Six Appeal: Will Cubs Go with Expanded Rotation When Darvish Returns?

Yu Darvish threw 51 pitches to Ian Happ and Tommy La Stella in a three-inning simulated game prior to the Cubs’ win over the Dodgers Wednesday afternoon. Mike Montgomery went six innings and allowed a lone run for the fourth consecutive start after going 5.2 and allowing only two hits and no runs in his first start of the season. Tyler Chatwood…well, he is being paid to start and his control problems don’t really scream “High-leverage reliever!”

There’s never been any question about Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, or Jose Quintana, which means the Cubs are looking at six guys for what has traditionally been five spots. That hasn’t been a problem with Darvish on the DL over the last month, but he could head out on a rehab assignment as soon as Monday and could rejoin the rotation by early July.

Montgomery was declared the “sixth starter” this spring and worked mainly with the rest of the guys in the rotation with the understanding that he’d make several starts even if everyone else remained healthy. All he’s done since assuming Darvish’s spot is go 2-1 with a 1.21 ERA over five starts, essentially forcing Joe Maddon’s hand when it comes to where to put Montgomery when Darvish returns.

“What he’s doing is setting us up for the rest of the year and himself for the rest of the year,” Maddon said of Montgomery’s performance.

Most fans will tell you they’d just as soon see Chatwood and his 8.30 BB/9 moved into a less prominent role, though that doesn’t really hold much water when you think about it. As mentioned above, putting a high-walk guy in there for shorter stints isn’t necessarily good for him or the team. And when you get right down to it, Chatwood has pitched about as well as you could expect from a fifth starter.

If you expected more from him, like that he’d be a third No. 3 or something, you might want to recalibrate your wishes and gain some new perspective on the matter. As frustrating as it is to watch Chatwood match each strikeout with a walk, he’s a little below league average in ERA (3.95) and largely makes up for his free passes by generating tons of groundball contact (55.9 percent) and keeping the ball in the yard (0.53 HR/9).

In other words, he doesn’t beat himself even though he seems like he should be beating himself. Or at least he doesn’t absolutely annihilate himself every single time out there despite all the walks. There’s a sense — or maybe it’s just my pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking — that Chatwood can figure some things out and really take off.

Monty, on the other hand, appears due for some serious regression. I mean, maybe he can keep up the 1.21 ERA that’s only around one-third of his 3.50 FIP and nearly one-quarter of his 4.22 xFIP. Maybe that really nice 6.9 percent home run-per-fly ball rate stays five points below his career average and around six points below league average this year. Maybe he goes six innings every time out to help save the bullpen he was once a part of.

Whether Chatwood and Montgomery continue to pitch exactly as they have or make respective regressions back toward their means, it makes sense for the Cubs to keep them both in the rotation for a while even after Darvish comes back. Even with perfect health moving forward, the long season still has a few tricks up its sleeve.

Consider that the two starters in question took the mound in Tuesday’s double-header games, meaning that Sunday is the first day either could pitch on regular rest. As of post time, both weekend starters in Cincinnati are TBD and the Cubs still have seven more games in as many days after departing the Queen City.

We’ll probably see Johnny Wholestaff on Saturday — which, yay, that’s the game I’m going to — with Chatwood or Montgomery taking the Sunday start. Lester is lined up to take the first game of the Dodgers series out in LA, but he could be bumped back to get a little extra rest. And that’s the real key here.

With the Cubs playing solid baseball, it’s incumbent upon Maddon to ensure that everyone is ready to go when the games matter most. And though the last few games in Chicago were played in cooler-than-average temps, it’s gonna be hot as hell over the next two months. Then you consider how they might want to ease Darvish back into things once he returns. I wrote about his overall mental approach and how that factors into his performance thus far, not to mention two DL stints.

Stringing the rotation out just a little longer could be a good thing for everyone involved. Then again, pitchers are notorious creatures of habit and might not respond well to getting too many days off. Would a six-man rotation throw their routines off too much and negate any positive effects of extra rest? I doubt it, but it’s something to consider.

In the end, I expect Maddon to stick with a bigger rotation for a couple turns after Darvish comes back. That will allow them to ride Montgomery’s hot hand, ensure Darvish has his feet under him, and perhaps keep everyone fresh through the All-Star break and into the second half. Then perhaps they shift Montgomery back to the bullpen to preserve him for the stretch run. Yes, even if he’s still pitching really well.

“The other thing about Monty you have to understand is how many innings has he pitched historically, and you got to be careful with that, too,” Maddon admitted recently.

The lefty has previously pitched more than the 130.2 innings he threw for the Cubs last year, but most of that was in the minors. He logged 150.2 frames for the Royals’ AAA affiliate in 2011 and then combined for 149.2 across AA and AAA the following season. He then went 155.1 for the Mariners organization in 2015, but only 90 of those were in the bigs.

With 18 relief appearances prior to his current starting stint, Monty’s not in danger of putting up 200 innings or anything, but he’s already at 55 right now. No reason to push things in July only to end up fatigued in October. And if there’s one thing you have to give Maddon all the credit in the world for, it’s knowing how to balance his players’ rest.

Though his real-time pitching decisions leave a bit to be desired, the Cubs skipper is a master when it comes to playing the long game. That what we’re going to see with the rotation, though we may not know exactly how it’ll play out for a while yet.

“It’s a big-picture thing,” Maddon explained. “You wait, wait, wait, and then you make your best call.”

Even if everyone remains healthy from here on out, you figure Montgomery will continue to pick up occasional starts even if he’s not part of the regular rotation. And if there are any injuries, he’s right back in there as an able replacement. Given the inevitability of little nicks and general fatigue, he figures to see plenty of time as a starter either way.

Now, what happens come playoff time (if the Cubs get to that point again, of course) and Maddon needs to whittle things down to only four starters? That, my friends, is when it’s really going to get interesting.

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