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Cubs: Way-too-Early Projections for the 2019 Pitching Staff

With the Cubs out of playoff contention, it's never too early to look at projections for 2019. Daniel Shepard does just that by breaking down the pitching projections here.

With the World Series upon us and the Chicago Cubs’ season officially over after their one-game exit from the postseason, it’s never too early to look ahead at 2019.

Despite 95 wins, the 2018 Cubs largely underachieved based on the World Series-or-bust goals that were set forth at the beginning of the season. A multi-game divisional lead at the All-Star break gave way to a tieĀ atop the NL Central after 162 games. That tie was brought forth due to the Cubs’ offensive struggles down the stretch as they posted the 10th lowest team wRC+ (89) during the second half. For perspective, the Milwaukee Brewers logged the third best mark in the league across that same time span, helping them finish the season on an eight game winning streak, including the decisive Game 163 at Wrigley Field.

While their lackluster offense struggled to provide any sort of value in the second half, the Cubs’ pitching staff kept the team afloat. Post-All-Star break, Chicago’s pitchers posted the fourth best ERA in the NL (3.76), while at the same time racking up 7.4 wins above replacement, the fifth best mark in the league.

To get the job done, the Cubs used 35 pitchers in 2018, including five position players and a slew of Triple-A relievers. The results were good as the Cubs recorded the second best ERA in the NL (3.65) despite tossing the most innings (1,476.1) of any team in the league.

With their offense in flux after a disappointing 2018 season, the Cubs seemingly already have their 2019 rotation set. Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish will likely be the five men to fill-out that rotation with the fate of Tyler Chatwood a looming question mark. Additionally, the Cubs will also have Mike Montgomery (barring a trade this off-season) and Jesse Chavez (assuming he is extended a contract this winter) who can also make starts in case of injury.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some way-to-early projections for the 2019 pitching staff courtesy of Baseball Reference.

Starting Rotation Set to Have Another Solid Season

As mentioned above, the Cubs have a good problem in front of them heading into 2019 concerning their pitching staff. They currently have seven pitchers (Hendricks, Lester, Hamels, Quintana, Chatwood, Montgomery and Darvish) who are bona fide starting pitchers. In addition, Drew Smyly is also slated to be healthy in 2019 after missing all of the 2018 season recovering from Tommy John surgery.

While that depth will likely be put to good use, the Cubs are projected to get another great year out of their top-tier starting pitchers.

In 2018, Hendricks led the team with 199 innings pitched, setting a new career high in the process. Despite eating the most innings among Cubs starters, Hendricks came back down to earth following back-to-back outstanding seasons. After posting consecutive years with an ERA-plus north of 140 (including his 196 mark in 2016), Hendricks posted a 125 mark in 2018. While still an above average number, the right-hander’s ERA ticked up to 3.44 while his strikeouts per nine rate fell to its lowest point since Hendricks’ rookie season (7.3).

Nevertheless, Hendricks has progressed into a front-end-of-the-rotation-type starting pitcher after logging a 2.86 ERA over his last three seasons. That, combined with Lester’s increasing age and uncertainty around Darvish’s health, has set Hendricks up for a potential break-out 2019 season.

According to projections, Hendricks will lead the Cubs with 173 innings pitched in 2019, beating out fellow rotation mates Cole Hamels (170), Jon Lester (169) and Jose Quintana (166). Perhaps more intriguing, these projections also suggest Hendricks will post the best ERA among Cubs starting pitchers at 3.33, a number that would rank fourth on the team in 2019.

The solid numbers do not stop with Hendricks, a welcomed sign for the Cubs as they move toward an uncertain future.

Hamels, the Cubs’ mid-season flyer pick-up is projected to have a respectable season in 2019. After posting a 2.36 ERA across 12 starts for the Cubs during the second half of 2018, the left-hander is likely to get a multi-year contract extension. Currently, Hamels will make $20 million if the Cubs pick-up his club option for next season. However, the Texas Rangers agreed to supply the $6 million necessary to buy-out that option, setting the Cubs up nicely to extend a two- or three-year deal to a postseason tested veteran.

It’s a good thing the Cubs added Hamels last season because he figures to far-and-away be an upgrade over Chatwood in the 2019 rotation. The projections suggest Hamels will toss 170 innings (perhaps a little light), and post a solid 3.92 ERA while leading the team in batters faced at 717. Despite the solid ERA, the projections seem to think Hamels will have trouble with the long ball next season.

For his career, Hamels owns a home run per nine rate of 1.0 after posting a 1.4 mark in 2018 (0.7 with the Cubs). In 2019, Hamels is slated to allow 23 home runs, a mark that would lead the team, posting a 1.2 HR/9 along the way. Despite that, Hamels is projected to once again post solid peripheral numbers. While his 21.6 percent projected strikeout rate and 8.6 walk rate are headed in the wrong direction from the numbers he posted in 2018, that is to be expected with a pitcher entering his age 35 season, and is still, quite frankly, an upgrade over Chatwood.

In 2019, it seems Hendricks and Hamels could very well lead the Cubs rotation. With Lester and Quintana also slated to have good seasons (3.67 and 3.96 ERA’s respectively), the starting staff could once again be a strong point of this team.

For much of the 2018 season, the starting staff was just that, a strength of a club that came within one game of winning their second straight division title. Their 3.84 ERA was the 10th best in the majors while their 20.4 percent strikeout rate ranked 17th in the league. Additionally, the Cubs’ starters struggled with the free pass, posting the fourth highest walk rate during 2018 (9.3 percent), ranking behind the Chicago White Sox, Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins.

The Cubs’ struggles with the free pass lead to the starting staff ranking toward the middle of the pack with 888 innings pitched, a number that likely caused the bullpen to work overtime at points during the season. For 2019, the overall numbers for the starting rotation look promising. Hendricks, Hamels, Quintana, Lester, Montgomery, Chatwood and Darvish are slated to post a 3.85 ERA, suggesting the bulk of starts in 2019 will be quality ones from one of these seven pitchers.

Of course, it’s likely the Cubs will have to employ more than seven pitchers to make a start in 2019, but those players mentioned above are projected to eat 1,011 innings in 2019, a number that would be a welcomed sign for the bullpen.

The Bullpen Doesn’t Look Bad Either

Speaking of the bullpen, the Cubs employed more than 20 different relievers in 2018 to pitch the 12th most innings (588.1) in the majors. The results for that group were outstanding as they posted the second best ERA (3.35) in the game, behind only the Houston Astros.

Even though the bullpen shared in the rotation’s struggles to record strikeouts, ranking 18th in K/9 (8.63), they finished seventh with a left-on-base percentage of 76.4 percent and a ground ball rate of 45.3 percent. Additionally, the Cubs’ relievers led the league with a HR/9 rate of 0.78 while at the same time posting the fourth highest BB/9 (4.18) in the game.

The men leaned upon the most in 2018 were Steve Cishek (80 appearances), Justin Wilson (71 appearances), Pedro Strop (60 appearances), Carl Edwards Jr. (58 appearances) and Brian Duensing (48 appearances).

Of those five names, three of them ranked in the top-five best ERA’s on the team in 2018 among qualified players (Cishek, Strop and Edwards). Cishek, who will be entering the final year of his two-year pact with the Cubs in 2019, posted the second best season of his career by ERA-plus. The side-winding right-hander logged a 197 mark in 2018, working to a 2.18 ERA while at the same time posting a strikeout rate solidly above his career average.

In 2018 for the Cubs, Cishek was a reliever with a long track record that could be trusted and he lived up to that expectation. Jesse Chavez, a 35-year-old right-hander the Cubs picked up from the Rangers mid-season was more of a flyer option.

Since breaking into the league in 2008, Chavez has not seen much success, but across 32 appearances for the Cubs last season, the right-hander still showed he has plenty left in the tank. The veteran worked to a 1.15 ERA in pinstripes, posting a 29.4 percent strikeout rate and an almost-not-existent 3.5 percent walk rate in 39 innings pitched. For his career, Chavez has never been a pitcher to walk many batters (7.4 percent career walk rate), but to halve that number and increase his punch outs by almost 10 percent could be a reason to extend him a contract in 2019.

If the Cubs decide to do that (and things look favorable), the projections don’t have the signing working out very well. Across 91 innings, the projections suggest Chavez will log a 4.05 ERA and fall more in-line with his career numbers by posting a 21.9 percent strikeout rate and 7.1 percent walk rate.

While not terrible peripheral numbers, Chavez is also slated to allow 1.4 home runs per nine innings, a number that would outpace his career average of 1.3 and double the 0.7 mark he posted in his time with the Cubs last season. Still, signing Chavez would likely be a cheap endeavor considering his age and past performances, so taking another flyer on him might not be a bad idea.

As for the other top arms in the Cubs’ bullpen, they are all projected to have nice seasons. Cishek, Brandon Morrow and Strop are suggested to lead the team with ERA’s south of 3.30 while Edwards is set to pace the team with a 10.6 K/9 rate across 58 innings.

One name that appears at the top of almost every category is Justin Wilson. The southpaw bounced back from posting a 5.09 ERA across 23 appearances with the Cubs in 2017 to posting a 3.46 mark in 71 contests for the club in 2018. Despite struggling with the free pass as a Cub (20.9 percent walk rate last season and 14 percent mark this year), Wilson has been above his career average in the strikeout department.

Those trends are not set to change in 2019 as the projections have the left-hander posting a 26.5 percent strikeout rate and 10.8 percent walk rate. The only thing that will likely change next season is the team Wilson plays for as he is set to become a free agent this winter.

Right now, the Cubs have a pretty solid group of eight relievers that include Morrow, Randy Rosario (remember him?), Edwards, Strop, Smyly, Cishek, Chavez and Duensing. However, there are holes in that group as Rosario (4.04 ERA across 49 innings) and Duensing (4.68 ERA across 50 innings) are not projected to have good seasons. Couple that with the fact that Smyly is surrounded with questions after missing a full season and it becomes clear the Cubs need another left-handed, high-leverage reliever.

Does that void get filled by Wilson? Or perhaps another big name like Andrew Miller or Zach Britton? Only time will tell on that front, but for right now, the projections suggest that group of relievers will post a 3.76 ERA in 2019 and eat 479 combined innings. That first number would have ranked 10th in the majors during 2018. Additionally, the Cubs’ relievers are slated to produce a slight uptick in their strikeout rate in 2019, increasing from 22.6 percent to 23.3 percent next season while at the same time cutting their walk rate more than two percentage points to 8.8 percent from the 11 percent mark posted in 2018.

As a Cubs fan, I can tell you, seeing a decrease in that second number will be received with open arms, especially after all the free passes in 2018.

Of course, all these numbers are projections as nothing is set in stone for 2019. If 2018 was any indicator, whatever can happen, will happen, it just boils down to which team can handle adversity the best. More often than not, the team that does that will walk away with the World Series trophy. The Cubs did that two years ago, and with a solid pitching staff on tap for 2019, they will look to do it again.

Follow Daniel Shepard on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: NGSC Sports

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