This is the first in a series of a position-by-position analyses of the Cubs entering the offseason.
First up: Starting pitching.
1. Was the rotation that good, based largely on how well it performed at the end of the season?
The addition of Cole Hamels on July 27 masked the disappointing seasons of Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood. Kyle Hendricks got stronger after a rough June, and Jon Lester epitomized the role of ace with an All-Star season capped by a strong September, not to mention his blunt assessment of the 2018 season after the Cubs’ elimination in the National League wild-card game.
“Maybe we needed to get knocked down a peg or two and realize nothing is going to be given to us,” Lester said.
The rotation finished sixth in the league with a 3.84 ERA but ninth in innings pitched (888) and strikeouts (769). The lack of strikeouts put pressure on the defense, and the lack of innings by the starters was due in part to a lack of early run support. Manager Joe Maddon was criticized for his frequent use of the bullpen, but the Cubs managed 40 comeback wins due in part to Maddon stopping the midgame bleeding so his offense could remain within striking distance.
Maddon’s spring training declaration that this was the best rotation in his four seasons in terms of talent was too lofty, based on the fact that the 2016 staff remains underrated and because Darvish and Chatwood weren’t finished products.
The rotation was good, but it needs to be more consistent to make Maddon’s midgame decisions even harder in low-scoring games.
2. How important is it for the Cubs to retain Cole Hamels?
It’s essential for many reasons. First, There’s no guarantee Darvish will revert to top form after his injuries. Second, Chatwood has yet to prove he can throw strikes with any semblance of consistency. Third, Jose Quintana has suffered baffling bouts of wildness.
Hamels looked much more comfortable pitching at Wrigley Field and in the National League than he did pitching at Globe Life Park with the Rangers in the AL. Even at the plate, he never gave away an at-bat and fit in seamlessly with his teammates. The younger pitchers can learn from watching his sound mechanics.
Hamels expressed a desire to stay with the Cubs well before the season ended. It could take some minor adjustments to retain him, but the Cubs don’t have any top-of-the-rotation starting prospects ready to challenge for a starting job.
3. What must be done with Yu Darvish?
From the time he arrived at the spring training complex in mid-February to the final game, Darvish seemed in a rush. It appeared as if 2018 represented the perfect storm, from stomach issues that scratched his first spring training start to Darvish needing 102 pitches to throw only 4 1/3 innings in his regular-season debut March 31 in Miami to a late-August diagnosis that revealed a stress reaction in his right elbow.
Management and the coaching staff gave him a grace period through the end of April. At times, there seemed to be a disconnect between Darvish and the team regarding what pitches were preferred and the pitches he threw. Certain pitches likely suffered from his elbow problems, but there were glimpses of dominance, particularly with his slider.
Darvish’s elbow will have time to heal over the next four months. Management and the coaching staff will also have time to let him know that he remains an important part of the Cubs’ future, and that making direct eye contact with individuals other than his teammates isn’t a bad thing.
4. How do you fix Tyler Chatwood?
You can’t blame pitching coach Jim Hickey for a lack of trying. The Cubs tried having Chatwood work exclusively out of the stretch and take the ball out of his glove sooner, but those moves didn’t curb his wildness.
The Cubs cannot give up on Chatwood, who is owed $25.5 million over the next two seasons. He has swing-and-miss stuff that was on display throughout spring training.
President Theo Epstein wasn’t ready Wednesday to discuss what’s in store for the 28-year-old Chatwood, whose 1.804 WHIP this season was the highest of his 7-year career in the majors.
Minor-league pitching coordinator Brendan Sagara and/or special assistant Jim Benedict could be called on to work with Chatwood. They were hired last season in an effort to improve the quality of the organization’s pitching.
At this point, any input can’t hurt. Here’s my two cents: Seek an independent pitching expert who can work with Chatwood for a few weeks this winter to at least find an approach he can carry into the spring.
5. Can the Cubs afford to trade Jose Quintana?
At this point, no way, not with the uncertainty surrounding Darvish and Chatwood. And despite Quintana’s inconsistent season, he still posted a 3.17 ERA against National League Central opponents, including a 4-1 record and 2.13 ERA against the division champion Brewers.
There were some interesting theories on Quintana’s up-and-down season. Longtime observers believe he threw too many high fastballs, which led to his wildness and ineffectiveness instead of keeping the ball down as he did throughout much of his career with the White Sox.
But Brewers manager Craig Counsell cited Quintana’s ability to throw to all quadrants of the strike zone, including the high-and-tight area to right-handed hitters, as one of his strengths against his team.
Quintana, who will turn 30 in January, didn’t allow a walk in his final three starts, and he allowed only three runs in his final two starts, so he should be given the benefit of the doubt heading into 2019. But veteran lefty Drew Smyly, 29, is determined to win a spot in the rotation, although his innings may be limited because he’s returning from Tommy John surgery. Quintana’s team options for the next two seasons are affordable, which could attract teams seeking starting pitching.