Cubs

Eddie Butler or Mike Montgomery looks like next man up in Cubs rotation

Eddie Butler or Mike Montgomery looks like next man up in Cubs rotation

"It's still my goal to make this team out of camp," Eddie Butler said near the end of spring training, sounding very confident and a little delusional, or the type of attitude needed to make the leap from prospect and survive in this game. "I'm doing everything I possibly can to try to force their hand."

The Cubs talked up Butler as the next great hope for their pitching infrastructure, an ideal change-of-scenery guy to get out of Coors Field in a minor deal with the Colorado Rockies. But the entire fifth/sixth starter conversation revolved around Brett Anderson and Mike Montgomery — and the Cubs hoped to get through more than 19 percent of their schedule before the rotation became a problem.

Anderson forced the issue during Saturday night's 11-6 loss to the New York Yankees at Wrigley Field, exiting in the first inning with a back issue that will likely put him on the disabled list for the 10th time in his career. The injury-prone lefty is 1-for-6 in quality starts with an 8.18 ERA as a Cub. 

Now what? 

"You got Montgomery right here," manager Joe Maddon said. "Butler down in Triple-A, I hear, is throwing the ball really well. We definitely have good options."

Montgomery, the lefty swingman who got the final out in last year's World Series Game 7, might have more value at the moment out of the bullpen, where he's put together 14 consecutive scoreless innings.  

The Cubs could eventually trade for pitching from their surplus of hitters at Iowa — Ian Happ, Jeimer Candelario, Victor Caratini — but three weeks out from Memorial Day weekend isn't the time to make deals.

Remember when the Cubs "jumped the market" as sellers in 2013? Flipping Scott Feldman to the Baltimore Orioles in the Jake Arrieta/Pedro Strop heist didn't happen until July 2 that summer. 

It says something about the state of the farm system - plus the nonlinear nature of developing arms and the difficulty in pitching through mile-high altitude — that the Cubs could pin their hopes on a guy who's 6-16 with a 6.50 ERA across parts of three seasons in the big leagues.     

But Butler does have pedigree as a supplemental first-round draft pick (2012), All-Star Futures Game selection (2013) and Baseball America's No. 24 overall prospect (2014). 

That sense of momentum in Arizona carried over to Des Moines, where Butler threw six scoreless innings on Saturday night against the Triple-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, slicing his ERA to 1.17 through five starts.

Sooner or later, the Cubs are going to get another look at Butler, but they will ultimately need Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, John Lackey and Kyle Hendricks to kick-start a 16-14 team with a 4.79 rotation ERA. 

"My biggest concern is always health (and) if they're trying to pitch through issues," Maddon said. "None of them are. With Anderson right now, maybe he has been. But we're going to eliminate that for now."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Jon Lester struggles against the division-rival Cardinals

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Jon Lester struggles against the division-rival Cardinals

It was a tough day for the North Siders.

The Cubs got obliterated by the Cardinals as Matt Carpenter had a three-homer, two-double day. Ben Finfer, Seth Gruen and Maggie Hendricks join David Kaplan on the latest SportsTalk Live Podcast to talk about the blowout.

Was Jon Lester due for this kind of terrible outing? And do the Cubs have enough to swing a big trade before the deadline?

Plus, the panel discusses Matt Nagy’s first training camp practice in the rain and Roquan Smith’s absence in Bourbonnais.

You can listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Jon Lester saw a start like this coming

Jon Lester saw a start like this coming

Jon Lester had easily his worst outing of the year, allowing the Cardinals to score eight runs on seven hits, the veteran All-Star only managed three innings before Joe Maddon turned to his bullpen. 

The Cardinals would take game two of the series by the score of 18 to 5, and while none of the Cubs pitchers could silence the Cardinal bats, Lester didn't shy away from his poor outing. 

"You know, I don't want to chalk this up as bad days happen," said Lester. "I think mechanically this has kinda been coming." 

Lester knew he was struggling to hit his spots, and while his ERA was a sparkling 2.58 coming into this start, his peripheral stats had him pegged as a potential regression candidate in the second half of the season.

His 4.35 FIP and 3.30 walks per nine innings show a pitcher who is relying heavily on his defense to get outs, which isn't surprising for a 33-year-old veteran but the walks are a concern. 

Cubs manager Joe Maddon was aware Lester had been working on his mechanics, but even he was surprised that Lester's start went downhill so quickly. 

"I thought he had good stuff to start the game, hitting [92-93 mph] and I'm thinking this might be a good day," said Maddon. "But you could just see from the beginning he was off just a little bit." 

Over Lester's last four starts his ERA has been an uncharacteristic 4.57, issuing 10 walks over those four starts, and only making it past the 6th inning once. At this point of Lester's career, he knows the best way for him to get outs isn't through strikeouts but by inducing soft contact and avoiding walks. 

And while both his hard contact rate and walks have increased this season, Lester's experience and high baseball I.Q. has allowed him to navigate his way through sticky situations. 

"I've been getting outs," Lester said candidly. "I just feel like when I've had that strikeout or I have a guy set up for that pitch I haven't been able to execute it." 

And while this outing was one to forget, it's at least a positive sign that Lester is aware of his issues on the mound. The veteran knows how to get outs and he knows what he needs to do to be successful in the latter part of his career. He just needs to get back to executing those pitches. 

Just don't expect Lester to dive head first into the analytics on how to fix his issues, he'll stick to hard work and baseball common sense. 

"I'm not too concerned with the analytic B.S., I'm worried about my mechanical fix for my next start."