Throughout most of the season, the Chicago Cubs’ starting rotation has failed to live up to their billing. A combination of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Yu Darvish, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood was supposed to be a strength of this year’s club, helping them reach their fourth straight NLCS. That, however, has not been the case up until this point.
Despite sitting at a comfortable 71-52 on August 20 with a 3.5 game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers, the starting rotation has done little to contribute to that winning record. What was once touted as one of the best rotations in Cubs’ history has posted the 15th best ERA (4.14) this season. While that number could be much worse if not for a strong first half from Lester, that ranks the Cubs behind teams like the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Mets who are firmly out of contention. To make matters worse, the Brewers own the game’s 11th best starter’s ERA despite their many injuries this season.
Earned run average is not the only thing the Cubs’ staff is lacking in this year. As a group, the rotation has logged 661 inning this season. That number ranks 24th in baseball, only ahead of teams that are nowhere near playoff-caliber clubs. An inability to eat innings like in recent years has taxed a bullpen that has largely held up this year and emerged as one of the strengths for the Cubs in 2018.
While the play of the bullpen is an encouraging sign for the Cubs’ postseason hopes, the starting rotation has yet to fully click. Their last turn through the rotation resulted in Lester and newly acquired Cole Hamels combining to throw 13 innings of scoreless baseball in back-to-back 1-0 wins. Those performances, however, were surrounded by lackluster efforts by Hendricks (six innings, four earned runs) and Chatwood (two innings, three earned runs, three walks), with Quintana lasting just five innings on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
That less-than-stellar effort for the back-end of the rotation only continued to highlight the need to get Darvish back on the mound. Even with the Cubs sitting atop their division, getting the right-hander back would be like the Houston Astros adding Justin Verlander on August 31 last season.
For three months now, the Cubs have attempted to get Darvish healthy. Since May 20, the right-hander has been on the DL with right triceps tendinitis and an elbow impingement. After throwing a handful of simulated games over the last couple of weeks, the $126 million offseason addition seemed poised to make the first of three rehab starts with Class-A South Bend.
The plan was for Darvish to throw three innings or 50-60 pitches. Instead, the right-hander exited after throwing less than 20 pitches, making it through just one frame. The reason for the early departure was more pain in Darvish’s arm/elbow area, the same pain/discomfort that caused a setback in June.
Yu said he felt something similar to last rehab start. Instead of pitching through it, he stopped. He’s requesting an MRI but obviously doesn’t know anything yet.
— jon greenberg (@jon_greenberg) August 19, 2018
That something similar in June resulted in an elbow impingement, the culprit behind the last two months of sim games and throwing programs.
Darvish’s Setback Comes at a Bad Time
Since the Cubs’ prized offseason signing was placed on the DL in May, Mike Montgomery has been holding down his rotation spot. Montgomery, who was used extensively as a starter earlier in his career, voiced his wish to be in the starting rotation even before the regular season began.
The issues with Darvish’s health this season has opened the door for the left-hander to show what he can do every fifth day. Currently, the southpaw is sitting on 13 starts this season with a sparkling 3.08 ERA. Without Montgomery filling in for Darvish and doing it well, who knows where the Cubs would be at this point in the season.
With that being said, the Cubs will have to figure out how to survive without the southpaw, at least for the short-term. On Friday afternoon, the news was passed down that Montgomery would be joining Darvish on the disabled list with left shoulder inflammation.
The placement of Montgomery on the 10-day DL makes one wonder if the Cubs skipped Montgomery’s last start in an effort to avoid this step. Last week, the Cubs used their off-days to work around the left-hander in the rotation to try to keep him fresh as he approaches a career-high in innings (currently at 99.1).
The Cubs Have a Hole to Fill
Montgomery’s DL stint was made retroactive to August 14 which means the left-hander would be eligible to make his return at the same time his next turn through the rotation comes up on the 24th. While that would be the best case scenario, it does not seem likely that will be taking place.
With Montgomery out of the rotation, the Cubs turned to Chatwood to make a spot start on Saturday. Since the addition of Hamels to the rotation, the struggling Chatwood has been relegated to mop-up bullpen duty. Even in that role, Chatwood had problems, posting a 6.35 ERA in 5.2 innings. On Saturday, in his return to the rotation, Chatwood once again failed to impress, lasting just two innings while giving up three earned runs and three free passes.
If Montgomery does miss his next outing, it’s possible the Cubs turn to another option to make the start. Currently, the Cubs have two pitchers in their bullpen with experience starting games, Jesse Chavez and Jorge De La Rosa. Depending on how the three games between now and Friday are played, De La Rosa and Chavez could each get three innings of work with Randy Rosario also available to pitch multiple innings.
Not an Ideal Situation
Still a week-plus before roster’s expand, the Cubs are limited in their options with Montgomery’s spot in the rotation. For that reason, it is entirely possible the Cubs call on their bullpen to continue to pick up the slack.
If that were to happen, it would perfectly sum up a season in which the Cubs have battled injuries for much of the year while remaining the team to beat in the National League.
Just a handful of days ago, the return of Darvish seemed right around the corner. Getting a proven veteran back would have beefed up the Cubs’ rotation, giving them a one through three of Lester, Hamels and Darvish that would give teams fits in the playoffs. Now, with Darvish seemly done for this season and Montgomery on the DL, the Cubs must scramble to find enough arms to even reach the postseason.
Here’s to hoping Montgomery’s injury will not keep him out long, but with the Cubs’ luck this season in dealing with shoulder inflammation, things don’t look good.
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