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Analysis Cubs

Cubs Position Preview: Starting Pitchers

With Spring Training upon us, Austin Bloomberg takes a look at the Cubs' starting rotation.

With pitchers and catchers reporting to camp this week it’s finally time to return focus to the promise of baseball. Leaving behind the frustrations of 2018 and looking forward to 2019 isn’t the easiest thing to do, but you don’t have to look too hard to see a team that’s well intact — despite another round of coaching changes and a general disinterest in a robust free agent market. We’ve already covered this year’s catcher situation, so let’s dig in to the Starting Pitching before they report to Arizona on the 12th.

(Disclaimer: Fans deserve answers concerning Joe Ricketts’ racist emails and Addison Russell‘s presence on the team. These will be featured in an upcoming article.)

While the 2018 season was an overall disappointment (despite a 95-win season and fourth straight playoff appearance), the starting pitching remained a relative strength. Even with injuries and otherwise outright disappointing seasons from free agent acquisitions Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood, the rotation managed to sport the sixth best ERA in the National League. The rotation was better in the second half, buttressed by the trade acquisition of Cole Hamels, who anchored the rotation immediately upon arrival. Certainly, last season hardly produced numbers that would classify the rotation as elite, but a consistent group returning — with a hungry mindset — will likely prove to be better in 2019. This is all the more important considering the National League Central as a whole has vastly improved, with the current iteration yielding an almost impossible determination as to which team is favored.

That said, this 2019 rotation poses many questions. Will age finally catch up to Hamels and Jon Lester? Can Darvish stay healthy, and can he return to the dominance that was promised when he signed his mega deal? Is there enough depth to mitigate injuries? Do the Cubs have any funds should the trade deadline require reinforcements?

None of these questions can be answered easily, but we can glean from previous track records what those answers might be. We also know that with health this could be a formidable group — one that may very well rank among the league’s best if all falls into place.

Starting Pitchers with Secured Spots

Jon Lester remains the de facto ace of this team. Since coming over to the Cubs in 2015 he has pitched to the tune of a 3.33 ERA (3.65 FIP) over 770.0 innings, leading a rotation from upstarts in 2015, to champions in 2016, to playoff stalwarts through last year. Toughness and durability are unquestioned: just look at last year’s Wild Card game, where he twirled six innings of one-run ball, amassing nine strikeouts and providing the team with a glimmer of hope in spite of a lost offense. While that loss hurt, it conveyed the truth about our Ace: he’s a gamer, an absolute beast on the mound you can count on when the lights shine brightest.

Lester is the heart of this pitching staff, and even at age 35 there’s little reason to doubt his ability to perform. Even with my unabashed admiration of Kyle Hendricks, Lester is the guy I want toeing the rubber when it matters the most. With a head nod to Andre Dawson, he is the greatest free agent signing in franchise history — and one of the best this city has ever seen.

There may be a slight decline in stuff, as his fastball velocity has slowly if not steadily declined over the past several years. That clearly doesn’t phase Lester, however, as he still used his 91 MPH fastball roughly 50 percent of the time in 2018, combined with a 24.7 percent use of his cutter. He’s not afraid to throw inside to righties, as evidenced below:

Additionally, the Cubs ranked fifth in MLB in fastball usage last year (59.1 percent) and third in cutter usage (10.4 percent), suggesting a pitching philosophy that fits well the strengths and preferences of their ace.

Even with a pitching coach change, little should change by way of a philosophical approach. Tommy Hottovy has been with the organization for quite a while, and his promotion was less about tinkering with approach than it was more precisely exacting the pitching methods this front offices espouses. I think this will favor a solid season for Lester on the mound.

Yes, there’ll be some bumps along the way in 2019, but Jon will put together another campaign worthy of his accomplished career.

2019 Steamer projections according to Fangraphs: 32 GS, 192.0 IP, 3.32 ERA, 170 K, 65 BB

Cole Hamels was everything the Cubs hoped for when they traded for him last summer. Like Lester, Hamels came to the team with quite a pedigree, and down the stretch his rejuvenation was palpable. In 12 starts with the Cubs he pitched an otherworldly 2.36 ERA with a sturdy 1.10 WHIP, limiting opposing hitters to a paltry .223 BAA in 76.1 innings.

That elite performance, coupled with questions surrounding the Cubs’ rotation, prompted the $20 million option to be picked up. One can’t expect Hamels to replicate those numbers over the course of a full season at his age, but it is likely that he puts together a 2019 campaign the Cubs will be happy with.

Counter to Lester, Hamels’ fastball velocity steadily increased over the course of the 2018 campaign, suggesting that even in the twilight of his career he can challenge hitters when appropriate. Like Lester, he’s unafraid to challenge righties inside; unlike Lester, Hamels relies on his curve (13.1 percent in 2018) and changeup (18.8 percent) to keep hitters off-balance — pitches that age well for a competent veteran like Cole. It’s fair to expect his season to mirror what Steamer has laid out for him, though I feel optimistic in suggesting his numbers will be better than what Fangraphs has suggested.

Even at 35 Cole is a legitimate number two. Expect him to perform as such in 2019.

2019 Steamer projections according to Fangraphs: 29 GS, 172.0 IP, 3.94 ERA, 170 K, 60 BB

It’s always suggested you have a grain of salt handy when reading my opinion of Kyle Hendricks. Easily my favorite Cub — and perhaps my favorite pitcher of all-time this side of Greg Maddux and Kerry Wood — Hendricks has been a model of consistency upon his arrival to the big leagues. He has outperformed his projections and peripherals year after year, proving that velocity and pure stuff are hardly a stand-alone when assessing starting pitchers. His ability to control his arsenal should be considered legendary. And while velocity was a concern in 2017, that can be attributed more to the lack of differential in his fastball and changeup than the actual radar reading of the former.

Kyle’s 2018 season, while well above league average (3.44 ERA), is actually shy of his career levels (3.07). In fact, since 2014 he ranks 9th among starting pitchers in ERA that have tossed at least 600 innings. That stat alone suggests he’s characteristically underrated, but it gets even better: Within those same parameters he has the 16th best walk rate (5.8 percent), the eighth best ERA-plus (134), and has allowed the 12th fewest home runs (75). Stuff be damned, Hendricks is an anomaly in a world of high velocity and filthy breaking balls.

Pinpoint control is one thing. Tunneling his fastball and changeup — each maintaining a variety of movement and location — is another thing entirely. With a consistent release point, an ability to command both sides of the plate, and a proven disposition despite the circumstance, Hendricks remains one of the most underrated pitchers in all of baseball. He may “rank” as the Cubs’ third best option as a starter, but he’s a borderline top-of-rotation arm.

I love me some Fangraphs, but once again they are undervaluing one of the best pitchers in the game. Kyle’s best days are likely still ahead of him, and 2019 will prove as much.

2019 Steamer projections according to Fangraphs: 32 GS, 194.0 IP, 4.04 ERA, 161 K, 51 BB

Jose Quintana remains a polarizing figure to Cubs fans. While he has performed at admirable levels since his acquisition from the Sox, the value extracted for his services (Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease) have unduly exacted ace-like expectations. The results of his time as a Cub (4.06 ERA) may leave something to be desired, but he’s a durable arm that can eat innings while giving the rotation a consistency that’s hard to replace.

Similar to his lefty counterparts, Quintana loves to utilize his fastball, and is unafraid to pitch inside to righties. His fastball was the premier pitch of 2018 (68.2 percent), coupled with the occasional curve and rare change. If there is a concern about Jose it’s less about his ability and more about his abnormal HR/9 (1.29) and BB/9 (3.51) tallies last season — both of which were sharply above career norms (0.91 and 2.55 respectively). If both are corrected in 2019 it could be a banner season.

Quintana’s quiet disposition, consistent performance, and high-end ceiling make for a terrific number four starter, giving him the benefit of pitching at the back-end of a rotation that is thoroughly stacked with proven commodities. His projections appear to be satisfactory, even if optimistic.

2019 Steamer projections according to Fangraphs: 32 GS, 186.0 IP, 3.88 ERA, 176 K, 62 BB

To be honest, I never wanted Yu Darvish as a Cub. I felt the money, coupled with the injury history, could be a detriment for the future of this club. Sadly, 2018 only heightened those concerns, even as I warmed to Yu after the signing.

Let’s just throw Darvish’s 2018 out the window. Let’s also let go of the fact that he was tipping his pitches in the 2017 World Series. When healthy and effective, Darvish is an absolute ace — his Rangers career proving as much. Darvish has a career 3.49 ERA in the majors, amassing a 19.4 WAR along the way. Still just 32 years old, there’s a lot left in the tank (health permitting), and one can only imagine how hungry he is after such a disappointing 2018 campaign. Cubs fans let him know their discontent; it’s fair to assume he’s ready to right the ship in 2019.

In limited action in 2018 Yu’s fastball velocity was surprisingly a few ticks higher than his career average (94.1 MPH). Primarily relying on a fastball/sinker/slider combo, he’s at his best when he’s aggressive and ahead in the count, forcing hitters into defending the zone and chasing pitches. He’s perhaps the only starter in the current Cubs’ rotation that can overpower hitters — which would make his presence in 2019 an absolute boon should his health and effectiveness prove true.

To be fair, it’s almost impossible to project how Darvish’s season will go. Let’s hope he’s healthy and locked in; there’s no doubt he’s determined and hungry, and his presence could radically shift the Cubs’ fortunes in 2019.

2019 Steamer projections according to Fangraphs: 24 GS, 139.0 IP, 3.76 ERA, 157 K, 47 BB

Depth Options / Prospects to Keep an Eye on During Spring Training

Outside of Mike Montgomery there’s little depth behind the rotation that merits any confidence. For Monty’s part, he tossed 97.2 innings last year as a starter, netting a more-than-respectable 3.69 ERA. And while I’ve long argued for him to be in the starting mix, that’s clearly not among the plans of this front office. For now, he remains our best lefty out of the ‘pen, and our best #6 should anything befall any of the locked-in starters.

What the Cubs’ starting depth lacks in confidence, it makes up for with intrigue. Adbert Alzolay tops the list of that intrigue. He’s the top pitching prospect in the organization, and coming off an injury shortened season that delayed his debut, he’ll be ready to prove his worth in 2019. At the cusp of just 24 years old, Alzolay presents consistent mechanics with a mid 90’s fastball, a potentially plus slider, and a changeup that remains a work in progress. While injuries derailed his MLB debut in 2018, expect Adbert to find a way to make an impact this season.

The last two names worth mentioning here are Chatwood and Alec Mills. Chatwood, of course, will maintain his standing on the roster by virtue of his unmovable contract — and with that, much to prove heading into the season. While everyone raved last year about his spin rate, few could’ve anticipated his inability to throw strikes with any sense of consistency. He’ll likely get a spot start here and there as needed, but don’t expect much from him.

Mills, on the other hand, is in a bit of a limbo. Used as both a starter and reliever in spurts last season he produced tolerable results, mixing and matching his slider and changeup with a sub-velocity fastball. It’s not inconceivable to think Mills will get another start or three this season, but if he does they’ll most likely be in the form of an emergency.

What to Expect Out of This Group in 2019

Despite the questions concerning age, depth, and health, it’s fair to assume this rotation will be one of the National League’s best in 2019. Lester and Hamels are no ordinary veterans, Hendricks has yet to hit his prime, Quintana deserves more appreciation, and Darvish could very well be a Comeback Player of the Year candidate.

I get that there’s a lot that could go wrong; there’s also a lot that could go right. Despite a team full of contradictions and concerns the starting rotation appears solid, one that you can count on over the course of a 162 game season. At best they’ll be a top-three rotation in the National League, at worst a middle-of-the-pack unit that can still help the squad eke into the playoffs.

Follow Austin Bloomberg on Twitter 

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Austin is the Lead Cubs Writer for The Loop Sports. He's a lifelong baseball junkie (due to his father) and as a former college pitcher has a particular affinity for the art of pitching. Austin loves to commute in Chicago on his bicycle, and enjoys camping and canoeing as often as possible. He attained his master's degree in Social Justice and Community Development from Loyola University Chicago in 2014.

2 comments on “Cubs Position Preview: Starting Pitchers

  1. Chatwood for the win. Best believe he’s the comeback player of the year. Cy young season. Just watch

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