Will Most Expensive Rotation in Cubs History Get Job Done?
Including depth arms Mike Montgomery and Tyler Chatwood, the Cubs have invested more than $100 million in their 2019 rotation. Compare this to the Dodgers’ $80 million, the Red Sox $75 million (not including re-signing free agent Nathan Eovaldi) and the Yankees’ $60 million (including Sony Gray for now).
It’s basically a Lloyd’s of London insurance policy without the resulting peace of mind.
That’s because the 2018 rotation was quite the mixed bag. There was Yu Darvish’s injury, Chatwood’s strike-zone allergies, Kyle Hendricks’ first-inning yips (6.82 ERA) and lots of ups and downs elsewhere. The result: the 11th fewest quality starts (66) in the National League, as compared to the rotation’s 100 in 2016.
And yet, the rotation still had its moments. Jon Lester posted that All-Star first half. Hendricks put up a 2.84 second half. Jose Quintana went 2.13 against the Brewers, and Cole Hamels had a career month in August.
So how do we handicap this $100 million group for 2019? Can they be worth at least 80 cents on the dollar and outduel Los Angeles? Or will they require another Herculean bail-out by the bullpen? Heading into the Winter Meetings, here’s an early starter-by-starter review:
Ever since that 2012 deadline deal made him a Cub, Hendricks has been my favorite pitcher to track. This was largely because I’ve long felt high velocity and K-rates are way over-valued to the detriment of command pitchers with great WHIPs like Hendricks and Aaron Nola.
But despite my cheerleading of Hendricks, I remain impatient for his next great leap forward. After all, while his 2016 was impressive (2.13 ERA and 0.979 WHIP), his 190 innings fell short of true workhorse-ace status.
After a frustrating and injury-limited 2017, Hendricks in 2018 finally halted a rising pitch inefficiency to handle a 199 innings. Despite an inconsistent first half, he cut his pitches-per-batters-faced rate from a career-high 4.0 in 2017 to 3.76. This refreshingly meant more pitching to contact and fewer walks. For instance, he threw 18 percent fewer full-count pitches than during his breakthrough 2016, even while throwing 200 more pitches.
Pinpoint command was his biggest issue in the first half, but this returned just ahead of the break. Interestingly, Hendricks has noted a tendency to feel stronger as a season goes on, but this slow-start concept also applies to his poor first innings the past two seasons. If he can figure this out and top 200 innings in 2019, Hendricks could find himself back in Cy Young contention.
Soon to be 35, Lester is no longer the team ace or a 200-inning pitcher. Despite a quality bounceback in 2018, he’s now posted back-to-back seasons of 180.2 and 181.2 innings, with FIPs over 4.00 and WHIPs over 1.3. So the question is no longer whether he is in gradual decline, but how well he can moderate the year-to-year drop-off.
Still, his 2018 featured way more good than bad. His veteran guile produced a 2.58 ERA first half, followed by a very weak July and August (6.15 ERA combined). He then capped his regular season by winning four of his last five starts before allowing just one run in the team’s 2-1 Wild Card defeat.
No longer able to consistently challenge hitters inside, Lester now wears down hitters (and himself) by going very deep in counts. This means fewer deep starts, regularly walking hitters rather than giving in, and a steady diet of jams to escape. In fact, Lester threw twice as many full-count pitches as Hendricks (228 to 112) in 2018. And of these, a whopping 37 percent were fouled off, versus Hendricks’ 26 percent rate.
Without as much swing-and-miss in his game, Lester is indeed traipsing a high wire. But does he have at least one more 180-inning regular season and a great postseason left in him? Or will he drop off from savvy No. 2 to a stolid No. 3? The odds probably say the latter, but since this guy knows how to pace himself through a game and a season, let’s hope he can keep them guessing one more year.
He’s both the biggest key and biggest wildcard. If fully over his injury – that vaguely named “stress reaction” that eventually required an arthroscopic cleanup – he brings true power-starter stuff. This is especially useful given the rest of the rotation being otherwise lower-velocity arms.
Never an especially streaky pitcher in his career, a healthy Darvish usually pitches well two out of every three starts. This won’t put him in Cy Young contention, but the 2016 rotation showed that boring, quality consistency can be its own virtue.
But if not healthy, the rotation’s margin for error shrinks to zero, and Theo Epstein may once again need to hunt for a rotation piece at the trade deadline.
If we’re being pedantic, it’s not entirely accurate to call Hamels’ August with the Cubs a “revelation” as some have. A true revelation is a surprising, hidden fact. This would mean we should expect more of the same from Hamels in 2019. But that was a career month for Hamels, so clearly we shouldn’t.
Further, we shouldn’t expect $20 million in pitching value from him at age 35, especially with a 3.1 BB/9 walk rate. (But as Theo Epstein says, “There are no bad one-year contracts.”) Still, Hamels did throw 190 total innings last year, and a repeat of that kind of workload from the back end of the rotation has value even if his ERA ends up closer to 4.00 than 3.00.
But if Hamels reverts to his latter Texas years, let’s hope he’s the only starter that does. After all, a contending staff usually can afford no more than one No. 5 starter at a time.
The trend lines aren’t great for Quintana, who set career highs for HR/9 (1.3) and BB/9 (3.5) this past season. He also posted his highest WHIP (1.319) and fewest innings (174.1) since his rookie season.
But if you wish to stay hopeful, pray he’s just stuck in a little mid-contract-extension ennui. With two years left before free agency (including a 2020 team option), now would be ideal for him to gear back up and start pushing toward a big multi-year free agency deal.
Can the two-pitch lefty find his precision again and return to his solid South Side form? Or should we expect him to remain a healthy No. 4 or 5 pitcher, with postseason value as a bullpen piece?
The NBA gives awards to sixth men, but a sixth starter is the equivalent of a safety net – that option you hope you never need to turn. Montgomery began his Cubs tenure as a swingman, but made a name for himself by outpitching Cleveland’s Andrew Miller in the 2016 World Series, even registering a save and the final out of Game 7.
Even so, Montgomery has never warmed to being a bullpen hero. Despite no sustained success in a rotation above A-ball, he sees himself as a starter first. Until last year, his pattern was usually one good start followed by a bad one. He tweaked this script in 2018 by alternating between good and bad months. Thus by the end of 2018, he remained that 3.70-4.00 ERA starter who averages five innings.
It’s a pity he never took to the glories of back-end bullpen work. This leaves him as just a better-than-average depth starter. But if no one ahead of him goes down this year, will his old grumbles return to try forcing a trade?
At this point, he represents the Cubs’ most expensive free-agent pitcher flop ever. He’s in effect cost the team $60 million, which exceeds Edwin Jackson’s four-year $52 million cost. That’s $38 million for Chatwood’s three-year contract, plus $2 million for two months of Cole Hamels last year and $20 million more to pick up Hamels’ 2019 option to replace Chatwood as fifth starter.
It’s beyond me to suggest how to fix him, since he actually performs better the more walks he threw (4.08 ERA when walking five or more). For when he does slow things down and go for greater command in 2018, he got shellacked (6.35 ERA when issuing four or fewer walks). If he ever gets to start again, he’ll remain my most likely candidate to throw a Joe Cowley no-hitter (seven walks).
So barring a rotation-crippling injury, the best we should hope from Chatwood is his controlling his Aerobie pitches long enough to take over Eddie Butler’s long-relief role in blowouts and extra innings.
Looking at rotation slots one to four, you have to like each pitcher’s ceiling and love their collective playoff experience. But at the same time, this rotation could be just as up and down as it was in 2018, especially if Darvish’s elbow issues persist.
Rumors that the Cubs may trade for Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto add intrigue to the situation. Given how much of the Cubs’ rotation lives on the edges of the strike zone, having a stronger pitch framer would certainly result in more strikes, fewer walks, and deeper starts.
Unfortunately, Realmuto’s pitch-framing numbers don’t suggest he’s that guy. Also changing catchers won’t necessarily fix what’s wrong with the offense, but the idea of switching to a strong pitch framer would be a very bold move to maximize production from an expensive, can’t-fail starting staff.