The Cubs should roll with a 6-man rotation in 2018

The Cubs should roll with a 6-man rotation in 2018

Joe Maddon's former team — the Tampa Bay Rays — is planning on going with a four-man starting rotation in 2018.

But Joe Maddon's current team may be better served by going the opposite route.

The Cubs are in a completely different place than the retooling Rays and with World Series expectations on Chicago's North Side, the season turns into a seven-month-long marathon, not just the six months of regular season.

Theo Epstein's front office has built a team with an eye on playing all the way through the end of October and will need Maddon's coaching staff to keep everybody healthy and peaking at just the right time.

A six-man rotation could be the best way to accomplish that.

The Cubs are always trying to stay ahead of the curve, setting new trends instead of following. Maybe the way the Rays are thinking of things will ultimately be the newest fad, but that also places a lot of pressure on the bullpen to fill more innings than ever before.

The bullpen bubble burst — at least partially — last fall when every team struggled to get consistent outings from their relievers. The World Series was riveting and intense, but part of the reason it went that way was the inability of almost every Astros and Dodgers reliever to consistently get outs.

Cubs relievers faded down the stretch, too, struggling through a couple of rocky months before a rough October. Part of the reason for that was fatigue.

In 2017, the Cubs were coming off a season that stretched past Halloween and featured career highs in innings for several players. They were hoping to ease that burden and in turn, inadvertently put too much on the plate of the bullpen.

Maddon let his starting pitchers throw more than 100 pitches just 46 times last season and only nine times did a starter toss more than 110 pitches. The season high was 116 by Jose Quintana on Sept. 24 in a complete game shutout of the Milwaukee Brewers.

The thought process was simple: Keep your starters fresh and feeling good in hopes of making another World Series run.

But that didn't quite work out for multiple reasons, including the bullpen issues.

Moving to a six-man rotation could be the best of both worlds in 2018. It would give the Cubs a chance to rest their starters more than normal, giving them an extra day in between outings.

And with that extra day of rest, that could mean Maddon may feel more comfortable unleashing his starters for 115 or more pitches when their performance warrants it, thus taking some of the burden off the bullpen. 

The Cubs also have the personnel to do it, with Mike Montgomery ready to step into the rotation at any time. He gives the team six good options in the rotation and even if any starter goes down to injury, they're in a fine position to simply move back down to a five-man turn.

Thanks to the versatility of the Cubs position players, they don't have to carry as many bench bats and can subsequently roll with 13 pitchers on the 25-man roster. So even with a six-man rotation, the Cubs could still have a normal seven-man bullpen.

There are a couple of issues with the whole six-man rotation, however.

For one thing, starting pitchers are extreme creatures of habit and they plan their bullpens and workouts in between starts around the fact they are throwing every five days. It's tough to see a seasoned veteran like Jon Lester easily adapting to getting an extra day in between outings.

When the Cubs have gone to a six-man rotation in the past, Lester and the other starters have been unhappy with the move. If the players won't buy in, obviously there's no real advantage to going against the grain with an unconventional rotation.

There's also the numbers, which indicate nearly every MLB pitcher struggles when facing the opposing order a third time through. The reasoning is simple: Each hitter in the big leagues is the best of the best and the more often they see a guy's stuff or arm angle on a given day, the easier it is to make adjustments.

However, this Cubs rotation may be the bunch to try something new.

Lester, Montgomery, Kyle Hendricks and Yu Darvish all get better as the game goes on and Jose Quintana's jump is hardly worrisome — .690 opponent OPS first time through the order, .675 OPS second time through and .754 OPS third time.

If ever there was a team and a time to move to a six-man rotation, the 2018 Cubs could be it.

After two years of struggling at the plate, what does 2018 hold for Jason Heyward?


After two years of struggling at the plate, what does 2018 hold for Jason Heyward?

Jason Heyward's rain-delay speech that helped the Cubs to a Game 7 win and a curse-smashing World Series championship might have been worth the $184 million.

But heading into Year 3 of his franchise-record eight-year pact, Heyward's statistical contributions at the plate have been anything but worth the investment.

No one is doubting Heyward's defensive value, which Joe Maddon endlessly praises and loves so much that he keeps Heyward as an everyday fixture in the Cubs' lineup despite the lack of offensive success. Heyward has won a Gold Glove in each of his first two seasons with the Cubs, and it doesn't take an expert in advanced defensive metrics to know that Heyward is a fantastic defender.

But in two years on the North Side, here's what Heyward has done with the bat: a .243/.315/.353 slash line with 18 home runs, 42 doubles, 108 RBIs, 15 steals, 160 strikeouts and 95 walks in 1,073 plate appearances over 268 regular-season games.

And with the Cubs' outfield and lineup in general crowded with promising young position players like Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr. and Javy Baez, the question has to be asked: Will Heyward's role be limited as the Cubs look to win their second championship in three seasons?

To get the answer out of the way early, probably not. Maddon loves Heyward's presence in right field — as he should, considering Heyward's won four straight Gold Gloves there — and believes the offense will come.

"What I expect is outstanding defense, outstanding leadership qualities, very good base runner. Offensively, I know all the expectations are — I’ve been really happy with him as he is, I have," Maddon said last month at the outset of spring training out in Arizona. "We’ve gone to the playoffs, won a World Series with him. Of course, you look for maybe a higher average, more power, whatever. I like him on the field, man. I like him in the dugout. I like him in our clubhouse.

"He’s such a skillful athlete, I think all those numbers will continue to rise as he gets up to 32, 33 years of age. It’s going to keep getting better. But he’s such a good baseball player and he’s such a force within the group. And I know hitting’s a topic of discussion, I totally concede that, but I don’t look at it that way. I think he will get the big hits when it’s necessary, but I also believe the stuff everyone’s looking for, it’s going to start showing up."

But none of that means that "fixing" Heyward isn't one of the Cubs' top priorities. New hitting coach Chili Davis arrived with a few clear missions, and getting Heyward back to what he did earlier in his career is among those at the top of Davis' list.

And it shouldn't be viewed as some impossible thing. Heyward's lack of production in his first two years as a Cub remains a head-scratcher considering how good he was leading up to his arrival on the North Side. He had a career year with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2015 that earned him that massive contract, his .293 batting average a career high, as were his 23 stolen bases and 33 doubles. His .359 on-base percentage was the second highest of his career, his .439 slugging percentage the third highest of his career, and he finished in the top 15 in voting for National League MVP honors. During his five-year tenure with the Atlanta Braves, he hit 84 home runs and reached base at a .351 clip. The Cubs saw firsthand what Heyward could do when he slashed .357/.438/.643 with an opposite-field homer in the 2015 NLDS.

Davis' solution to the problem? Get Heyward back to doing what he did before.

"He knows that there's more in the tank, and he's reaching for it. He wants to be better," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "I think what happened to Jason from the Braves years to the years here ... was he probably got away from who he is. He was a natural, gifted athlete with the Braves. So we're just talking, we talk about getting back to natural, getting back to what makes him a good player.

"So it's more his interaction with me and telling me the things that he felt when he was doing well and my eyes trying to see that whenever he works, he's focused on doing those things all the time. And he's working well. We've been here since some time in November. Little baby steps. But I tell you what, you don't have to say things to him twice. He retains the information very well."

Heyward, never one to be short on confidence no matter what the numbers might say, has a different solution.

"Play. Be on the field and play. Everything else is going to take care of itself."

Heyward's referencing the fact that he played in "only" 126 games last season, a noteworthy decline for a guy who has cracked the 140-game mark five times in his eight-year career and the 150-game mark twice. He made a couple trips to the disabled list in 2017, both times with fluky hand injuries, nothing that reflected a lack of conditioning or preparation. So for Heyward, he believes that simply being healthy for a full season and staying off the disabled list will yield the results he expects to see.

Whether Cubs fans expect to see those same results at this point is a different thing entirely. But Heyward's confidence in himself and his expectations for 2018 are not at all lacking.

"If I’m coming in with higher expectations, then I feel like I’ve been tripping (for the past couple years)," Heyward said. "I feel like you always expect to do well, have high expectations. Myself, I’d like to play more games. Knock on wood, try not to be on the DL, especially a couple times, that hurts. Especially someone like myself for repetition, at-bats, just going with the flow of the game and being able to build off of that.

"I feel like when I play a lot of games in a season, I’ll do a lot of good things. I did a lot of good things last year, but missed time takes away from that a lot."

Heyward talked positively about working with Davis, who has other charges to turn around, too, in Kyle Schwarber and Ben Zobrist, who both had disappointing 2017 campaigns. But Heyward, because of his humongous contract and the benefits he could bring to the Cubs' lineup if back at full production levels, would figure to be the most important on that list.

Heyward, though, believes that no matter what Davis or any coach can contribute, it all comes down to him. And that's how fans and observers will see things, too.

"It’s important to understand that your voice needs to be the most important as a player," Heyward said. "You can hear whatever you want to hear from a coach, but if you don’t know how to put it together for yourself, it isn’t going to matter."

Who will bat leadoff for Cubs? A look at the candidates — and if it really even matters

Who will bat leadoff for Cubs? A look at the candidates — and if it really even matters

On a team with few holes and championship expectations, who hits leadoff for the Cubs has become a prominent conversation.

You don't need to go back too far to discover that not having a prototypical leadoff hitter doesn't mean much of anything. After all, the Cubs lost Dexter Fowler, couldn't find anyone to consistently hit leadoff and still scored 822 runs, the second most in the National League.

But a new season and no additions to the lineup that put the leadoff conversation to rest means it's a talking point yet again. So who will hit leadoff for the Cubs in 2018?

"There’s very few real, legitimate No. 1 hitters out there these days, and when you find one, you like to hold on to it," Joe Maddon said earlier in spring training. "I think a lot of teams, they’ll put different guys up there. It’s almost like having a closer. If you don’t have a legitimate closer, it’s still OK to work the ninth inning in other ways. If you don’t have a prototypical leadoff hitter, you can work it in other ways. I’m fine with that.

"I think we scored a lot of runs last year. We were fine with that. The conversation is what it is. I’m very comfortable with moving that around based on guys who get on base often. That’s the whole point. And when you can combine that with a guy that has a high on-base and then he hits homers, too, that’s even more attractive. We have a lot of guys who are capable. We’ll let it play out, you’ll see a lot of guys in the one hole throughout spring training. But I know by the time the season arrives, whoever we have hitting there, I’ll be happy with that."

Of course, there's room for improvement. Last season, only the bottom two spots in the lineup produced lower numbers than the leadoff hole, with the Cubs slashing .246/.324/.422 at the top of the order. Getting better there means being an even better team, all important when the expectations are World Series or bust.

But whether it matters a lot or a little, here's a list of candidates for the job.

Anthony Rizzo

Remember when Rizzo dubbed himself, jokingly of course, "the greatest leadoff hitter of all-time?" Albert Almora Jr. does.

"We have the best leadoff guy in the game with Rizzo," Albert Almora Jr. said earlier in spring training. "Five home runs in three days it felt like."

It was pretty impressive. All in all, Rizzo's 14 games batting leadoff yielded 15 hits, five homers, two doubles, a triple, 12 RBIs, 11 runs scored and six walks in 59 plate appearances.

"I said, ‘If I’m going to lead off this year, you’ve got to teach me.’ He said, ‘I am the best leadoff hitter in the world.’ ‘All right, you do it then.'"

Anthony, what do you say?


Well, that settles that.

Kyle Schwarber

Schwarber, as I'm sure no one has forgotten, was the Cubs' leadoff guy out of the gates last spring. It's not that he wasn't suited for it — he is really good at getting on base — but he really didn't succeed there. That Maddon decision didn't sit well with many fans, and it didn't look like a good idea at all when Schwarber was sent down to Triple-A for a spell in the middle of the campaign.

The slimmed-down Schwarber figures to be much better this year — and even in what was considered a disastrous 2017, he still hit 30 home runs — but the leadoff spot might not be the place for him.

Kyle, will you be batting leadoff again?

"Ask the manager," he said. "I think we’re all ears to that, and whatever he writes in there we’re all going to do."

Ben Zobrist

Because the Cubs don't have a prototypical leadoff hitter, Zobrist's name comes up. And he's fine with it, fitting the bill somewhat as a guy who gets on base and could set the table ahead of boppers like Kris Bryant and Rizzo.

"He’s definitely in the mix to do that," Maddon said of Zobrist. "He always works a good at-bat. I’ve always been comfortable with that, he’s done it in the past, so he’s capable. We haven’t decided that, but yes, of course he’s a candidate to do that."

"I know I can do it, but I have no idea," Zobrist said. "We have other guys that can do it, too. It’s not an easy position to hit in, I can say that. It takes a little bit of experience and practice to do it and be good at it, and some guys are more comfortable there than others. It hasn’t been one of my most comfortable spots to hit in over the course of my career, but I know I can do it if it comes to that."

That's the thing, though: Zobrist hasn't necessarily had great success out of the leadoff spot in his career. In fact, it's perhaps the worst spot, statistically, in his career to hit. His slash line in 887 career plate appearances at the top of the lineup is .241/.330/.389. Only batting ninth does he have lower career averages in all three of those categories. Last season, those numbers were kind of flipped during what was statistically the worst season of his career. He slashed .253/.330/.438 in 182 plate appearances leading off in 2017, so Maddon might be looking at Zobrist as a candidate from the "what have you done for me lately" perspective.

But then there's the question of how often Zobrist will even be in the lineup. Coming off that down 2017 and as his age continues to advance, Zobrist's playing time might take a hit in favor of younger guys like Almora, Ian Happ and Javy Baez. Plus, despite much talk of how great he's feeling after an injury-plagued 2017, Zobrist has been out of action through much of spring training with a back issue.

Kris Bryant

This one's kind of an off-the-wall suggestion, but one that's been talked about during the offseason. If Maddon's looking for a guy with great on-base skills, look no further than Bryant, who followed up the .385 on-base percentage of his MVP season with a .409 on-base percentage in 2017, good for fourth in the National League and seventh in baseball.

This doesn't seem likely, with Bryant seemingly entrenched in the two-hole, where he hit in all but 41 of his 151 games last season. But Maddon got creative with Rizzo last season, so maybe Bryant is an option should the leadoff spot become a real issue at some point during 2018.

Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr.

Happ and Almora are getting leadoff love in the early days of Cactus League play. Happ already has a pair of homers out of the leadoff spot, including one off Madison Bumgarner. Given that that could be a center field platoon this season, platooning those two in the leadoff spot might end up being the way Maddon goes.

Last year, Almora dominated against left-handed pitchers, slashing .342/.411/.486 in his 125 plate appearances. Against righties, he slashed .271/.291/.420.

Last year, Happ had a better on-base percentage and slugging percentage against righties, slashing .243/.334/.529. He had a better batting average against lefties, slashing .276/.313/.476. Nineteen of his 24 rookie homers came against right-handers.

A platoon between the two makes a lot of sense, though even if they spent the majority of the time at the top of the order, the way Maddon mixes and matches his lineups on a daily basis means it would not be at all surprising to see a whole host of different guys up there.

"I’ll do whatever they tell me to. I have enough confidence in myself where I can hit anywhere or play anywhere, it doesn’t really matter," Almora said. "I know Joe will take care of that, and I’ll just put my head down and play.

"We’re going to be great, we’re going to be fine. Anyone can hit leadoff, it doesn’t matter. We’re going to find ways to drive in runs and be the best team out there."

They did it without a prototypical leadoff man in 2017. Why should 2018 be any different?