Expectations were high for the Cubs rotation in 2017 as they returned their top four starters from a unit that led all of baseball with a sparkling 2.96 ERA a year earlier. That figure was over half a run lower than the closest team and helped the Chicago starters rack up a dominant 81-39 record.
The 2017 rotation didn’t reach those lofty heights, in part because Jason Hammel‘s departure left a hole in the back of the rotation–remember Brett Anderson anyone?–but it wasn’t a bad group by any means. The starters finished the season with a 3.95 ERA, seventh in the league, and then shut down the Nationals in the NLDS.
Next season, however, the rotation will look quite different as Jake Arrieta and John Lackey have entered free agency. The three returning hurlers–Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana–enjoyed varying degrees of success last season, but will be counted on to shoulder more of the load next year.
It was not a banner season for the Cubs’ southpaw ace. One year after posting the lowest ERA of his career, Lester posted his highest mark since 2012 at 4.33, nearly two full runs higher than in 2016. Let’s also not forget that this happened:
The biggest issues for Lester last season were walks and home runs, both of which spiked sharply for him compared to the previous season. The 33-year-old’s home run rate in particular is troubling. It has nearly doubled in three seasons, from 0.66 per nine innings in 2014 to 1.30 per nine last season.
It’s possible these issues are the first signs of Lester’s decline phase. After eight 200-inning seasons and 11 years in the majors, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if Lester began slowing down a little. In fact, his fastball did just that in 2017. It ticked down from 93 mph on average to just 91.7, the lowest of his career. The Cubs knew when they signed him to a seven-year deal at age 31 that Lester’s decline would happen while he was in Chicago; Theo and Co. just might have hoped it would happen a few more years down the road.
To be fair, however, one rough season doesn’t automatically indicate a decline (although at Lester’s age it’s more likely). The left-hander’s drop in velocity might simply be the effect of arm fatigue after pitching deep into the Postseason two years in a row. More encouragingly, even with the slower fastball, Lester recorded his best swinging-strike rate since 2009, when he struck out hitters at the highest rate of his career. At the very least, this indicates that Lester might be capable of reinventing himself and remaining a serviceable pitcher even if his stuff isn’t what it used to be. He also got over a huge mental block:
My predictions are usually wrong, but mark me down as predicting a Lester bounce-back in 2018.
The normally durable Hendricks missed over six weeks of action with a finger injury last season, limiting him to just 139.2 innings. Like his elder teammate Lester, he saw a significant drop in velocity, as his average fastball fell from an already-slow 88.9 mph to a tortoise-like 86.3 mph. A combination of fatigue and the injury are the most likely culprits, but Hendricks’ fastball has been slowing down since he entered the majors.
The bigger problem for the Cubs’ youngest starter was that he lacked the precision command that helped draw so many Greg Maddux comparisons in 2016. His walk rate jumped from 2.08 to 2.58 per nine innings, which is obviously a problem, but Hendricks missed in the zone as well. His 25.8 percent hard-hit rate was fourth-lowest among qualified starters in 2016, ahead of pitchers like Corey Kluber and Noah Syndergaard. Last season, however, it increased to 30.4 percent and fell outside the top 20. That’s not a bad number, but it’s not the elite contact suppression he’s been able to manage in the past.
Still, the sky isn’t falling for Hendricks. His ERA remained excellent at 3.03, although he got some help from a low BABIP, and his strikeout rate remained largely the same. If he has a velocity bounce-back next season, he could again be among the toughest pitchers to square up in all of baseball.
Quintana was only with the Cubs for part of 2017, pitching like an ace during that time. He averaged over six innings per start in 14 outings with the Cubs. He also struck out more than 10 hitters per nine innings, a rate that would have been the best of his career had he managed it over a full season. Although his ERA of 3.74 was nothing special, his FIP–a measure that strips the value of fielding out of a pitcher’s performance and uses the same scale as ERA–was just 3.25, the best of the Cubs’ starters in that span.
Although the Cubs gave up a lot to pry Quintana away from the White Sox–Eloy Jimenez hit .348 with 11 home runs in the Sox’s farm system–he has so far been worth it and more. His 5.2 innings of scoreless, two-hit work in Game 3 of the NLDS against Washington amounted to one of the Cubs’ best performances on the mound in a big game all season.
With three more years on his (affordable) contract, the 28-year-old could be Chicago’s most important pitcher going forward.
The Cubs’ sixth starter last season was tall left-hander Mike Montgomery, who filled in adequately during the myriad injuries the regular rotation suffered. Montgomery made 14 starts, pitching to a 4.15 ERA in that role while holding opponents to a .222 batting average. He’s probably earned a shot to start if Arrieta and/or Lackey depart, but he was an important arm in the bullpen, as well, and the Cubs are thin there after the departure of Hector Rondon and the possible departures of Wade Davis and Brian Duensing.
Outside of Montgomery, the Cubs are short on starting pitching depth. The farm system is full of B grade pitching prospects, but most of them are at least a year away from the majors. One who might be up in the latter part of 2018 if all goes well is 22-year-old Venezuelan Adbert Alzolay, who was impressive in both High-A and Double-A a season ago.
The Cubs must fill two large holes in the rotation over the next several months. A blockbuster trade seems unlikely since the Cubs have few prospects left to surrender and will be loath to trade major-league talent.
That leaves free agency, where there are plenty of options for the Cubs to pursue. One of those choices is Japanese free agent Shohei Ohtani, a two-way superstar who named the Cubs as one of his seven finalists earlier this week. The other Japanese pitcher on the market, Yu Darvish, could also be on Chicago’s radar, although it’s difficult to see why they’d be willing to give him a huge contract but not Arrieta.
Further down the free agent ladder, names like Jaime Garcia and Lance Lynn jump off the page as serviceable starters who won’t break the bank. The Cubs mostly need stopgaps until their wave of young arms starts to hit the majors.