There’s no doubt the Chicago Cubs are stacked. Thanks to a boatload of young, plus position players, they’ll most likely take part in their fourth straight postseason. However, contending for a World Series championship rests on the shoulders of the starting rotation.
And right now, those World Series aspirations look bleak.
The Cubs starting staff remains an enigma. Fangraphs recently dug into the numbers and found that they’re on pace to be the worst rotation in team history. Prior to the season, the addition of Yu Darvish created optimism. Adding his electric arm to a staff featuring Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana was enough to draw parallels to 2016.
That year, the team trotted out Lester, Hendricks, Jake Arrieta, John Lackey and Jason Hammel. Collectively, the group finished third in WAR and strikeouts and had the best combined ERA and opponent’s batting average in the majors.
However, 2018 hasn’t been as successful. The staff’s 2.9 WAR ranks 25th in majors, ranking only ahead of the Royals, Orioles, Rangers, White Sox and Reds. Their collective ERA, opponent’s batting average and strikeouts also rank in the lower half of the league.
Despite a productive lineup and a bunch of depth among Cubs position players, getting a second World Series title in three seasons will be challenging.
Sure, clinching the NL Central shouldn’t be problematic, and a run to the NLCS is doable. But for a team like the Cubs, that isn’t the end game.
Starting pitching is going to be key to just making the World Series. The problem is that each guy in the rotation has had flaws to make even the most optimistic Cubs fan cringe.
Hendricks, who was viewed as a strong No. 2 starter coming into the season, has struggled. He’s already given up a career-high 18 home runs through 21 starts this season and he’s on pace to exceed his single-season high in walks.
Since June, Hendricks has pitched past the fifth inning in only three of his last 10 appearances and he’s racked up high pitch counts in those short outings. In his last three games, he’s thrown over 100 pitches without going past the fifth inning.
High pitch counts versus innings pitched has been an issue with other members of the rotation. As a staff, the Cubs starters have pitched six or more innings in 42 outings through the first 100 games. From 2015-2017, the starting rotation accomplished that same feat in 57, 68 and 51 starts, according to NBC Sports Chicago.
Tyler Chatwood is leading the league in walks and they have spiked his pitch count in limited innings. He’s averaged about 93 pitches in games where he’s pitched five or fewer innings of work, eclipsing the 100 mark in four of those 11 matchups.
Jon Lester, arguably the Cubs’ best pitcher so far this season, is 12-3 with a 3.06 ERA. However, sites like Beyond The Box Score and Fangraphs have been diving into Lester’s number the last few weeks and both argue that he’s benefited from stellar defense and a bit of luck.
Lester’s pitch-to-contact approach is risky, and the more advanced stats speak to that. FIP and xFIP both calculate outcomes solely impacted by a pitcher and not the team’s defense. His 4.67 FIP ranks 65th among starting pitchers while his 4.75 xFIP is 70th among starters.
While Quintana and Mike Montgomery both have been solid, no one can safely assume they’ll rise to another level come playoff time. Quintana is the perfect No. 3 starter in a rotation and Montgomery is a No. 4 at best.
And Darvish? Well, he needs to be healthy before we can have any discussions about his role in the postseason.
Ask yourself these questions: Is the starting rotation good enough to carry the Cubs to the World Series? Is it good enough to win them a World Series?
Given their collective performance, the short answer to both is “no.” A team like the Dodgers could end up being a nightmare matchup in the playoffs, and the Red Sox and Yankees lineups would be a terror against the Cubs staff.
The Cubs’ stellar bullpen has bailed out the starters a lot this season, but you can only play with fire so much before you get burned. Joe Maddon can’t afford to go the well too often if he wants his pen at peak performance come playoff time.
Just making the World Series is likely contingent on getting another starter. The Cubs need an arm who can not only eat up innings but also rise to the occasion in big games.
I wrote in June that there is no need to go for broke on a rental trade. However, starters like Jacob deGrom and Chris Archer change that discussion. Since those type of guys have a few years of arbitration left before hitting free agency, offering a player or two from the major league roster might be worth the risk.
If Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer aren’t interested in dealing major league assets until the winter, there are still intriguing names that could be solid contributors down the stretch. Matt Harvey and Cole Hamels jump out. Neither has had an All-Star campaign, but that is mainly a product of their current environments.
Since they’re not likely to come at a high price tag, the Cubs can obtain either without having to sell off an important major leaguer or gut their already depleted farm system. Both are the type of pitchers who have game-changing ability when they’re locked in.
Hamels could be this year’s version of Justin Verlander, benefiting the most from a change of scenery. Verlander, who pitched in many big-game situations for the Tigers, was in the midst of a below-average campaign before the Astros took a flyer on him at last August’s waiver deadline.
Verlander ended up reverting to his All-Star caliber self and became a key piece to a World Series title. Hamels also pitched in high-pressure scenarios with the Phillies and earlier in his Rangers career. Coming into a contending situation could raise the 34-year-old’s play down the stretch.
J.A. Happ is another enticing option. While he might not be a stellar name, he would offer much-needed reliability to the rotation. He’s pitched into the sixth inning or later in 10 of his 20 starts this season, and his 4.18 ERA was only beefed up after facing power lineups like the Red Sox and Yankees this month.
(UPDATE: Happ was traded to the New York Yankees on Thursday afternoon.)
There are other potential starters the Cubs could be in play for at either the non-waiver or waiver trade deadlines. If the Cubs keep the rotation status quo or add someone who’s a fifth starter at best, a deep postseason run will be hard to achieve.
All that position player depth should get them into the playoffs. But unless they add a valuable arm, getting past the NLCS or winning a World Series won’t be feasible.
And in the end, that’s the goal for a team as good as the Cubs.