during his time in a Cubs uniform. His 25.4 percent K-BB% is by far the best of his career. Chavez’s incredibly low 3.4 percent walk rate with the Cubs ranks 8th among all relievers with at least 15 innings pitched over that stretch.

Those four pitchers are currently the best in the bullpen, but none of them have pitched in the ninth inning consistently this year. To address the hole in the closer role, the Cubs need Pedro Strop to get healthy before the playoffs.

Since Morrow was placed on the disabled list, Strop has saved 11 of 13 games, posted a 1.77 ERA, and stranded 86.7 percent of runners on base. He hasn’t been as good as Morrow, but he’s done an admirable job moving into a tough role.

Initial reports were that Strop would miss the remainder of the regular season, but things may be looking up. Although it’s in no way definitive, in an interview on Wednesday, Strop said he’s pain-free and expects to return before the playoffs begin.

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Without their most threatening arm, the bullpen is certainly not as good, but overall the group hasn’t missed too much of a beat without him.

Up until Morrow threw his final pitch of the 2018 season, the Cubs’ bullpen had the 4th best ERA in the majors at 3.09. Without Morrow, the Cubs’ bullpen has been worse, but not significantly so. Their collective ERA has gone up to 3.61 – still good for the 10th best mark of all teams.

With Morrow, the bullpen held opposing batters to a slash line of .217/.314/.333. Without him, that line is nearly identical at .228/.313/.353.

In fact, as a group, Cubs relievers have actually allowed less hard-hit balls without Morrow. They’ve dropped their hard-hit rate from 31.9 percent to 27.7 percent –  the best of all MLB bullpens.

While the overall numbers are not much worse without Morrow, it’s obvious that this team is much better when he’s anchoring the bullpen. His absence will be noticed, but it’s not a death sentence for the Cubs.

When asked about Morrow being sidelined the rest of the season, Theo Epstein was optimistic about the ability of the bullpen to continue to perform at a high level:

"There’s no reason to hang our heads. (Our relievers) lead the league in ERA. There’s no panic here. If we lose a game late, there’s not going to be any panic. We’re going to find a way."

If there’s one thing that this Cubs’ team has proven it can do in 2018, it’s that it can find ways to win. Through countless injuries and unexpected struggles, a team that’s never really clicked has still proven it’s good enough to own the best record in the National League.

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Strop, Cishek, Edwards, Wilson, and Chavez won’t strike fear in the hearts of the opposition, but that group – combined with strong starting pitching and a dangerous offense – is enough to bring home another World Series victory to the North Side.