Cubs weighing the possibility of keeping six-man rotation intact for stretch run

Cubs weighing the possibility of keeping six-man rotation intact for stretch run

The Cubs' offense has been fun to watch lately, but the team's 32-16 record since the All-Star Break has more to do with the starting rotation than the group of hitters Joe Maddon writes out on the lineup card each day.

Jake Arrieta is rolling, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester are now both healthy and off the disabled list and John Lackey has rediscovered the fountain of youth, the Cubs have been able to right the ship even if Jose Quintana hasn't lived up to his pedigree since the mid-July trade.

Mike Montgomery has also been a huge factor in the rotation, rattling off back-to-back quality starts in Lester's stead before taking the loss Sunday after allowing three runs in five innings to the Atlanta Braves.

The question now is whether or not the Cubs keep Montgomery in the rotation after Lester's return Saturday.

Joe Maddon said before Montgomery's start Sunday the Cubs haven't yet made a determination on rolling with a six-man rotation, but they will know within a day or two so they can communicate with Montgomery and let him prepare for either another start in six days or a move back to the bullpen.

"It's possible [to stick with a six-man rotation]," Maddon said. "We're still trying to go step-by-step with this thing. We're trying to look at the big picture — every team we're playing and now that we have an extra guy, you can manipulate things a little bit. So that's what we're working on moving forward. He may get another start."

Maddon shot down the idea of performance having any impact on Montgomery's rotation life, acknowledging one start is way too small a sample size.

"Those are the conversations we're having," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. "First of all, [Montgomery's] earned being a member of the starting rotation and we have to decide are there times we're going to go with six? Are there times we're going to go back to five and really make some decisions based on our schedule, based on rest?

"Right now, we're playing a stretch of 20 in a row, so giving guys an extra day of rest makes a lot of sense. How we'll proceed going forward, I'm not sure. We really will go rotation turn by rotation turn and make those decisions, but as far as what he's done, I think he's earned that and he's really pitched well for us."

The Cubs haven't released anything official yet beyond the rotation for the four-game series with the Pirates in Pittsburgh this week:

Monday — Jake Arrieta
Tuesday — Kyle Hendricks
Wednesday — Jose Quintana
Thursday — Jon Lester

Maddon did, however, indicate Lackey would be in line to start Friday to kick off the Milwaukee Brewers series at Wrigley Field.

That turn through the rotation gives Arrieta, Quintana and Lackey an extra day of rest while Hendricks and Lester remain on a five-day rotation to build up arm strength and stamina after missing time with injuries.

The Cubs have kept careful watch over their starters all year after they pitched into November last fall. With their eyes on another deep postseason run, Maddon has yet to push any of the team's veteran starting pitchers much beyond the 100-pitch mark. That — coupled with time off on the disabled list for Hendricks, Lester and Lackey — the Cubs feel good about the state of the rotation in the season's final month.

Maddon admitted Lester's two-plus weeks off could actually be a blessing in disguise.

"Once you know it's not really anything bad and you know he's gonna be back relatively soon, then you look at that positive side," Maddon said. "Plus you have Mike Montgomery to fill in, so that also helps with that, too.

"Kyle Hendricks earlier went through the same thing and look at him right now and then also look at the number of innings pitched he had to this point, too. Good stuff.

"You never want injuries, but it's a long year and if you have the appropriate guys to fill in the gaps and guys get rest, then here we come this time of year and all of the sudden, everybody's well and healthy and somewhat rested."

When the Cubs have moved to six-man rotations in the recent past, pitchers like Lester, Lackey and Arrieta have balked at the decisions, preferring to remain on a five-day rotation as veteran creatures of habit.

But Lester seemed resigned to the thought of keeping Montgomery in the starting fold.

"I just work here," Lester said Saturday, echoing the exact sentiment Lackey stated after Friday's start. "I don't know. At the end of the day, they're gonna make decisions that they feel are necessary for this ballclub. No matter what you say, negative or positive, it doesn't really matter.

"Just tell me when I'm pitching next and I'll go out there and pitch. That's all I can do. In the grand scheme of things, everybody in that clubhouse just works here. If people above us make decisions then that's what you do. They're above us for a reason. They make educated decisions and they have reasons behind those decisions.

"You just pitch when you're told. That's kinda how I look at it."

Montgomery is no stranger to this purgatory type of situation. He's spent plenty of time — especially in a CUbs uniform — bouncing back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen.

Moving forward, regardless of role, he knows the preparation is still the same.

"It's getting late in the year, so just be smart, get the proper rest and really rebuild the legs and get everything ready for the stretch run," Montgomery said after Sunday's start. "I don't know what I'm gonna be doing the rest of the year, but just put a plan together and stay at that top performance level. That's gonna be the focus from here on out."

14 amusing observations from the 2017 MLB Winter Meetings


14 amusing observations from the 2017 MLB Winter Meetings

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The MLB Winter Meetings are exactly as advertised.

It was my first trip to what is essentially baseball's biggest trade show and the four days in Orlando went by like a blur even though there were very few moves actually made.

The two Chicago teams combined for just three moves — and all of them from the Cubs' perspective (one of which — Drew Smyly — may not even pitch in 2018).

Throughout the week at Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort, I rounded up some of the most amusing behind-the-scenes observations with help from the NBC Sports Chicago crew (Chuck Garfien, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon, Vinnie Duber):

—A Red Sox fan intercepting David Ross in the hotel lobby and telling him over and over again, "I'm a SAWX fan, I'm a SAWX fan; I love you, bro," in one of the thickest Boston accents I've ever heard.

—A kid wearing a bright pink suit (like something out of "Dumb and Dumber") trying to get a job.

A White Sox person saw the young man and noted: "If I wore that suit, I would look like a bottle of Pepto Bismol."

—A svelte Kyle Schwarber showed up at the Winter Meetings, driving some 90 miles from the Tampa Bay area to visit with Cubs personnel. He didn't talk to the media, but he certainly looked to be in the "best shape of his life."

When asked about Schwarber representing the Cubs in the ESPN Body Issue, Theo Epstein laughed and said, "I'll let you write about that." (Joke's on Theo because that's exactly what I just did.)

—Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto nearly sent Chuck Garfien to the disabled list with an agressive revolving-door maneuver.

—Scott Boras walked through the hotel flanked by his muscle and his own camera crew. Kelly Crull accidentally got on the escalator right behind Boras and in an effort to escape the TV shot, started running up the down heels.

—Scott Changnon and I clearly have no idea what we're doing:

—During our Facebook Live Tuesday, Jed Hoyer walked by in the background on the phone, maybe closing out the final details of the Drew Smyly or Brandon Morrow deal?

Live from Day 2 of the MLB Winter Meetings

It's Day 2 of the Winter Meetings! Chuck Garfien, Kelly Crull and Tony Andracki will answer your questions about the latest Cubs and White Sox rumors!

Posted by NBC Sports Chicago on Tuesday, December 12, 2017

—10 minutes after Hoyer walked through the background of our Facebook Live, Theo Epstein ran past the camera as Chuck and Vinnie discussed potential free agent targets for the White Sox.

—A man in a Hawaiian shirt photobombed Wednesday's Facebook Live behind Chuck, Kelly and Vinnie. (Side note: I totally messed up by not packing a Hawaiian shirt for the Winter Meetings.)

MLB Winter Meetings Day 3

Kelly Crull, Chuck Garfien and Vinnie Duber are live from the MLB Winter Meetings. What's new with the Cubs and White Sox?

Posted by NBC Sports Chicago on Wednesday, December 13, 2017

—Joe Maddon wore the same olive green blaze he wore to the White House earlier this year and knew full well what he was doing, as he joked about it with reporters.

—Boras stood on a literal pedestal for his hour-long media session Wednesday, stepping up on a sturdy plastic camera case to help all three dozen media cameras catch his entire press conference.

—A woman in a Christmas-themed top hat walking her little pug around the lobby on a leash, but it was slow going as baseball men and women kept stopping them to pet the very good dog.

—Some dude's sneezing in the media workroom was the real star of the show. Never heard anything like it in my life before. Sounded literally like the devil was coming out of his nose.

—The work ethic of people in baseball is mind-bottling to me. 

Not only the front office members, like the Cubs' staff who went from playing deep into October for the third straight fall to preparing for free agency, weighing trade options, scouting and — this winter — pulling all-nighters to put together a proposal for Shohei Ohtani.

But baseball media members are ridiculously hard-working. These people spent all year covering 162-game seasons plus 6+ weeks of spring training and then another month of postseason and now, two weeks before Christmas, they're pulling 15-hour days during the Winter Meetings. 

Yes, it's a really cool job and we get paid to cover a game and hang around professional athletes, but it's also a lot of work and the people who have done this for a lifetime are so impressive.

Cubs 2018-19 pitching staff coming into focus

Cubs 2018-19 pitching staff coming into focus

Wade Davis still hasn't signed anywhere, but the Cubs have added more bullpen reinforcements while their former closer decides his future.

The Cubs are still looking for another starting pitcher and very well may be open to another reliever — whether that be Davis or not is still to be determined.

But with more than 10 days left until Christmas — a checkpoint for most free agents as they want to kick back during the holiday with family knowing where they're going to play in 2018 — the Cubs' pitching staff is taking shape with Steve Cishek now in the fold.

If the season started today, here's how the staff may look:

2018 rotation

Jon Lester
Kyle Hendricks
Jose Quintana
Tyler Chatwood
Mike Montgomery

2018 bullpen

Brandon Morrow (closer)
Carl Edwards Jr.
Pedro Strop
Steve Cishek
Justin Wilson
Justin Grimm
Dario Alvarez

Montgomery will serve as a starter at some point in 2018 even if the Cubs sign another guy. The team will either go with a six-man rotation at some point or somebody will end up on the disabled list. Injuries happen and the Cubs are hoping to play into the final week of October this year, so rest assured, they will absolutely be conservative with their starters' innings once again.

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer admitted if the season started today, Morrow would be the closer. Beyond that, they acknowledged there are very few moves they could make to bump Morrow out of ninth-inning duties (though re-signing Davis would be one such move).

The Cubs will also likely go with eight relievers for much of the 2018 season with a position player group packed with versatile guys that can play multiple positions and switch-hitters. Dillon Maples may be a guy that finds his name in the bullpen mix if he can harness his control.

Cishek is another quality signing, adding even more depth in the late innings and high-leverage situation. The 31-year-old veteran has 121 career saves and can slot in as a closer if need be, though Joe Maddon also thinks Edwards and Strop can do the job and Wilson was one of the game's best closers before he hit a rough patch the final two months of 2017 in Chicago.

The Cubs' moves this winter have helped stablize the pitching staff beyond 2018. Chatwood, Morrow and Cishek are all signed under multiyear deals while Drew Smyly was also inked to a deal through 2019 as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery.

Here's how the 2019 pitching staff looks right now:

2019 rotation

Jon Lester
Kyle Hendricks
Jose Quintana
Tyler Chatwood
Drew Smyly

2019 bullpen

Brandon Morrow (closer)
Carl Edwards Jr.
Steve Cishek
Mike Montgomery
Justin Grimm

(Pedro Strop has a team option for the 2019 season.)

Thanks to Quintana's affordable contract, the Cubs only have around $77 million committed to the pitching staff in 2019 (plus arbitraion for Hendricks and Montgomery), so they have the flexibility to add even more depth and talent in the run prevention department.