As the Cubs maneuver through a pivotal offseason, we will break down the current state of the team each week by sectioning it off into position groups. Here is the first installment on the starting rotation.
Hot Stove season is heating up, but don’t expect the Cubs to be linked to a bunch of starting pitchers.
That’s because the rotation is really the only position group that is close to a finished product at the moment.
When Theo Epstein’s front office decided to pick up Cole Hamels’ $20 million option for 2019, they also sent a message about how they feel about this rotation moving forward. Drew Smyly was dealt to the Texas Rangers to shed his $7 million salary for 2019 and create room for Hamels, who became a clear fit for this rotation with his contributions both on and off the field down the stretch last year.
In the minds of a large part of the fanbase, Hamels may have etched his spot in the 2019 rotation when he scoffed at the idea that the Brewers were even a rival of the Cubs.
Still, the Cubs weren’t expecting to shell out so much money to this rotation in the short-term, as Hamels, Jon Lester and Yu Darvish are all set to make more than $20 million next season. The team also picked up Jose Quintana’s $10.5 million option and Kyle Hendricks is slated to make about $8 million in arbitration in 2019.
Throw in the $12.5 million the Cubs are paying Tyler Chatwood despite a lack of a clear role for the embattled right-hander and it’s easy to see why the organization is not looking to spend a bunch more money to add depth beyond the Top 5 guys.
“The areas we’re looking to address are our position group and the bullpen,” Epstein said at the GM Meetings last week. “We’re looking at a little starting depth here and there when we can, but right now, I think our rotation is a strength.”
Here’s how the 2019 rotation looks at the moment:
1. Jon Lester
2. Kyle Hendricks
3. Cole Hamels
4. Yu Darvish
5. Jose Quintana
6. Mike Montgomery
7. Tyler Chatwood
Assuming the Top 5 guys make it through spring training healthy, that will likely be how the Cubs line up their rotation in order. Hendricks and Darvish would ensure the Cubs aren’t throwing out back-to-back-to-back lefties often like they were in the final couple months of 2018.
On paper, this looks like it could be one of the best rotations in baseball, but clearly we’ve said that before — even as recently as February after Darvish signed — and it hasn’t played out that way.
But Darvish’s first year in Chicago was a total disaster, bogged down by injury (triceps and elbow) and ineffectiveness (4.95 ERA, 1.43 WHIP). He will head into 2019 as maybe the biggest X-factor on the roster — a guy capable of pitching like an ace but he has fallen on rough times since the start of the 2017 World Series. The Cubs still have more than $100 million committed to Darvish over the next five years, so getting him right ranks way up there in terms of importance for a team aiming to take home another ring.
Hendricks got off to a slow start, but he continues to show that he has emerged as a co-ace of this pitching staff thanks to an 8-3 record, 2.84 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 88.2 innings after the All-Star Break.
Quintana had an up-and-down 2018, but dealt with some shoulder issues around the All-Star Break and posted a 2.92 ERA with 48 Ks in 49.1 innings over the last month-and-a-half of the season. He’s under team control for the next two years at only $22 million (if his 2020 option is picked up by the Cubs), which is a relative steal for a team with serious money issues in the short-term.
Lester and Hamels will both be pitching in their age-35 seasons, but they’ve proven they still have what it takes to get outs — Lester with some lesser stuff than in years past and Hamels has a wide array of pitches he can utilize to keep hitters off balance while still touching 95 mph on the gun.
Montgomery represents quality depth for this team if injury strikes and wound up making 19 starts last year — posting a 3.69 ERA in the rotation.
Chatwood is the ultimate wild-card in that he’s still under 30 (he turns 29 next month) and has never had control issues anywhere near his 2018 struggles, so it’s reasonable to expect he still has the potential to turn things around. But will it be too little, too late? Can the Cubs find a trade partner for Chatwood if they’re willing to eat some of the remaining $25.5 million on his contract?
Epstein and Jed Hoyer constantly talk about the need to go 9-10 arms deep in the rotation because they know a lack of quality starting pitching is the quickest way to flush a season down the toilet.
Beyond those seven options above, the Cubs still have some rotation depth waiting in the wings.
Alec Mills impressed in his late-season audition with the clubs, flashing strikeout stuff and turning heads with his composure and versatility to pitch both out of the bullpen and in the rotation (which is good because he’s out of options).
The Cubs are really high on top prospect Adbert Alzolay and they believe he can be a major part of their future rotations, but he’s still only 23 and coming off an injury-riddled season. He figures to have major restrictions on his workload next year even if he shows enough development to make it to the majors at some point in 2019.
Duane Underwood Jr. made his MLB debut in a solid 4-inning showing in LA in 2018 and it seems like he’s been around forever, but is still only 24 after spending the last seven years in the Cubs system.
Jen-Ho Tseng has been a spot starter over the past couple seasons and 23-year-old Trevor Clifton figures to be added to the big-league roster this winter now that he’s Rule-5 eligible. But those guys are probably only emergency options in the short term.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Cubs take a few fliers on veterans on minor-league deals — similar to how the Brewers signed Wade Miley in February and watched the southpaw emerge as a major piece of their rotation.
The bottom line
The rotation was supposed to be the strength of the Cubs in 2018 and after four months of nothing but flashes of greatness, they finally hit their stride in the final third of the season once Hamels joined the rotation. Now there’s the potential to be even better from Day 1, especially if Darvish can actually return to the pitcher he was before the start of the 2017 World Series.
It has to be a comforting feeling to Epstein and Co. to know they pretty much are set with their rotation for next season even before Thanksgiving hits, allowing the front office to turn their attention to more pressing needs like the bullpen and trying to fix an underperforming lineup.