Though the common thinking has been that Marcus Stroman would follow Kyle Hendricks in the Cubs’ rotation order, manager David Ross told the media Monday that lefty Justin Steele would slot between the two. Rather than an indictment of Stroman’s ability, this is about alternating right-left-right and probably back to left if Drew Smyly is the fourth starter.
Besides, it’s not like the order of the rotation really matters that much unless rest or the postseason allows a team to set its best pitchers up for a series. And with Milwaukee’s murderer’s row of starters, the Cubs aren’t getting much breathing room no matter who’s out there. With all that in mind, there is one more reason it makes sense to bump Steele to that second slot.
Cubs starters had an average fastball velocity of just 89.9 mph last season, easily the lowest in MLB and one of the lower marks in baseball across the last several years. Hendricks ran his heater up there at a whopping 87.3 mph and Stroman matched his career-low with 92 mph last season, while Steele was over 93 mph and may be closer to 95 early in the year with adrenaline going.
That gives an extra layer of differentiation, small though it may be, in addition to handedness. Smyly’s velo is very similar to Stroman’s and Mills is under 90 mph, so setting things up as they presumably will is an attempt to squeeze the most out of a rotation that still has an abject lack of power arms. That’s not a product of injuries either, as Wade Miley‘s fastball sits under 90 as well and Adbert Alzolay is only at 94 mph.
Assuming those two take over for Smyly and Mills — Smills? — the rotation will gain a slight increase in oomph while maintaining the R-L-R-L-R configuration. The search for extra leverage will extend to the bullpen, where Ross is going to have to use piggybacks, long relievers, and different arm angles to get through at least the first few weeks of the season.
Expect to see that on full display when the Cubs reach the back of the rotation, as neither Mills nor Smyly has gone three innings in any of their five combined starts. Even if either of them manages to push their respective counts a little higher in the last two spring games, Ross has to expect to cover at least five innings with relievers when they get their first real starts.
If nothing else, the manager is going to get his steps in each game.