Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek, the two big offseason additions to the Cubs bullpen, both have been described as having a closer’s mentality.
What exactly is that?
It’s difficult to define.
“It can come naturally, or you can fake it,” Morrow said. “You just want to have the same aggressiveness I think in the ninth that you would have any other time. You don’t want to get tight.”
The Cubs feel comfortable they have a half-dozen relievers who fit the mold, but Morrow will get the chance to prove he’s the real deal.
Signed as a free agent this offseason after serving as setup man to Kenley Jansen with the Dodgers, Morrow enters the season as the new closer, replacing old, reliable Wade Davis.
It’s a bold experiment for the Cubs, who brought in two of the best closers in the game the last two years, acquiring Aroldis Chapman for the second half of 2016 and Davis before the 2017 season.
The Cubs memorably tried to make a closer out of setup man LaTroy Hawkins in 2004 with disastrous results. After replacing the injured Joe Borowski, Hawkins had a news conference to announce he was not talking to the media, then floundered in his new role and went down in Cubs’ history for his role in the late-season collapse.
Morrow’s numbers and stuff suggest he’s ready for the role, but until he actually does it consistently, it’s anyone’s guess. He learned a lot from watching Jansen, perhaps the best closer in baseball.
“He’s an animal,” Morrow said. “His mentality was so even-keeled. He honestly was almost like bored to have to go out there again. That’s kind of who he is. It was like, in August last year and I remember him saying, ‘Oh, can the playoffs start? I want to feel something when I go out and pitch.’”
Manager Joe Maddon, who once made Kyle Farnsworth into a closer for the Rays, believes many talented relievers simply are denied a chance to close.
“A lot of it is opportunity,” Maddon said. “You just have to give the guy a chance to fail. You know (Morrow’s) stuff is good enough. Absolutely. His stuff is ridiculously good.”
So who is 1-A if Morrow can’t go?
“Cishek is one,” he said. “Justin Wilson, we’ve seen him and I really think (he’s) coming back. And we’ve talked about (Carl Edwards Jr), he’s that guy in the making. Depending on the matchups, I love (Pedro Strop) out there. Mike Montgomery pitched in the World Series.”
In the end, Maddon said it could be who’s feeling “the most sexy” of the bunch.
“I’m not going to say 1-A, 1-B, etc.,” he said. “We just have too many qualified candidates.”
Cishek, is a former closer who moved to a setup role last year for the Mariners and Rays, figures to be the next man up if Morrow can’t go that day. Opportunities come in different forms, and Cishek got his first chance in strange fashion with the Marlins, beginning late in 2011 when closer Leo Nunez didn’t show up for work.
“One day he didn’t make the team plane and we didn’t know why,” Cishek said. “We heard rumors. Didn’t know if it was true or not. His name wasn’t Leo Nunez, and that was our closer.”
It was revealed that Nunez was actually named Juan Carlos Oviedo and had falsified his documents at a young age in the Dominican Republic. The Marlins placed Nunez on the restricted list and turned to a bullpen-by-committee the rest of the season.
“I got a couple of saves that year,” Cishek said. “So I got a little taste of it early, then in ’12 we had struggles with our closer (Heath Bell) and (manager) Ozzie Guillen decided to throw me out there.
“I did OK and sure enough the next year they wanted me to be the closer in ’13, and in ’14. Over time I learned to put away those tough outings and trust my ability, and for me my faith was a huge factor.”
Morrow made his Cubs debut in the fifth inning Tuesday against the Dodgers, but is operating without a safety net. He can’t really get into true closer mode because Cactus League games are meaningless affairs.
“I don’t think you practice running out in the ninth inning,” he said. “Maybe when we go over to Florida (for a two-game series against the Red Sox on March 26-27) we’ll have fewer people and we can run those more like regular-season games.
“At least get a routine going … I think that’s actually more important than pitching the ninth inning.”
When the regular season begins March 29 in Miami, don’t look for Morrow to be among the dancing relievers. Davis didn’t join in on the fun, and Morrow said it’s probably not in the cards for him.
“I don’t know if the closer can dance,” Morrow said. “You have to be mean.”