MESA, Ariz. – The smile on Carl Edwards Jr.’s face Wednesday morning reflected his confidence in taking the next step toward becoming a complete reliever.
Edwards’ recent mastery of the strike zone could represent the finishing touches in his development at a time the Cubs might need to lean on him more. Pedro Strop – who was filling in as closer while Brandon Morrow rehabs from elbow surgery – is nursing a left hamstring strain that puts his status for the March 28 opener at Texas in question.
“If I am in that role, I’ll be ready,” Edwards said. “We’ll see how everything works with Strop and go from there.”
Strop insisted he would be ready, saying he continues to throw off flat ground and might need only two or three spring training appearances.
Manager Joe Maddon said Wednesday that the Cubs recently discussed external options, but Craig Kimbrel’s name didn’t
“We really didn’t discuss that, but I can’t tell you it’s out of the question,” Maddon said of Kimbrel, 30, who remains a free agent despite his seven-time All-Star status.
Maddon hasn’t ruled out using Edwards as a closer this season, but that might be likelier to occur later as Steve Cishek, Morrow and Strop could depart after 2019.
“[Edwards] is so good at maybe shutting something down in the seventh or eighth [inning], I would not run away from that,” Maddon said of Edwards’ potential future as a closer. “It’s going to come down to him commanding his pitches. If he does, he has the kind of stuff to be that guy.”
Edwards has allowed only two hits in his first four spring training outings, while striking out five and walking none. He knows greater tests lie ahead.
Expectations have swelled since Edwards, now 27, came within one out of earning the save in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series.
Any chance of replacing Aroldis Chapman as the closer disappeared when the Cubs acquired Wade Davis and Brandon Morrow in successive seasons. But Edwards’ 2019 role could be as important as that of any of the Cubs relievers.
Asked if he’s close to being a finished product, Edwards replied: “Really close. It’s my [fourth] year now.”
Edwards led National League rookies in 2016 with a 39.5 percent swing-and-miss rate, a .123 opponents’ average, and 3.75 hits allowed per nine innings. He began 2017 with 12 scoreless appearances and led major-league relievers with 3.93 hits allowed per nine innings.
But his ascent plateaued somewhat in 2018. Edwards posted a 2.88 ERA while pitching in 25 of the Cubs’ first 51 games, but he spent the next 5 weeks on the disabled list because of right shoulder inflammation.
When he returned, he lowered his ERA to a career-best 2.60, but walked 20 in 27 innings and wasn’t placed on the NL wild-card game roster because of right forearm
In an effort to improve his control, Edwards altered his delivery after watching film of Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen. He began to practice the new motion, which features a pause and a toe tap, in front of a mirror in November.
The early results have been satisfying to Edwards, and encouraging to first-year pitching coach Tommy Hottovy.
“The big thing right now is getting him as comfortable as possible,” Hottovy said.
Reducing his leg kick out of the stretch position will give Cubs catchers a better chance to nail base-stealers, who were 10-for-10 with Edwards on the mound last season.
Maddon loves Edwards’ ability to harness left-handed hitters as well as right-handers, which is essential because the Cubs don’t have a left-handed power reliever. Edwards has limited left-handers to a career .169 average, including .119 in 2017.
“The thing is, we’re versatile,” Edwards said. “That’s just how it is in the bullpen. We’ll go with what we’ve got. No matter what, we’ll have trust in each other.”