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."

Why the Cubs should not go all-in on a Jacob deGrom trade

Why the Cubs should not go all-in on a Jacob deGrom trade

Eighth inning. Two outs. 3-2 Cubs lead in Game 2 of Saturday's day-night doubleheader.

That's when it became clear the Cubs were not going to be trading for Jacob deGrom.

OK, that's an exaggeration. 

But when Pedro Strop gave up a seeing-eye single to Cardinals infielder Yairo Munoz just past the outstretched glove of Ben Zobrist, it was another reminder just how important both Javy Baez and Addison Russell are to the Cubs' success.

Munoz's single tied the game and the wheels fell off from there as the Cardinals scored 3 more in the ninth for a 6-3 win.

Remember, Baez had been ejected from the game in the fifth inning for throwing his helmet in frustration to a check swing call.

"The dynamic of our defense was lessened by [the ejection]," Joe Maddon said. "...Listen, I'm not gonna deingrate Zo at all — it's just a play that Javy might've been able to make."

Many have wondered how Baez's arm, athleticism and flair would play at shortstop for good, but the simple fact of the matter is the Cubs defense is a huge weapon when Baez is at second and Addison Russell is at short.

That defense is what the Cubs can hang their hat on and project to show up every single day in October. By nature, the offense will always come and go (especially facing the best pitchers in the game) and the Chicago pitching staff is filled with question marks.

So how do the Cubs acquire a starter of deGrom's caliber and years of team control without giving up a piece like Russell in return?

All of that is a long-winded way of gaining some perspective on all the Cubs fans who want their team to go out and get deGrom.

The Cubs couldn't get the Mets ace and NL Cy Young candidate without severely weakening another aspect of their big-league team. There simply isn't enough top talent in the way of prospects for the Cubs to pry deGrom and his 2.5 years of team control out of New York.

There are no Eloy Jimenezes or Gleyber Torres's left in this Cubs system. The Cubs had zero prospects in the Top 50 midseason list released by Baseball Prospectus earlier this month.

"We're in a more difficult position to [make a big-name trade]," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said Sunday. "I don't think it's impossible. But certain years lend themselves to being able to participate in more hands.

"Other years, because of the way your prospects are performing or because of your desire to keep growing the farm system or just the nature of what's available and how much you need, you have to be more selective. We're hopefully pursuing lots of different things, but I think in terms of what's realistic for us, we have to be a little bit more targeted, more selective and a little more opportunisitc.

"And that's fine. Sometimes those end up being the best deals. The [Jesse] Chavez deal is an example of that. He's probabaly not a name anyone had mentioned at all. We think he's a really good fit for us. So that's [an example of] the kind of stuff we're looking to do. While participating in everything else, but knowing that most of the stuff we talked about we won't be able to get done."

It's easy to dream about this Cubs team adding a pitcher like deGrom to the front of its rotation, improving the clear weakness of this current team.

But it would come at a cost. Is it really worth it to lessen the October defense up the middle by a significant measure or weaken the team's depth for a guy who only pitches one out of every four games in the postseason?

Some might think so and there's a valid argument this Cubs team is one dynamic pitcher away from being the best in baseball. But it depends on what you have to give up to acquire said "dynamic pitcher."

Pitching is obviously important in the playoffs, but the Cubs are probably better off trying to make it work with the arms they have. They've already invested a ton of capital in a starting rotation that is signed through the 2020 season.

After all, they boast the best record and run differential in the NL and have opened up a 3.5 game lead in the division on the morning of July 23.

They've done all that in spite of an inconsistent rotation, even if many were calling it one of the best in baseball before the season once Yu Darvish signed.

The Cubs are in the position they're in thanks to a defense that has looked more like the historical 2016 squad than last year's up-and-down team and don't discount the incredible position player depth that has allowed Maddon to keep everybody fresh and rested. This team has been built to withstand injuries and prolonged slumps from its best players — Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant — thanks to that amazing depth.

How could the Mets trade deGrom at this point without demanding at least Russell or Ian Happ as a headliner of the return back to New York?

And from the Cubs' perspective how do they subtract pieces from the deepest roster in the league that has needed every bit of its depth this season?

The best course of action for the Cubs in 2018 is to add another bullpen piece or two (like Zach Britton) and work to get their starters back on track — or, in Darvish's case: healthy.

The track records of guys like Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana indicate they are pitching pretty well below their career norms. Even with Jon Lester due some more regression, he's still a very effective pitcher who is battle-tested and boasts a history of rising to the occasion when the lights are brightest in October.

Mike Montgomery may not have cracked the Cubs' rotation until mid-May, but he's a different pitcher as a starter (3.02 ERA, 1.18 WHIP). Tyler Chatwood's control issues have been well-documented, but he's also sporting a walk rate nearly double his previous career high, so history indicates something may click in that regard eventually.

As Epstein said, each year is different. 

The 2016 Cubs had a clear need at closer and a guy like Aroldis Chapman was enough to push the team over the top to claim the first World Series title in 108 years.

The 2017 Cubs needed a jolt and starting pitching depth and Quintana was exactly that.

The 2018 Cubs have a clear need for a reliable, front-end starting pitcher, but with no elite prospects to deal, it may just be too costly to subtract much from the major-league roster in an effort to address this particular weakness.

Podcast: Main takeaways from the 5-game Cubs-Cardinals series


Podcast: Main takeaways from the 5-game Cubs-Cardinals series

Tony Andracki is joined by Phil Barnes, the senior editor of Vine Line, to break down the Cubs-Cardinals 5-game series at Wrigley Field that kicked off the second half of the 2018 MLB season.

The main takeaways from the weekend included an up-close look at a Cubs starting rotation is still struggling to find their footing almost 2/3 of the way through the season. 

The Cubs lineup and bullpen continue to be the saving grace of the team with the NL's best record and run differential, but there are serious question marks moving forward on the depth of the relievers as well as waiting for Kris Bryant to return to MVP form.

Check out the entire podcast here: