Jose Quintana

The Cubs rotation may finally be rounding into form

The Cubs rotation may finally be rounding into form

After the Cubs signed Yu Darvish in February, there were a lot of people opining that this could be the best rotation in baseball and maybe the best in franchise history.

It's the first week of August and we still haven't seen anything close to that level of production from the Cubs starting staff.

Yet things are starting to look up for this rotation.

On a day when Darvish finally delivered some good news about his rehab process, Kyle Hendricks' final line in the Cubs' 5-4 victory didn't look all that great.

But beneath the surface, it was another step in the right direction for "The Professor."

For the second start in a row, Hendricks did not walk a batter (though he did hit former Cubs farmhand Christian Villanueva twice). He gave up just 5 hits in 5.2 innings, but 4 of those batters came around to score. 

He was also done in by an error of his own accord, throwing the ball into the stands on Travis Jankowski's tapper back to the mound to lead off the fourth. 

Hendricks felt like he only really made two bad pitches and Joe Maddon was raving about the right-hander's stuff after the game.

"Did a lot of things that I'm trying to work on really well, just gotta stick with it," Hendricks said.

He also expressed confidence in his arsenal more, feeling more comfortable throwing the curveball and able to unleash his two-seam fastball with conviction.

At times Saturday, Willson Contreras looked to have trouble catching Hendricks' two-seamer cleanly because of the late movement. 

"It was moving a lot," Hendricks said. "Really, glove-side, I thought I had good command with it. It's kinda what I've been trying to work on and not so much side-to-side action. I felt like I had more sink today.

"It just allows me to attack the strike zone a little better. Maybe now that I see it, I can trust it a little more, start using it more. But yeah, it's definitely the best it's probably been all year."

To borrow a phrase from Maddon, it hasn't been an oil painting for Hendricks this season, but he's really only had one bad month.

In five June starts, Hendricks carried a 7.03 ERA, 1.69 WHIP and walked 15 batters vs. only 18 strikeouts in 24.1 innings. 

In seven starts since the end of June, Hendricks has a 3.76 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and only 5 walks vs. 40 strikeouts in 40.2 innings.

The equation is simple: He's getting more swings and misses and not doling out free passes.

That's more like the Kyle Hendricks Cubs fans have become accustomed to — the Game 1 starter in the NLDS and the guy who pitched this franchise to the first World Series in more than seven decades.

The Cubs rotation hasn't been going out and tossing a bunch of shutouts or even notching many quality starts, but the positive vibes around the group are beginning to pick up some steam within the clubhouse. Whispers of a turnaround are getting a bit louder.

Jose Quintana had arguably his best start of the season Friday, the first time in 2018 he has not walked a batter. The results were good, but the Cubs were just as happy with how he got there, throwing his fastball with conviction for the first time in a while.

Mike Montgomery felt very encouraged about his start Thursday after trying out a new grip on his curveball and incorporating more of a slider/cutter into his repertoire.

Cole Hamels' debut could not have gone much better, as he struck out 9 and allowed just an unearned run in 5 innings Wednesday.

Then there's Hendricks' turnaround, Jon Lester playing the role of the steady veteran (12-4, 3.22 ERA) and good news on the potential return of both Darvish and Drew Smyly.

Since Quintana's rough first inning in St. Louis a week ago, Cubs starters have allowed just 8 earned runs in 30.1 innings, carrying a 2.37 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in that span. They've also walked only 6 batters vs. 28 strikeouts.

"We're definitely getting there," Hendricks said. "We're on the upswing. Q's been throwing the ball real well. Hamels' first start looked real good. Even today, I thought it was a little better than the line turned out. 

"We gotta stick with what we're doing, kinda following Jon, just making good pitches, attacking the strike zone. It'll come, but I think we're definitely on the upswing right now."

How the Cubs would manage their rotation if they added a starter before trade deadline

How the Cubs would manage their rotation if they added a starter before trade deadline

Conventional wisdom would tell you that with five starting pitchers already locked in, there's no need to go out and trade for another.

But anybody who's watched this Cubs rotation all year knows that conventional wisdom need not apply.

Never mind the fact that Yu Darvish hasn't pitched since before Memorial Day Weekend and still has no timetable on his return. Mike Montgomery has helped ease that burden with a fantastic turn in the Cubs rotation (3.02 ERA, 1.18 WHIP in 10 starts). 

Apart from his first start out of the All-Star Break last week, Jon Lester has been stellar and the true ace of the staff. But Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana have vastly underperformed while Tyler Chatwood's start Thursday was a microcosm of his season-long control issues (6 walks in 4.2 IP). 

That helps explain why the Cubs are being linked to starting pitchers ahead of Tuesday's trade deadline despite five healthy members of the rotation.

They were reportedly in on J.A. Happ before he was dealt to the Yankees and are also said to be in conversations with the Texas Rangers about Cole Hamels

"I've always thought under these circumstances — the trade deadline — it's really important to bring somebody in that players could recognize are better than what we have going on right now," Joe Maddon said. "Because if you don't, then the threat is to really divide the locker room and we have a great locker room. 

"That's the lesson I learned several years ago. I'm always aware of that."

That would be easy to do if the Cubs went out and traded for Jacob deGrom or Chris Archer, but they probably don't have the assets to pull off that move without dealing away from the depth on the big-league roster that has suddenly become so valuable.

But would a guy like Hamels be a clear upgrade over anybody the Cubs currently have in the rotation? He's 34, in the midst of the worst season of his career (4.72 ERA, 1.37 WHIP) and is owed about $14 million between the rest of this season and a $6 million buyout for 2019.

Working in Hamels' favor, he has 98.1 postseason innings under his belt and is striking out a batter per inning this year. Plus, a move to the National League and working in front of the Cubs' elite defense should also provide a potential boost.

Cubs fans remember Hamels for his no-hitter for the Phillies at Wrigley Field just before being traded to the Rangers in July 2015.

"He's been pretty good," Maddon said. "I've not liked him for a long time. He's pitched some really big games against teams I've been involved with and has done really well. He's a great competitor. Got good stuff, but he competes and he knows what he's doing out there. So I have to rank him as a pretty competent left-handed pitcher."

Chatwood's struggles are well-documented and after Friday, he sits at a 4.98 ERA on the season with a 1.78 WHIP and more walks (85) than strikeouts (82) in 94 innings.

The Cubs signed Chatwood to a 3-year, $38 million deal over the winter and based on the structure of the deal, he cannot be sent down to the minor leagues to work out his persistent control issues. The team could move him to the bullpen, but that's an unsettling thought to call on a guy late in a game who struggles to find the zone.

Still, the Cubs have options even if they are able to add another starter. 

Maddon and Co. have been talking about the potential for a six-man rotation since spring training — they just haven't been able to enact it yet given Darvish's injury. 

Acquiring a starter before next week's trade deadline could give the Cubs an opportunity to go to that six-man rotation and keep their starters fresher for the stretch run. 

That would certainly help Montgomery, who looks to be a mainstay in the rotation moving forward but also will eventually run up against an innings cap. His career high in innings pitched came last season at 130.2 (he threw 150.2 innings in the minor leagues in 2011). The 29-year-old lefty sits at 82 innings ahead of his start Friday and figures to surpass his 2017 innings total easily if he tosses every fifth day.

Acquiring a starting pitcher now would help ease the burden off everybody, but it also gives the Cubs an insurance policy if Darvish is never able to make it back. 

Beyond the five starters they have now, the Cubs don't have much rotation depth. Should injury strike, they'd have to move Jesse Chavez from the bullpen or turn to guys like Luke Farrell or Duane Underwood Jr.

Like the old adage goes, you can never have too much pitching.

It also gives the Cubs options for the postseason. If they make the NLDS, they'd want to trot out their best four starters and that may not be Chatwood if he can't get his control issues under...control.

Could the Cubs get by right now if they didn't add another starter?

"We would have to have Chatwood pitching as well as he possible can, getting back into the strike zone, absolutely," Maddon said. "Darvish in the wings is the really intriguing part. Again, I don't know when that's gonna occur, but that's about as good of an acquisition as we could possibly get right now. He's feeling better; I just don't know when it's gonna actually occur on the mound.

"I'm still concerned about Montgomery. He's doing great, but to really put an extraordinary load on him this year, I have no idea what's going to happen. Here comes September and that's a concern. 

"So those are the kinds of things that we're thinking about and just knowing [the front office], I would imagine something's gonna happen. ... I'm sure if it does happen, it's gonna be something that does make us better."

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

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USA TODAY

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: