Closing Time: Who finishes off games with Wade Davis gone?
In three consecutive National League Championship Series appearances, the Chicago Cubs relied predominately on three different pitchers to close games: Hector Rondon in 2015, Aroldis Chapman in 2016, and Wade Davis in 2017.
This closer carousal will have to continue next season as Yahoo! Sports writer Jeff Passan reported on Friday that the 32-year-old Davis will have a new home in 2018.
The Colorado Rockies dished out $52 million across three seasons (the contract also included a fourth-year player option that would vest Davis $15 million if he finishes 30 games in 2020) to pry Davis away from the Cubs in free agency. Because the Cubs offered Davis a qualifying offer that he declined, they will receive a 2018 second-round draft pick from the Rockies as compensation. The $17.3 million Davis will make annually is the highest annual salary for a reliever in MLB history.
Davis was predictably dominant last season after coming to Chicago on Dec. 7, 2016 in a swap with the Kansas City Royals that also involved Jorge Soler. Davis pitched to a 2.30 ERA and recorded 32 saves in 33 save opportunities. The 32 saves marked a new Cubs franchise record for most consecutive saves.
With Davis parting ways for less oxygen rich pastures, who will emerge as the Cubs go-to man at the very end of games in 2018?
The odds-on favorite to assume closing duties for the Cubs next season doesn’t have much experience closing game (18 saves in 26 opportunities during his 11-year career), but has a pitching profile complete with everything you’d want from a closer.
Since returning to bullpen duty in 2016 after years of mostly starting games, Brandon Morrow has a 1.96 ERA in 59.2 innings of work. Among pitchers who have pitched at least 50 innings since 2016, Morrow’s 1.96 ERA checks in at sixth best in MLB in that time frame.
He’s also been able to handle himself well in big moments. In 2017, Morrow held opponents to a .229/.288/.229 slash line in high-leverage plate appearances. Through 11 postseason appearances in 2017, Morrow pitched to a 1.46 ERA with ten strikeouts in 12.1 innings of work before petering out in his last three appearances probably due to a large workload.
Last season, Morrow attacked hitters with a four-seam fastball that averaged almost 98 mph on the radar gun. He supplements this heat with a hard slider at 88 mph (that yields an almost 23 percent whiff rate) and a cutter at 92 mph. He predominantly throws the fastball (60 percent of the time in 2017), but also gives hitters healthy dosages of the slider (23 percent of the time in 2017) and cutter (17 percent of the time in 2017). Cutters and sliders are similar pitches that start out on the same plane and the fact that he throws both pitches with about the same frequency makes him even tougher to figure out.
The caveat with Morrow is his injury-plagued past. Bleacher Nation owner/writer Brett Taylor listed out all his injuries in a recent post on his website.
Riding a wave of confidence after posting the best two years of his career the last two seasons, Morrow should thrive as the Cubs closer as long as he can stay healthy.
Carl Edwards Jr.
The String Bean Slinger needs to get his life under control.
After wowing with his hard cutter, sweeping curve combination for most of his short career in the Windy City, Carl Edwards Jr. looked liked he’d be next in line to inherit the closing duties for the Cubs.
He backed up that sentiment by dominating prior to the All-Star break last season (2.29 ERA; .129/.257/.233 opponent slash line). But after an up and down second half of the season, the wheels completely fell off in the postseason as Edwards couldn’t have thrown strikes if the strike zone was the broadside of a barnyard. In 4.2 postseason innings, he surrendered six free passes (27.27 BB %) and an 11.57 ERA.
A redemptive season after a rocky ending to 2017 could put Edwards back on track to eventually assume closing duties for the Cubs as he’s only 26 years old and is under team control until 2023.
But with Morrow in the fold and the Cubs in win-now mode, going with the more proven Morrow over experimenting further with Edwards Jr. is probably the safest route for the Cubs right now.
As recently as 2016, sidewinder Steve Cishek accumulated 25 saves with the Seattle Mariners.
Cishek uses a mostly two-pitch mix (sinker, slider) to elicit a 56.1 percent groundball rate, and a 22.4 percent soft contact rate compared to a 23.3 percent hard contact rate. He’s an elite contact manager who also struck out batters at a 23.6 percent clip last season (above average according to FanGraphs.com).
If Morrow wasn’t in the picture, Cishek, who has 121 career saves across eight seasons, would be a great option to close games for the Cubs.
Chicago Cubs 2011 14th-round draft pick Dillon Maples will also have an opportunity to make the team this season. He vaulted up three levels through the Cubs minor league system last season and made the MLB roster during the September roster expansions.
Maples’ fastball and hard slider/cutter combination is deadly. Seriously, look at the movement on the latter pitch.
In six appearances at the MLB level last season, he accumulated an unimpressive 10.13 ERA. That number was jacked up by an outing on Sept. 4 against Pittsburgh where he surrendered five runs on three hits in 0.1 innings. In four of his six appearances, he pitched scoreless baseball.
However, the Cubs aren’t going to insert a young, inexperienced guy like Maples immediately into the closer spot with Morrow on the roster. Ideally, Maples shows enough this season to earn a spot for himself in a Cubs bullpen in need of a bounce back year.