Cubs

Cubs won’t look outside for leadoff hitter when they have Anthony Rizzo and pitching priorities

Cubs won’t look outside for leadoff hitter when they have Anthony Rizzo and pitching priorities

This conventional idea of a leadoff hitter is an endangered species, a rare commodity like the young, top-of-the-rotation starter the Cubs will prioritize at the July 31 trade deadline. 

“You never rule out anything,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “If it makes us better, then we’ll talk about doing it. But pitching’s the priority, now and this winter. We know that’s organizationally where we need to go.” 

Plus, the Cubs already have the greatest leadoff hitter of all-time. Just ask Anthony Rizzo, who’s clearly enjoying an experiment that manager Joe Maddon doesn’t plan to end anytime soon.

Rizzo’s leadoff streak of getting on base in seven straight games — home run, home run, walk, single, double, single, home run — ended Wednesday afternoon when he flied out to right field against Miguel Diaz during a 3-2 loss to the San Diego Padres at Wrigley Field. No other Cub since 1946 had done that except for Richie Ashburn near the end of his Hall of Fame career in 1960. 

“Honestly, I’m just keeping an open mind,” Maddon said. “I did not have a set number of days to do it. Just watch it and let it play out. Just see where it goes eventually.

“A lot of it’s dependent upon other guys surfacing. If somebody all of a sudden gets hot – and you think you can do something differently – then I might. But otherwise, I’m just going to leave it alone for a bit.”

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In anointing Kyle Schwarber as his leadoff guy in spring training, Maddon pointed to the Geek Department projections and the intimidation factor in seeing a hitter who can do damage with the first pitch. Schwarber — who’s hitting .174 and doesn’t have the same presence that made him a World Series legend — didn’t last in that role.

But the game is trending away from batting average and stolen bases. There really aren’t many prototypical leadoff talents like Lou Brock and Tim Raines available. That’s why the St. Louis Cardinals gave Dexter Fowler a five-year, $82.5 million contract. 

Rizzo is a good leadoff hitter because he is a good hitter. This snapped a career-high 14-game hitting streak, and he had already been heating up long before Maddon’s desperation move, posting a .445 on-base percentage in his previous 39 games since May 7.

“I’ve always thought that there are certain guys that have the leadoff mentality,” Maddon said. “Some guys just don’t like to be the first guy up there. They want to see other guys hit first. They want that information coming back to the dugout.

“It’s just a mindset. It’s somebody that obviously has the tools, meaning they probably see some pitches. They get on base a lot. They’re willing to accept their walks. And it’s nice when they also have some power, too. But I think, more than anything, it’s mindset. And having said that, Anthony likes to do this.”

Hot Stove: AJ Pollock could be the player to fill the Cubs needs

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USA TODAY

Hot Stove: AJ Pollock could be the player to fill the Cubs needs

Six players turned down qualifying offers in baseball, and they are quality names in LHP Patrick Corbin, C Yasmani Grandal, OF Bryce Harper, LHP Dallas Keuchel, reliever Craig Kimbrel and OF A.J. Pollock. It’s the last name that piqued the interest of Cubs Insider Tony Andracki, who told me on our Hot Stove show on Facebook Live Tuesday at 12:30, that while all eyes are on Harper, Pollock is a player who could fit the Cubs’ needs. 

“The interesting name is A.J. Pollock, depending what the market is for him, because he’s a guy that when he’s able to stay healthy, and he hasn’t really been healthy for about five years now, but when he’s able to stay healthy, he’s a dynamic player who would really shake up that offense, and he’s also a leadoff hitter,” Andracki said. “The Cubs need a stable leadoff hitter and he’s a guy they could look at.”

Hot Stove

Time for your weekly dose of HOT STOVE! 1. The White Sox are shopping Avi Garcia...to make room for Bryce Harper? 2. BIGGEST Takeaways from the GM Meetings. 3. Will we be celebrating an Eloy 'Rookie of the Year Award' after next season?

Posted by NBC Sports Chicago on Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Pollock has played in only 469 games over the last five seasons. He played 113 in 2018, and batted .257 with 21 home runs and 65 RBI, and broke his thumb in May. His all-star season was in 2015, when he played in 157 games, hit .315, had 20 home runs and 76 RBI. Pollock turns 31 on December 5. 

If the Cubs were to sign Pollock in the current circumstances, they would have to give up their pick after Competitive Balance Round B in the June 2019 First-year player draft, and $500,000 of their international bonus pool money. Under the previous collective bargaining agreement, a team signing a player who turned down a qualifying offer would have to give up a supplemental first-round draft pick. 

State of the Cubs: Starting rotation

State of the Cubs: Starting rotation

As the Cubs maneuver through a pivotal offseason, we will break down the current state of the team each week by sectioning it off into position groups. Here is the first installment on the starting rotation.

Hot Stove season is heating up, but don't expect the Cubs to be linked to a bunch of starting pitchers.

That's because the rotation is really the only position group that is close to a finished product at the moment. 

When Theo Epstein's front office decided to pick up Cole Hamels' $20 million option for 2019, they also sent a message about how they feel about this rotation moving forward. Drew Smyly was dealt to the Texas Rangers to shed his $7 million salary for 2019 and create room for Hamels, who became a clear fit for this rotation with his contributions both on and off the field down the stretch last year.

In the minds of a large part of the fanbase, Hamels may have etched his spot in the 2019 rotation when he scoffed at the idea that the Brewers were even a rival of the Cubs

Still, the Cubs weren't expecting to shell out so much money to this rotation in the short-term, as Hamels, Jon Lester and Yu Darvish are all set to make more than $20 million next season. The team also picked up Jose Quintana's $10.5 million option and Kyle Hendricks is slated to make about $8 million in arbitration in 2019.

Throw in the $12.5 million the Cubs are paying Tyler Chatwood despite a lack of a clear role for the embattled right-hander and it's easy to see why the organization is not looking to spend a bunch more money to add depth beyond the Top 5 guys.

"The areas we're looking to address are our position group and the bullpen," Epstein said at the GM Meetings last week. "We're looking at a little starting depth here and there when we can, but right now, I think our rotation is a strength."

Here's how the 2019 rotation looks at the moment:

Depth chart

1. Jon Lester
2. Kyle Hendricks
3. Cole Hamels
4. Yu Darvish
5. Jose Quintana
6. Mike Montgomery
7. Tyler Chatwood

Assuming the Top 5 guys make it through spring training healthy, that will likely be how the Cubs line up their rotation in order. Hendricks and Darvish would ensure the Cubs aren't throwing out back-to-back-to-back lefties often like they were in the final couple months of 2018.

On paper, this looks like it could be one of the best rotations in baseball, but clearly we've said that before — even as recently as February after Darvish signed — and it hasn't played out that way.

But Darvish's first year in Chicago was a total disaster, bogged down by injury (triceps and elbow) and ineffectiveness (4.95 ERA, 1.43 WHIP). He will head into 2019 as maybe the biggest X-factor on the roster — a guy capable of pitching like an ace but he has fallen on rough times since the start of the 2017 World Series. The Cubs still have more than $100 million committed to Darvish over the next five years, so getting him right ranks way up there in terms of importance for a team aiming to take home another ring.

Hendricks got off to a slow start, but he continues to show that he has emerged as a co-ace of this pitching staff thanks to an 8-3 record, 2.84 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 88.2 innings after the All-Star Break. 

Quintana had an up-and-down 2018, but dealt with some shoulder issues around the All-Star Break and posted a 2.92 ERA with 48 Ks in 49.1 innings over the last month-and-a-half of the season. He's under team control for the next two years at only $22 million (if his 2020 option is picked up by the Cubs), which is a relative steal for a team with serious money issues in the short-term.

Lester and Hamels will both be pitching in their age-35 seasons, but they've proven they still have what it takes to get outs — Lester with some lesser stuff than in years past and Hamels has a wide array of pitches he can utilize to keep hitters off balance while still touching 95 mph on the gun.

Montgomery represents quality depth for this team if injury strikes and wound up making 19 starts last year — posting a 3.69 ERA in the rotation.

Chatwood is the ultimate wild-card in that he's still under 30 (he turns 29 next month) and has never had control issues anywhere near his 2018 struggles, so it's reasonable to expect he still has the potential to turn things around. But will it be too little, too late? Can the Cubs find a trade partner for Chatwood if they're willing to eat some of the remaining $25.5 million on his contract? 

What's next?

Epstein and Jed Hoyer constantly talk about the need to go 9-10 arms deep in the rotation because they know a lack of quality starting pitching is the quickest way to flush a season down the toilet. 

Beyond those seven options above, the Cubs still have some rotation depth waiting in the wings.

Alec Mills impressed in his late-season audition with the clubs, flashing strikeout stuff and turning heads with his composure and versatility to pitch both out of the bullpen and in the rotation (which is good because he's out of options). 

The Cubs are really high on top prospect Adbert Alzolay and they believe he can be a major part of their future rotations, but he's still only 23 and coming off an injury-riddled season. He figures to have major restrictions on his workload next year even if he shows enough development to make it to the majors at some point in 2019.

Duane Underwood Jr. made his MLB debut in a solid 4-inning showing in LA in 2018 and it seems like he's been around forever, but is still only 24 after spending the last seven years in the Cubs system. 

Jen-Ho Tseng has been a spot starter over the past couple seasons and 23-year-old Trevor Clifton figures to be added to the big-league roster this winter now that he's Rule-5 eligible. But those guys are probably only emergency options in the short term.

It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Cubs take a few fliers on veterans on minor-league deals — similar to how the Brewers signed Wade Miley in February and watched the southpaw emerge as a major piece of their rotation.

The bottom line

The rotation was supposed to be the strength of the Cubs in 2018 and after four months of nothing but flashes of greatness, they finally hit their stride in the final third of the season once Hamels joined the rotation. Now there's the potential to be even better from Day 1, especially if Darvish can actually return to the pitcher he was before the start of the 2017 World Series. 

It has to be a comforting feeling to Epstein and Co. to know they pretty much are set with their rotation for next season even before Thanksgiving hits, allowing the front office to turn their attention to more pressing needs like the bullpen and trying to fix an underperforming lineup.