Since Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer were hired by the Chicago Cubs, there haven’t been many shortcomings. However, Yu Darvish’s latest setback and Tyler Chatwood’s struggles highlight a glaring problem.
The Cubs lack young pitchers in the pipeline who are ready for prime time.
All the arms on the current active roster were acquired either via trade or in free agency. Believe it or not, former 2013 draft choice Rob Zastryzny is the only pitcher to be drafted and developed by the Cubs who has made any sort of impact in the majors. He’s played in a total of 18 games since 2016.
Please don’t mince words. This isn’t an indictment on the front office. They embarked on a daunting task in 2012 to restock a barren farm system, and they were wildly successful in adding a boatload of talented young position players in the draft or via trade.
Those savvy moves transformed the Cubs from lovable losers into a consistent contender, reaching heights that haven’t been achieved in almost a century. With three straight NLCS appearances since 2015 and a World Series championship in 2016, it’s safe to say we’re living in the golden era of Cubs baseball.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t raise an eyebrow from time to time. While the front office has successfully plugged holes in the starting rotation with trade and free agent signings, this year’s solutions have been a major disappointment that leaves more questions than answers going forward.
Prior to the season, the Darvish and Chatwood signings seemed valid. While Darvish’s six-year, $126 million contract was hefty for a then 31-year-old pitcher, the Cubs wanted to replace former Cy Young winner and fan favorite Jake Arrieta with someone of equal or greater talent.
Both Darvish and Arrieta were the same age, but Arrieta was showing a dip in average fastball velocity. Given his age and reliance on striking out hitters with swing-and-miss stuff, there were concerns over eroding performance.
The Cubs saw Darvish’s diverse pitching arsenal and steady fastball velocity as a better choice in both the short and long term. And with underwhelming starters set to hit the free agent market the next couple of years, signing they thought signing him to a longer deal with declining annual salary seemed like a win-win.
However, a dark cloud has hovered over Darvish all season. He hasn’t pitched since May 20 due to tightness in his right triceps, which is in the same arm he had Tommy John surgery on in 2015. There also has been plenty of drama over the last three months, whether it’s his slow rehab process or questions over his lack of mental toughness.
In two separate rehab starts, Darvish has only gone backwards. He complained of pain after a start in June, and he only made it through one inning Sunday before pulling himself during warm-up tosses prior to the second inning.
If an MRI shows any damage requiring surgery, it could mean Darvish is lost not only for this season but also next year. If there’s no damage, that just casts further doubt that he has the mental makeup to gut it out down the stretch. Either way, it make his contract hard to swallow.
Even prior to the injury, Darvish did very little to inspire confidence. He was 1-3 with a 4.95 ERA in eight starts and had plenty of moments where he seemed rattled by unfavorable situations.
Chatwood’s three-year, $38 million contract might not be as long and pricey as Darvish’s deal, but it’s still significant for a fifth starter. Despite a career 39-44 record and 4.25 ERA prior to this season, the team was hoping to catch lightning in a bottle with a pitcher who has potentially nasty stuff.
Much was made about Chatwood’s home/road splits with the Colorado Rockies in 2017. Despite being 3-8 with 6.01 ERA and 81 hits allowed in 17 home games, he was 5-7 with a 3.49 ERA and 55 hits in 16 road games last year.
However, leaving Colorado hasn’t helped Chatwood improve. He not only has completely lost his command, but he also leads the majors with 93 walks, which are 21 more than the No. 2 pitcher on the list.
The underlying issue with both signings is that the Cubs don’t have young, cost-effective options waiting in the wings. Not having any pro-ready pitchers in the farm system has forced the organization to make a lot of major investments. Unfortunately, the more chances you play with fire in free agency, the more likely you’ll get burned.
Aside from paying Darvish and Chatwood, they also traded top prospects Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease to the White Sox for Jose Quintana in July 2017. The Cubs were so desperate to find a reliable, cost-controlled arm cost that they gave up a haul fit for an ace.
Quintana has been solid since coming to the north side, tallying a 17-12 record with a 4.12 ERA in 38 starts. But was a king’s ransom worth it for a pitcher who could be a third starter at best?
Investing in Darvish, Chatwood and Quintana cost the Cubs around $195 million in total contracts and two top prospects. That shouldn’t yield below-average or mediocre production.
On the flipside, the team’s low-risk acquisition of veteran Cole Hamels looks to be paying dividends. Hamels has pitched like an ace-caliber starter in four starts, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the Cubs pick up his $20 million option next year or negotiate a more favorable deal after exercising a team buyout option.
Still, his age makes him a short-term solution at best. And don’t Theo and Jed eventually have to find more than just band-aid solutions?
The organization recently put a larger emphasis on pitching in the farm system. This past offseason, they added Jim Benedict as a pitching consultant to work closely with Senior VP of Player Development and Scouting Jason McLeod. Benedict’s role is crucial in growing the young arms who were acquired over the last couple of years.
Seven of the Cubs’ top-10 prospects are pitchers. The list includes notable names like 2017 draft picks Alex Lange (No. 3 team prospect) and Brendon Little (No. 7) as well as international signings Brailyn Marquez (No. 4) and Adbert Alzolay (No. 2).
Alzolay was a name many Cub fans were watching in Triple A Iowa, and he was expected to get called up as a starter or bullpen contributor at some point this season. However, the 23-year-old righty suffered strained right lat in June, and the organization chose to shut him down as a precaution.
Even with the renewed focus down on the farm, it’s unlikely any of these pitchers performs at a high level in the majors while the Cubs’ core is completely intact. Alzolay might have the most talent to be a major league starter by next year, but it could take a full season or more before his full potential is untapped.
The front office could trade for young, major league starters or highly touted pitching prospects. The rise of guys like David Bote allow the Cubs to possibly dangle names like Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber or Ian Happ over the winter.
However, whether a solution or two emerges in the farm system or via trade, the recent acquisitions create a major headache in terms of flexibility. The current starting staff hogs up a lot of remaining years and money after the season.
- Yu Darvish: Five years, $101 million
- Jon Lester: Three years, $72.5 million
- Tyler Chatwood: Two years, $25.5 million
- Jose Quintana: Two years, $21 million ($1 million club buyout for 2019-20)
- Kyle Hendricks: Two years of arbitration eligibility
- Cole Hamels: One year, $20 million ($6 million club buyout via Rangers)
That doesn’t include Mike Montgomery, who has three years of arbitration left. He’s been a serviceable starter in this year, but he fills a better void as a long reliever or spot starter.
Barring any unforeseen circumstances, Hendricks, Quintana and Lester are locks to return in 2019, and Darvish’s contract guarantees him a starting spot if healthy. Chatwood’s poor performance means he’ll likely be gone. Whether he’s dealt for a low prospect or released, the Cubs will have to eat a major portion of his contract.
That’s what makes the Darvish-Chatwood scenario frustrating. Both were viewed as solutions beyond this year, but they’ve managed to change the narrative about five months into their tenure.
Instead, the undynamic duo intensifies the lack of pitching options. A big trade in the offseason or the emergence of a minor leaguer can change things quickly. But for now, we can chalk it up as a rare loss among a countless number of wins.