The Chicago Cubs rotation was one of the biggest keys to winning the World Series in 2016, and it looks like a focal point again in 2018.
There is little doubt that the acquisitions of Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood, on paper, should restore some much-needed order to a Cubs rotation that mimicked a roller coaster last season.
Take Kyle Hendricks, for example. The 28-year-old struggled out of the gate and spent most of June and July on the DL with a hand injury. Fortunately, he rallied nicely down the stretch with a 3-2 record and posted 2.41 and 2.02 ERAs in August and September, respectively.
While Hendricks eventually got into a groove late season, Jon Lester was shaky throughout. Don’t let his 5-1 record from September fool you. The 34-year-old veteran put up a 4.18 ERA that month and battled command issues.
And the month before? Lester not only finished August with a brief DL stint, but he also posted a woeful 7.85 ERA.
Jake Arrieta’s season wasn’t much better. Much of his erratic performance was attributed to a drop in velocity. According to Fangraphs, the 2015 Cy Young winner averaged 92.6 mph on his fastball in 2017, a 1.7 mph drop from the season before. It’s part of the reason why Arrieta will be donning a Phillies jersey instead of returning to the Cubs this year.
Even with just these struggles in mind, it’s no wonder why retooling the rotation was Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer’s top priority. Theoretically, the slight makeover should make the Cubs rotation a formidable one in 2018.
With an unprecedented number of signings happening after Jan. 1, the offseason felt like an eternity. The long wait made Cubs fans ponder two scenarios: bring back Arrieta or sign Darvish?
Both are the same age (31), and each presented legitimate concerns. As mentioned earlier, Arrieta has shown signs of slowing down in terms of velocity, which is a useful indicator when determining a veteran starter’s shelf life. Still, Arrieta did well by relying on “cunning and guile” in the postseason and was the only starter to notch a win in the NLCS.
On the flipside, postseason struggles have haunted Darvish. Game 7 of last year’s World Series is still very fresh in everyone’s minds. The rest of his playoff numbers are also far from impressive (2-4, 5.18 ERA in six starts).
Those numbers should give Cubs fans pause, especially when the postseason rolls around. But the sample size is small, and you can’t deny he is a top-tier righty in the regular season. Keep in mind, you have to get through almost six months of the regular season to even sniff the playoffs.
Darvish earns a living on strikeouts, averaging 11.04 K/9 over his six-year career. Despite a career-low 10.08 K/9 last season, he still finished 12th among qualified starters. And, unlike Arrieta, his fastball hummed at an average of 94.7 mph, according to Fangraphs.
His ability to make batters swing and miss bodes well in an erratic ballpark like Wrigley Field, where the wind either turns routine pop-flys into home runs or leaves balls hanging by the warning track.
The best thing for Darvish is that he enters an ideal scenario should he make it to October in 2018. Being in a rotation with two former NL Cy Young runner-ups and a borderline All-Star while having a powerful lineup to give him run support certainly should take some pressure off.
Even though Lester battled a sore shoulder late last season, he never seemed to get into a solid groove from the get-go. Entering his fourth season with the Cubs, the 13-year veteran is by no means done. But counting on him to be an ace throughout the regular season might be far-fetched.
The battle for the top spot will most likely come down to Hendricks, Darvish or Quintana. What matters is getting Lester to the postseason healthy and fresh.
Joe Maddon is very creative when it comes to keeping guys fresh, especially down the stretch. One way to maximize the battle-tested lefty as the season winds down is by using more of Mike Montgomery as a spot starter. Maybe we’ll also see a few bullpen days or a September call-up get an opportunity when the starters need rest.
Sure, Lester is an old-school ballplayer who hates seeing the demise of 200-inning pitchers. And while he might be a bit salty, he’s still a competitor who will do whatever it takes to win. That’s why it wouldn’t be very surprising if he has a nice bounce-back year and takes some extra days off in 2018.
We noted Hendricks’ rough start and encouraging finish. So what does that mean heading into this year?
Well, it means you shouldn’t worry about some type of massive regression. Every pitcher has struggles at points throughout the year, and he showed resilience coming off the DL. The 28-year-old has been one of the more reliable starting pitchers in the National League since becoming a full-time starter, finishing in the top 15 in WHIP the last three seasons and in the top 10 in ERA the last two years.
We all know Hendricks is never going to light up the radar gun, but his uncanny ability to frustrate a lineup and pitching to contact is what makes him so valuable to the rotation. This skill not only makes him perfect for a place like Wrigley Field, but it also fits beautifully with a solid defensive infield to back him up.
Hendricks also had a very impressive spring. No one is saying to use spring training games as a big barometer, but the lefty did look stellar in limited action, striking out 21 batters and walking none in only 15 innings of work.
There is no doubt that Hendricks could be the key to a big a run for the Cubs in 2018.
If there was a pitcher acquisition that made the most sense for the Cubs rotation last season, it was Quintana. When the trade was made with the White Sox coming out of the All-Star break, most prognosticators saw it as a win-win. The Cubs landed an affordable cost-controlled arm for a few seasons, and the Sox got a star prospect and a young arm.
Suddenly, the sentiment has changed. As Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease continue to thrive in the White Sox’s minor-league system, Quintana gets put under the microscope. But why?
There is a growing narrative that he was erratic while pitching for the Northside last season.
Quintana’s numbers as part of Cubs rotation were pretty solid. In 14 starts, he racked up a 7-3 record, 9 quality starts and 1.10 WHIP. While that second-half stat line looks legit, his bumpy August and woeful performance in the NLCS stick out as reasons to be cautious.
Quintana posted a 5.73 ERA in August and had some rough outings, including two brutal losses against the Arizona Diamondbacks and Philadelphia Phillies where he gave up six earned runs in each start. The last time we saw him take the mound was against the Los Angeles Dodgers in an elimination game, and the Dodgers lineup rocked him for six runs in just two quick innings of work.
But as was noted with Darvish, the postseason is a small sample size that shouldn’t be a death knell for a pitcher. Not to mention, everyone on the Cubs struggled throughout the NLCS aside from Arrieta.
The 29-year-old lefty seemed to be pressing at times during the second half of the year. Was he trying to show everyone he could be more of an ace than a steady, top-level starter? Was he worried about not living up to expectations as the Cubs fought for a spot in the playoffs, something he’d never experienced? We’ll never know for sure.
One thing we do know is that Quintana has been a consistent presence on the mound over the course of his career. Before arriving on the Northside, he had four straight seasons of 200 or more innings and finished with WARs of 5.1, 3.2, 4.1 and 5.4 each year, respectively. And it all happened while getting very little run support on the Southside.
His larger body of work should help calm any Cubs fan worried about Quintana’s contributions this year.
Prior to the unexpected freeze on free-agent signings, the Cubs signed Chatwood to a three-year, $38 million deal shortly before last December’s winter meetings. While the Darvish signing certainly has more sizzle, Chatwood could be a sleeper addition with plenty of substance.
At first glance, his career stats as a starter are so-so (39-44, 4.25 ERA), and last year’s numbers are nothing to write home about. However, when you look deeper at his home and road splits from last year, it’s evident that the Coors Field effect played a major role in his mediocre season.
|Chatwood’s 2017 Stat Line|
|Games/ Starts||Record||ERA||Hits Allowed|
Translation: Coors Field was a nightmare for Chatwood. His road outings show that he could benefit greatly from pitching away from the thin Rocky Mountain air.
There are two other key stats that should encourage Cubs fans. Chatwood has a 28.7 percent hard-hit rate and 24.9 percent fly-ball rate over the course of his career. Both indicators should bode well when pitching in front of an elite defense and in the conditions at Wrigley Field.
And one thing seems certain. He should be a much better option than the likes of Brett Anderson, Eddie Butler and John Lackey, who each struggled to give the Cubs a consistent option as a fifth starter last year.
In all, the pieces in the Cubs rotation seem to fit perfectly. Darvish looks like an ideal replacement for Arrieta, and any pressure should be relieved by having All-Star caliber arms like Hendricks, Lester and Quintana surrounding him. As long as Chatwood holds up his end of the bargain, the Cubs starters are primed for a big 2018.