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Cubs Likely to Face October Without Key Offseason Additions

The Cubs' two biggest offseason additions may not throw a single pitch in the postseason this year due to injury. Daniel Shepard writes that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Since Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took over the day-to-day operations of the Chicago Cubs, we have seen they are not afraid to shell out money for big-name free agents. Jon Lester‘s six-year, $155 million deal is one example while Jason Heyward‘s eight-year, $184 million pact is another.

Both of those deals have worked out rather well for the Cubs, with Lester providing, at times, Cy Young-caliber pitching performances and Heyward having already won two Gold Glove Awards in right field.

In addition to their regular season accolades, both Lester and Heyward have had special moments during the postseason. The veteran southpaw won a share of the 2016 NLCS MVP Award while also pitching very well during the Cubs postseason ride a year ago. As for Heyward, the 29-year-old has not logged a batting average over .200 in a playoff series as a member of the Cubs. However, it was the veteran’s rain delay speech during Game 7 of the 2016 World Series that often gets credited with saving the Cubs’ title hopes.

Lester and Heyward are two examples of recent free agent signings that have provided value in the postseason over the last handful of years. That same statement cannot be made for two of the Cubs latest offseason signings, at least this year.

Morrow and Darvish Likely to Miss Playoffs

A little more than two weeks ago, Yu Darvish was shut down for the remainder of the season. After leaving his second minor league rehab assignment of the year early just days before, it was determined Darvish had a stress reaction in his pitching elbow, an injury that would require more time to rest than was left in the season.

With that news, it closed year one of the right-hander’s six-year, $126 million deal he signed during the winter to join the Cubs. Of the many things Darvish brought to the Cubs, his solid postseason record was among them.

Save for his 21.60 ERA in two starts during the 2017 World Series, the 32-year-old owned a track record of success in October. Not long before his lackluster effort in the World Series, Darvish dominated the Cubs in Game 3 of the NLCS. Over 6.1 innings, the right-hander limited Chicago to six hits and one earned run while striking out seven.

That performance helped the Los Angeles Dodgers defeated the Cubs, in pretty quick fashion, sending them to their ultimate defeat in the World Series by the Houston Astros. Without Darvish’s blowup in his two World Series outings, it’s unlikely the right-hander would have fallen into the Cubs’ price range and for good reason.

From 2012 to 2017, Darivsh proved he was one of the better pitchers in the game, posting a 3.42 ERA in 131 starts. In addition to his sparkling ERA, Darvish struck out 1,021 batters over 832.1 innings, equating to a strikeout per nine rate of 11.0. That, combined with his BB/9 of 3.3 during that same stretch, no doubt played a driving factor in the Cubs seeking out Darvish to bolster a rotation that has a reputation of not striking many people out.

While Darvish’s strikeouts per nine held steady at that same rate during the 2018 season, he did it over a shortened period of time. In just 40 innings before hitting the DL for the second and final time this season, the right-hander posted a 4.95, with just one win in eight starts for his new team.

Like Darvish, Brandon Morrow had a pretty solid track record in the postseason prior to last campaign’s World Series. In four games and 4.2 innings against the Cubs in last year’s NLCS, Morrow allowed just one hit and one walk while striking out seven batters. That backed up the right-hander’s NLDS performance in which he posted a 2.45 ERA in three appearances against the Arizona Diamondbacks. The World Series, however, was a different story as Morrow worked all seven games, allowing eight hits and five runs for an 8.44 ERA.

Morrow’s efforts over the three seasons prior to the 2018 campaign made it easy for the Cubs to shell out $21 million over two years for the right-hander’s services. In 2016 and ’17, Morrow appeared in 63 games, working to a 1.96 ERA while allowing just 12 walks over 59.2 innings. Additionally, the right-hander averaged almost a strikeout per inning and recorded an ERA-plus of 211, making him an easy choice to replace closer Wade Davis in the Cubs’ bullpen.

Through mid-July, Morrow did his best impression of the 2017 version of Davis. Across 35 games, Morrow logged 22 saves in 24 chances, sporting a 1.47 ERA in 30.2 innings. In addition, the right-hander averaged 9.1 strikeouts per game and a WHIP just above 1.000. Those numbers resulted in a career-best ERA-plus of 298.

Despite those solid numbers, the injury bug came calling. Morrow, who has struggled with injuries his entire career went on the DL on July 18 with right biceps inflammation and has yet to make his return. The right-hander’s absence has now spanned 46 games as of the writing of this article and it’s beginning to look like he may not be ready for the postseason.

With less than a month left in the regular season, Morrow has yet to throw from a mound, meaning it could be toward the end of the month before he is game ready. Even then, it is unclear how effective Morrow will be considering he will not get the opportunity to rehab in the minor leagues with their season over earlier this week.

If indeed Morrow is unable to return to the Cubs’ bullpen in time to contribute in October, that will mean two of the biggest offseason additions will not throw a single pitch in the postseason.

Between Morrow and Darvish, the Cubs spent $147 million in hopes they would help this club reach the postseason for the fourth straight year. However, their hopes did not stop there as many expected Darvish to headline this rotation during the regular season and into the playoffs. As for Morrow, we have seen enough out of him to know he possesses the stuff of a lock-down closer, a must-have for any team looking to make a deep playoff push.

Without Morrow and Darvish, the Cubs Still Have the Right Tools for Success

Immediately following Darvish’s placement on the DL, lefty swing-man Mike Montgomery took his spot in the rotation. Montgomery has done a nice job in that role thus far, posting a 3.43 ERA in 15 starts. Even with his success, however, it is unlikely the southpaw will make starts in the postseason.

That’s because of Cole Hamels. Hamels, another left-hander, was acquired prior to the July 31 trade deadline. With the Texas Rangers, Hamels posted a 4.72 ERA, fitting solidly into the regression mold so many people place a 34-year-old starting pitcher. Instead of becoming a mid-rotation, innings-eater for the Cubs like so many projected, Hamels has taken over and evolved into the best starter the Cubs currently have. Through seven outings in his new uniform, the southpaw owns a 1.00 ERA and has yet to allow a home run in 45 innings while striking out 43.

Hamels’ resurgence with the Cubs have flipped the script from if he makes the postseason roster what value can he provide to what value will he bring once he slots into the one- or two-hole in a playoff rotation. For that reason, it is safe to say Hamels is becoming everything people believed Darivsh could be entering this season and that’s good news for the Cubs.

In the bullpen, the Cubs have also found someone to replace Morrow. This time, it did not come as the result of a trade, but rather an in-house option that has been there for a long time.

The guy is Pedro Strop. For about five seasons now, Strop has been one the most consistent relief pitchers on the Cubs’ roster. From 2014 through 57 appearances this season, the right-hander has logged an ERA of 2.64 across 292.2 innings. Additionally, Strop has struck out 329 batters, good enough to average 10.1 punch outs per nine innings while recording an ERA-plus of 156 and a FIP of 3.13.

More recently, the 33-year-old has stepped up in Morrow’s absence, serving as the Cubs new closer. So far this season, Strop has recorded 12 saves in 16 chances, including a big one on Wednesday night against the Milwaukee Brewers.

If Morrow is not ready to contribute in October, it will be Strop getting the call to lock games down. With his electric fastball that can touch 97 MPH and his wicked slider, not to mention his new cut-fastball, opponents will have the same trouble figuring out Strop as they did Morrow. And that, once again, is a good thing for the Cubs.

At the beginning of the season, it would have been hard to imagine losing both Darvish and Morrow to significant injuries bad enough to keep them out of the postseason. Unfortunately, that is the situation the Cubs and their fans find themselves in currently. However, with one of the deeper and most talented rosters in the game, the Cubs have found replacements for their high-dollar offseason pickups, ones that will help the club make a deep run into October once again.

Follow Daniel Shepard on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: NBC Sports

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