Cubs manager Joe Maddon has a lot of experience cobbling together bullpens from pitchers without defined roles.
Until closer Brandon Morrow is mended and ready, Maddon will once again be faced with a juggling act of sorts in the late innings.
Maddon said Sunday the Cubs bullpen is a "fluid" situation. While that's not ideal, it's nothing new for the three-time manager of the year. He's not so big on in-game guidelines, anyway.
"I think primarily the focus will be who's rested, who hasn't pitched a couple days in a row," Maddon said. "And work it that way until Brandon becomes available. And when he becomes available, it's still not going to be an everyday kind of thing. So, I will work off numbers, but I think with this particular group, a lot of it will have to do with who's most rested."
Morrow had right elbow surgery in November after being shut down in mid-July, and he's unlikely to be ready for opening day. Without him, Chicago still had the NL's top bullpen last year, riding a versatile core group topped by Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Steve Cishek and Mike Montgomery. The Cubs bullpen had the NL's best ERA (3.35) and opponents' average (.223).
The front office still added some reinforcements this winter, bringing in righties Brad Brach — a former All-Star — and Tony Barnette.
"We'd love to be in a position where we can withstand a couple injuries in spring training," president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said, "and still put a really quality bullpen out there. That's one area where the market's been pretty soft and pretty slow developing, and we've been active. So, we'll stay in touch with everybody."
Strop was the primary fill-in for Morrow when he went down with right forearm inflammation on July 19, and it's possible he'll start this season in the same role. He was 6-1 with 13 saves and a 2.26 ERA in 60 games, covering 59 2/3 innings while allowing a .179 average against.
"If I'm the closer, that's fine," he said. "I'm going to take the challenge and pick my boy up. We've got a bunch of guys down there. I feel comfortable because I'm not by myself down there."
However the bullpen shapes up when the Cubs break camp at the end of March, Morrow will be a welcome addition once he is deemed ready.
Morrow had 22 saves and 1.47 ERA in 35 games before the injury. He wasn't supposed to miss the rest of the season, but a CT scan revealed an osteochondral defect in the joining of the humerus bone. The flare up set him back this spring as he expected to start throwing daily this week and build up from there.
All the setbacks led to a difficult first-year with the Cubs for Morrow despite how well he performed when healthy.
"Especially when you're having a really good year — maybe your best year — it's disappointing," Morrow said. "You feel like you let the team down and fans and things like that. There's nothing you can do but try to get back. And, unfortunately, it didn't work out. Just missing the first month this year will be better this year will be better than the last three months last year."