One Certainty In Cubs' Offseason: Pen Help Needed

Brandon Morrow may open 2019 on the disabled list after elbow surgery.

Bruce Levine
December 06, 2018 - 6:34 pm
Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein

Jake Roth/USA Today Sports

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CHICAGO (670 The Score) -- The Cubs' road back to reclaiming the National League Central crown has become a little bumpier.

Closer Brandon Morrow had an elbow debridement surgery to clean up some cartilage and bone debris in his right elbow on Nov. 6, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said Thursday afternoon. Morrow's target date to start throwing again is Feb. 6, and he's likely to open the regular season on the disabled list.

The news on Morrow came as a surprise, as he was sidelined in the second half of 2018 not for an elbow ailment but due to a biceps bone bruise.

"We gave him time for the bone bruise to heal," Epstein said. "But his elbow did not feel perfect. So we made the decision to do a quick scope. He is feeling really good one month post-op. Based on the rehab schedule, it could impact his availability in April."

Morrow's continued health troubles reinforced the idea that fortifying the bullpen will once again need to be a priority for the Cubs this offseason. 

Beyond that, there remain other big questions for the Cubs this winter. After winning 95 games and losing in the NL wild-card game in 2018, how will they improve upon their performance and strengthen their team without going over the competitive balance tax of $209 million for 2019? Internal improvement is certainly one way, but the Cubs assess every option available.

"We are certainly open and active in trade talks that usually don't come to fruition (this early)," Epstein said. "We may make some trades. We may make some that transform the roster. We may make smaller, complementary ones. There are moves we would like to accomplish that stops short of transforming the roster. We hope to add a bench player with complementary skill sets from our everyday guys. We would like to add people with true leadership qualities. We need to shore up the middle infield depth. Addison (Russell) will not be on this team in April (due to a suspension). Leadership skills are what we are looking for in any additions."

The Cubs have already watched reliever Jesse Chavez leave them and sign with the Rangers in free agency, while reliever Justin Wilson remains on the open market. Their situations and Morrow's health makes what was a strength look like a vulnerability at this time. Pedro Strop would be the team's closer if the season started tomorrow, with Steve Cishek, Card Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery and Brandon Kintzler serving as the main cogs of the bullpen. Brian Duensing is also on a guaranteed contract for 2019, but he had a 7.65 ERA last season.

"We will certainly have to set things up differently the first few weeks of the season," Epstein said of the bullpen. "That underscores our need for depth in late-game options early in the year."

As for adding an elite free agent like outfielder Bryce Harper, Epstein said creativity would be needed if the Cubs were going to add a player in that price range. That means they'd need to move payroll from elsewhere on their roster down the line. After 2019, the Cubs can clear off around $50 million from their books with Cole Hamels, Ben Zobrist, Morrow, Cishek and Kintzler becoming free agents. Knowing that may allow the Cubs to get creative enough in the short term to add Harper or Manny Machado this winter.

"We have limitations like every team has," Epstein said. "I understand people's desire for a big name every winter. There will be winters when we do acquire big names and winters when we don't acquire big names. I do not know what category this winter will fall into yet for us. There is a chance we don't acquire a big-name player outside of the organization. That does not represent failure. We should be judged on the product on the field. We have a highly motivated group based on nothing else but how last season ended. There is a lot to fix for all of us -- players, coaches, Joe (Maddon) and I. It starts with being accountable for us falling short. We won 95 games but absolutely failed at the end. We need to get better this offseason and showing up (in 2019) with something to prove. This window for us is now. We need to win. It's time to perform."

The Cubs had better health news on right-hander Yu Darvish (elbow) and third baseman Kris Bryant (shoulder). Both are progressing well this offseason after dealing with injuries in 2018 and are expected to be fully ready for spring training.

Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.​