The Chicago Cubs starting pitching was about as dominant as it gets in 2016, heading into 2017 what can Cubs fans expect to see on the bump?
The Cubs starting pitching was nothing short of dominant in 2016. They led the MLB in runs allowed per game at 3.43, a full 0.35 ahead of the second place Washington Nationals, and 1.05 ahead of the league average. They tied for the most quality starts with the Toronto Blue Jays at 100 (a whopping 62% of all games).
The main difference between the starting pitching on the North Side and the starting pitching everywhere else, was the number of pitchers used. The five starters pegged at the beginning of the year (Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, John Lackey, and Jason Hammel) stayed injury free for the majority of the season, and started 152 of the 162 games.
The Cubs were actually the last team to use a sixth starting pitcher in 2016 (it wasn’t until July 6, when Adam Warren was placed in the rotation for one game to give the others some rest). This reliance on a solid five for the duration of an entire season is very rare, and in this case, was very successful.
Four of the five will be returning for 2017, with Hammel being the odd man out. The Cubs had the option to keep Hammel around, but decided to let him test the waters in free agency. The move was a surprise to many as there really was no reason to let him go, but, showing a humane side rarely seen in the business world, the front office let Hammel make the decision himself as to whether to stay or go.
Of the four starters sticking around, three are arguably aces. Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester are the top two in the rotation, and led the entire National League in ERA in 2016, (Hendricks coming in first at 2.13 with Lester right behind at 2.44). The former Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta rounds out the front end of the rotation. He struggled in 2016 at times, but he continued to show flashes of his brilliance that was on full display the second half of 2015. The dominance of this front three was unrivaled last year and is sure to continue in 2017. There’s no definite way to tell who will be the first, second, and third starter at the beginning of the year, and it won’t really matter, as Joe Maddon switches up the rotation many times throughout the year.
The 38-year-old John Lackey is also returning for 2017, though it is the last year of his contract. Lackey pitched to a 3.35 ERA in 2016, better than his career average and far greater than the average for a fourth starter. It is unlikely the Cubs will get the same performance from Lackey again for 2017, but he’s a proven workhorse that will continue to be a solid middle-of-the-rotation guy that we will see throughout the duration of next season.
The fifth starter’s spot is the only one with which there is some uncertainty. It was Hammel’s spot last year, and Mike Montgomery is slated to take it over in the upcoming months. Montgomery was acquired from the Seattle Mariners in July of last year, and despite some early struggles, found his groove with the Cubs, and ended with a very nice 2.82 ERA. Joe Maddon clearly trusts him as well, as Montgomery was an absolute workhorse during the World Series.
He pitched in five of the seven games, tied for the most with Aroldis Chapman, and only gave up one run the entire time. He also started five games in 2016 as both the backup to an injured Lackey, and to give Lester some rest in September. There is some concern over his ability to start for an entire season, as 2017 will merely be his third season in the big leagues, but if his sophomore year is any indication, Montgomery could be a hidden gem.
That being said, finding a new fifth starter could prove very beneficial, as having Montgomery saved for the later innings solidifies the bullpen (which I will preview at a later date this month). The Cubs have been connected multiple times to Tyson Ross, a former all-star who was surprisingly non-tendered by the San Diego Padres earlier this offseason. The Cubs are interested in Ross, and he has already been given a tour of Wrigley Field, but he is highly sought after as pretty much every team could use more starting pitching and Ross stands out in a weak free agent class.
The reason Ross is still unclaimed is that he is currently recovering from a slew of injuries that kept him from almost the entire 2016 season (he started on Opening Day, gave up 7 earned runs in 5 1/3 innings, and that was it) and probably will not be healthy in time for the beginning of the 2017 season. Signing him will be a massive risk, but he has the potential to be an elite arm.
There is also the remote possibility that the Cubs sign Hammel again, as Hammel hasn’t been receiving much attention from other teams to this point. The Cubs’ front office did something similar last offseason, shockingly re-signing Dexter Fowler after he became a free agent and didn’t receive the offers he was expecting from other teams.
A huge reason to sign a fifth starter is depth. The Cubs are still very short in that department. Nobody in their pen is a proven starter and they are lacking in terms of pitching prospects, especially prospects who are ready to pitch at the MLB level. The 24-year-old Rob Zastryzny is really the only pitcher, at this point, that can be considered starting depth. He was called up last year and excelled, giving up only two earned runs over 16 innings of work. He was even a part of the Cubs’ NLCS roster, but was never used. Despite his obvious preparedness, Theo Epstein and Co. have decided to begin the season with Zastryzny at Triple-A Iowa to stretch him out into a starter.
Even if the Cubs can’t grab a fifth starter, they are still going to have one of the best starting rotations in Major League Baseball (if not the best). The elite front end of Hendricks, Lester, and Arrieta, the reliable veteran Lackey, and the young up-and-comers of Zastryzny and Montgomery will be enough to keep the Cubs one of the best teams in the MLB.