After the Cubs spent a long week on the road getting smacked around by the Braves and Reds — and occasionally by each other — fans get a glimpse starting Monday at Wrigley Field of a new-look championship-caliber rotation.
Just to be clear for anyone actually wondering, that rotation does not belong to the Cubs.
The day after first-year Cub Trevor Williams got knocked out of a 13-12 loss to the Reds in the third inning, the Cubs face the Dodgers in a three-game series that includes two opposing starters (Clayton Kershaw and Trevor Bauer) with four combined Cy Young Awards and a third starter (Walker Buehler) who many believe is better than either of them.
Baseball being baseball, the Cubs might win the series — who knows?
Until then, the two rotations at Wrigley this week offer a study in contrasts not seen in these parts since at least the last time the Brewers were in town.
The Dodgers, who rode their pitching to three of the last four World Series and a 2020 title, have the third-ranked rotation in the game (2.71 ERA and 13-5 record) entering the series and average six innings a start.
The Cubs have the worst rotation ERA in the majors and average the fewest innings per start in the National League.
“We really need to do better as a rotation, and we know that. We really do,” said Williams, whose season ERA jumped to 6.00 — making him literally average for the Cubs’ rotation.
The team’s rotation ERA also rose to 6.00, and a team that led the majors in rotation innings last year is averaging less than 4 2/3 inning per start 29 games into this season
And it’s actually gotten worse as the early weeks have progressed.
The Cubs have lost seven of their last nine games. The rotation is 1-4 with a 7.62 ERA and 4 1/3 innings per start in that stretch.
They went 2-5 on the just-concluded road trip. The rotation: 1-3, 9.53, 4 innings per start.
Perhaps obviously, the Cubs have leaned on their bullpen for more innings than anyone else, which has made a nine-man relief crew necessary even as the Cubs had hoped to find a way to reduce it to eight — but instead have seen an already thin bench stretched thinner by injuries.
In fact, when Ian Happ was forced to leave Sunday’s game in the eighth inning after a collision in the outfield with Nico Hoerner, the Cubs were on the verge of running out of position players.
Catcher Willson Contreras, who has nursed a day-to-day thigh injury since Friday, was forced to finish the game because he was the last non-pitcher on the bench. And when the pitcher’s spot in the order came up in the 10th inning, manager David Ross was forced to use a better hitting pitcher — Jake Arrieta —to pinch hit (he struck out).
But after talking about the potentially tough decision the club will have to make when Joc Pederson (wrist) is ready to return from the injured list, with Hoerner playing so well, Ross didn’t hesitate to put the blame where it belonged when asked again afterward about the hazards of a short bench on days such as Sunday.
“When you have maybe a lack of length out of the front end of the rotation, that’s when things get out of whack,” Ross said.
They’re still the only team in the majors without a starter recording an out in the seventh.
“It’s something that has been addressed as a group, and it’s something that will be addressed going forward,” Williams said. “And it’s something that we just need to get going as a rotation.”
The thing is none of it should sound surprising for a team that slashed payroll over the winter, traded its Cy Young runner-up to San Diego in a salary dump and looked on paper like it was fielding an iffy rotation from the outset.
And it definitely shouldn’t come as a surprise that the position area that became the backbone of six consecutive winning seasons has sunk the Cubs to last place a month into the season because of that approach.
Beyond knowing that a big-market team shouldn’t have had to dump Yu Darvish coming off its fifth playoff appearance in six years, the presence of the Dodgers this week has the risk of rubbing salt in fans’ wounds.
Behold the big-market team that produced sustained success, built a strong farm system without tanking and then added Bauer, the reigning Cy Young winner, as a free agent in the same winter the Cubs dumped the guy who finished second.
And across the field this week, behold the home team that tanked to rebuild until signing Jon Lester to that six-year deal after its 2014 last-place finish — then last winter refused to engage him in talks on a discounted short-term deal to return.
Whatever level of credit and correlation you want to apply, Lester never pitched on a losing team for the Cubs and along the way made 10 postseason starts and pitched 71 postseason innings — and a few days ago made his season debut for the Nationals with five scoreless innings.
No doubt that where the Cubs were before Lester and where they find themselves after choosing to be without him has more to do with “biblical losses,” heavy debt related to surrounding real-estate development and the larger approach to this “transition” they acknowledge for 2021.
Meanwhile, the Cubs haven’t had this much trouble winning since the last time the organization was actually trying to lose.