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.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Jon Lester’s not ready to pass on the torch to Kyle Hendricks


Cubs Talk Podcast: Jon Lester’s not ready to pass on the torch to Kyle Hendricks

The Cubs super rotation has been set and Jon Lester receives the honor of starting Opening Day. David Kaplan and Kelly Crull discuss if the Cubs starting five is not only the best in franchise history, but the best in baseball right now.

Plus, after watching Joe Maddon’s crew up close and personal for two weeks in Mesa, Kelly discusses the refreshed focus and hunger the Cubs are displaying on a daily basis.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here (iOS users can listen here and subscribe on Apple Podcasts):

Cubs announce how super rotation will line up to start regular season


Cubs announce how super rotation will line up to start regular season

A day after announcing that Jon Lester will get the start in the season opener, the Cubs made known the rest of the order for the starting pitchers in their super rotation.

After Lester takes the hill against the Miami Marlins to start the 2018 regular season, the Cubs rotation will go like this: Kyle Hendricks, Yu Darvish and Jose Quintana in the second, third and fourth games of that season-opening series against the Fish, then Tyler Chatwood to start the two-game set with the Cincinnati Reds before things turn back over to Lester.

For those following along at home, it also looks like it will be Lester's turn when the Cubs play their first game at Wrigley Field, on April 9 against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cubs start the season with a 10-game road trip through Miami, Cincinnati and Milwaukee.

Lester's Opening Day start will be his third in his four seasons since joining the Cubs. After a 4.33 ERA last season, he'll look to put up numbers closer to what he did in 2016, when he was the National League Cy Young runner up thanks to a 2.44 ERA, a 19-5 record and 197 strikeouts.

Hendricks could very well be the best pitcher in this crazy good rotation. Despite some time on the disabled list last season, he finished the regular season with a 3.03 ERA, the lowest among Cubs starters.

Darvish is the big-ticket addition to the Cubs that solidified their World-Series-or-bust expectations for 2018. The four-time All Star dominated the Cubs in last postseason's NL Championship Series before signing a lucrative deal right before the start of spring training.

Quintana has somehow managed to fly under the radar despite excellent numbers throughout his career. His ERA was up a bit last season, but in his first five big league campaigns with the White Sox he turned in a cumulative 3.41 ERA.

Another offseason addition, Chatwood might be baseball's best No. 5 starter. Though he led the NL with 15 losses and fell prey to the Coors Field effect last year with the Colorado Rockies, the pressure should be off with so many high-profile arms in this rotation.

All in all, it's shaping up to be one of the game's best rotations — if not the best. Will it be even better than the Cubs' rotations of recent vintage, ones that had a Cy Young winner in Jake Arrieta?

"We’ve had good ones," manager Joe Maddon said earlier during spring training, "and I think this one has a chance, this one through five has a chance to exceed what’s happened over the last three years."

But Lester cautioned that just because things look promising now doesn't mean it's an automatic trip to the Fall Classic.

"I think everybody looks good on paper," Lester said. "With all these projections and computer programs now that people spit out about what you’re going to do that season, yeah it looks great. But we’ve still got to show up and pitch, we’ve still got to do our job.

"I’m excited about it. It’s a good group, and hopefully we’re able to get going earlier this year on that roll."