The Cubs have been rumored to have interest in former Dodgers setup man Brandon Morrow, and if they really are moving on from Wade Davis, he’s a viable candidate to take over as closer.
But this hypothetical forces a question that should be asked: Do we want that?
While Morrow is an exciting prospect in this role, there are plenty of reasons to be leery of him. The obvious first is that he has never been a full-time closer. This isn’t to say that he can’t do it, but a reliever with well over 800 innings on his arm and only 18 career saves — 16 of which came during the 2008 and 2009 seasons — isn’t one that I’m keen on.
The second is that he will be 34 halfway through the 2018 season, making him older than Wade Davis, who has 79 career saves in just seven more career innings than Morrow. And Morrow has not logged more than 60 innings in a season since 2012, when he was still a starter. If he is going to assume the role held by Davis last season, this is a worthy concern.
The last is that he has some injury history in the last few seasons, notably a shoulder impingement that ended his 2015 campaign early and kept him sidelined for much of the 2016 season as well. He was healthy enough to get a minor league deal from the Dodgers last year and eventually become their setup man to Kenley Jansen, even filling in for two saves, but on an older arm, those past issues can easily creep up again or at least impair the durability needed of a closer.
But let’s pretend for a moment that the Cubs do sign Morrow, and the prospect of him closing games in 2018 becomes a much more likely reality. Are there reasons to feel good about that?
Close to a month ago, Paul Sporer argued at Fangraphs that there are. Most notably, his uptick in velocity that contributed so greatly to his success with the Dodgers:
At age 32, the Dodgers got Morrow up to a career-high 98 mph with his fastball and backed it with a monstrous slutter that breaks into two pitches: a 92 mph cutter and 89 mph slider. All three yielded above average strikeout rates without taking anything from his newfound control. After an 11% BB rate through 2014, he has posted a 5% mark in each of the last three seasons. This year it was due in large part to a career-best and very nice 69% First-Pitch Strike rate. The key to the Morrow Renaissance was his utter domination of lefties.
But for comparison, Morrow’s average velocity on his fastball had sat just below or right at 95 for years before this past season, when it suddenly shot up to 98. The difference from this change is the whiff rate that has jumped mightily (7% in 2015 to over 12% in 2017), and along with that, Morrow cut his repertoire to just the fastball, slider, and cutter, the two latter offerings being even more devastating to opposing hitters than his heater.
At best opposing hitters mustered a .087 ISO against the fastball last season, and as Sporer said, left-handed batters were even more hopeless. They managed to register an ISO of only .022 against the four-seamer, and that was the best mark of Morrow’s three pitches because his slider and cutter were never touched for extra base hits last season.
So yea, the stuff is nasty, newfound as it might be. Morrow was a far superior pitcher in 2017 compared to anything he had done thus far. He was a respectable starter for a short stretch at the start of this decade, but he reached some rarified air in 2017.
There are ways that using Morrow in a somewhat limited role as the closer could work for the Cubs next season. As I reviewed here last week, they have a handful of internal options with potential, but no one worth serious consideration yet for the full-time role. So if the Cubs run with Morrow, they could fill in on occasion with a few other relievers, like Carl Edwards, Jr. or perhaps Justin Wilson or Dillon Maples. But this is farm from ideal for a contending team, and it should leave the Cubs to look outside of who is currently on the roster to find a closer.
But if they do choose Morrow, he — despite whatever qualms there might be about his lack of experience, age, and potentially brittle arm — was undeniably electric for the Dodgers last season.
Is this enough to sign him, even to a one year deal, and hand him the ball in the ninth inning on a regular basis? For some teams, yes, but for the Cubs, I think not. Without some demonstration of sustained ability to pitch like he did for Los Angeles last season, I’m not comfortable with handing the most important role in an already wobbly bullpen to someone who has as many strikes against him as Morrow does. The Cubs need to look elsewhere.