Do the 2018 Cubs have the best starting rotation in Chicago baseball history?


Do the 2018 Cubs have the best starting rotation in Chicago baseball history?

Over the next few years, we could be heading into the golden era of Chicago baseball.

The Cubs have won more games than any team over the last three years, they've been to three straight National League Championship Series, and they won the World Series in 2016. On the South Side, the White Sox have compiled one of the top-rated farm systems in game, making the future bright on both sides of town.

But looking back on some of the golden eras of the past, here's a question: Do the 2018 Cubs have the best starting rotation in the history of Chicago's two major league franchises?

Before you start arguing back and forth, we need to look back at the history and base our opinions on some facts. I've been digging into the archives with our stats guru, Chris Kamka. We found six rotations to stack the 2018 Cubs up against for fun: three from the North Side and three from the South Side. The best of the best. Let's start with the old school.

1907 Cubs

For 108 years Cubs fans heard about 1908, but it's the 1907 Cubs rotation that we are focusing on. Jack Pfiester, Carl Lundgren, Mordecai Brown, Orval Overall and Ed Reulbach each won at least 14 games. Pfiester is the only one who didn't win 17 or more games. They led the Cubs to their first World Series win, and all five pitchers in the rotation had an ERA under 2.00. The Cubs were 107-45 on the season.

1920 White Sox

Wins might not be the best way to evaluate pitching performance anymore, but it's still part of the equation. The 1920 White Sox have something that only one other rotation in the history of the game can claim: They had four 20-game winners in Red Faber (23-13), Eddie Cicotte (21-10), Lefty Williams (22-14) and Dickey Kerr (21-9). Here's the knock on the 1920 Sox: They finished in second place while Cicotte and Williams were banned after the season for being part of the Black Sox Scandal of 1919.

1983 White Sox

Yes, '83. "Winning Ugly" was the rally cry, but the Sox had three starters who were just flat-out winning. LaMarr Hoyt, Richard Dotson and Floyd Bannister combined to go 42-5 with an ERA of 2.55 in 53 starts after the All-Star break. That run included 17 complete games. Relievers weren't used nearly as often back then, but it's still eye-popping. Hoyt (24-10, 3.66 ERA) won the Cy Young Award that year, while Dotson (22-7, 3.23) was equally impressive.

2003 Cubs

There's no shortage of accusers who think manager Dusty Baker might have overused his starting pitchers. The 2003 Cubs are one of only two NL teams since 2000 to have four pitchers compile 200 innings or more. The other is Baker's 2012 Cincinnati Reds team. Dusty rode his "horses" because they were good. Kerry Wood (3.20 ERA), Mark Prior (2.43 ERA), Carlos Zambrano (3.11 ERA) and Matt Clement (4.11 ERA) were third in the NL in earned run average. Wood and Prior were just the fourth duo in NL history to each record more than 240 strikeouts in the same season. Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax and Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling (twice) are the others. The knock on the '03 Cubs? They fell short.

2005 White Sox

If "being the best" only included rotations pitching in the postseason, this debate would be much easier. The 2005 world champion White Sox set the standard. They are the only team ever to have four complete games in an LCS. In fact, they are the only team with four complete games in any postseason series since the Detroit Tigers in the 1968 World Series. Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia, Jon Garland, Jose Contreras and Orlando Hernandez ranked fourth in the majors in regular-season ERA. When it counted most, they were historically good.

2016 Cubs

Billy goats be gone. Kyle Hendricks (2.13 ERA), Jon Lester (2.44 ERA), Jake Arrieta (3.10 ERA), John Lackey (3.35 ERA) and Jason Hammel (3.83 ERA). Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer built the world champion Cubs by stockpiling young bats, but when it came time to end the curse, their starting pitching was unmatched in franchise history. Hendricks and Lester were the first pair of Cubs pitchers to finish 1-2 in the majors in ERA since 1938, when Bill Lee and Charlie Root did it. And behind them was Arrieta, the 2015 Cy Young winner. Cubs starters combined to post a 2.96 ERA. The pitcher who led the American League was 0.04 points higher. Good luck trying to top that.

Other Cy Young winners

Awards can help identify greatness. Chicago boasts six more Cy Young Award winners that we have yet to mention: Early Wynn (1959), Fergie Jenkins (1971), Bruce Sutter (1979), Rick Sutcliffe (1984), Greg Maddux (1992) and Jack McDowell (1993). The problem for these six star pitchers is that we are looking for the best full rotation. These pitchers were individually great, but one through five on the staff wasn't as good as some of the others listed above.

2018 Cubs

Where will they fall in Chicago baseball history? For now, all we can do is guess, but it will take some fantastic numbers to make this list.

Dan Plesac from MLB Network joins Luke Stuckmeyer on the latest CubsTalk Podcast to discuss all that and more:

The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

How much do the Cubs really need Manny Machado? 

They entered play Tuesday leading the National League in runs per game, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and run differential.

That doesn't sound like a team desperate for another bat and would trade future assets to go all-in for only a few months of a player, even one as good as Machado.

Of course, the Cubs went out and got walloped 10-1 by the Indians Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, but that had more to do with awful pitching and Machado won't do a thing to help that area of the game. In fact, Machado would actually hurt the team's run prevention given he's a worse defensive shortstop than Addison Russell.

All that being said, the Machado rumors probably won't be going anywhere until the Baltimore Orioles deal their shortstop to either the Cubs or another team, so Russell will have to get used to hearing his name included in such conversations.

Any Cubs package headed to Baltimore for Machado likely has to start with Russell, the Cubs' 24-year-old shortstop who won't become a free agent until after the 2021 season.

"He would be robotic if it did not [affect him]," Joe Maddon said. "I think honestly if he was 7, 8, 10 years into the league and something like this was being bandied about, probably not nearly as much. But the age that he's at, the experience level that he's at, I think it just can't help but have an impact.

"So we just gotta continue to nurture him here. I talk to him all the time. There's certain things you can't control. You can't control what's being said, but you can control how you react to it. That's about the best thing we could encourage him to do and he'll get our support."

Maddon said he gives Russell a hug and reminds him of "something" before every game as he tries to massage the confidence of a player that is currently the shortstop of a Cubs team with World Series expectations.

Russell doesn't turn 25 until next January, yet many people act like he's already peaked as a player. 

He's two years removed from hitting 21 homers and driving in 95 runs as part of the 2016 championship season.

2017 was a lost year for so many reasons — from off-field issues to shoulder and foot problems — and Russell has only 1 homer in the first quarter of the 2018 season, but he's taken other strides this year.

He currently boasts career best marks in walk percentage, strikeout percentage, line drive percentage, groundball percentage and is using the opposite field more than ever.

The power hasn't come yet this year, but a .343 on-base percentage is a pretty solid complementary piece to one of the best all-around defenders in the game.

Russell ranks 10th in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved among all players, tied for second among shortstops. Fielding metrics are not perfect, but Machado is 133rd in DRS among qualifed fielders and 24th among shortstops, so there is clearly a gap between the two players' glovework.

Maddon has never shown any outward sign of altering his belief in Russell becoming a dynamic player.

"Addy's gonna continue to progress to the point where all his game is gonna become consistent," Maddon said. "And even beyond that, who do you like better at shortstop [defensively] right now? ... His throwing's dramatically improved. His baserunning decisions — I know he had a gaffe in Cincinnati, but for the most part, he's gotten better.

"So what we're really talking about is his hitting. That's where people get hung up about this game all the time. I see absolute progress in that, also. He just came off a hot week and he had a couple tough days and then all of a sudden, it becomes exaggerated. Why? Because he's 24.

"I think the sky is the limit for this guy. He's a confidence guy like most of us are. As he's feeling good about himself, that's when the line drives start to occur. I mean, one of the biggest hits so far was the ball over the centerfielder's head in Atlanta [last week].

"And he always has this tendency to do some really good work when it matters most. He's been that guy already. So just be patient. He's just gonna keep getting better."

Remember, Russell is the same guy that hit a grand slam and drove in 6 runs in Game 6 of the World Series in Cleveland and started every game at shortstop that postseason. Every year Russell has been the Cubs' shortstop, the season has included a trip to the National League Championship Series.

"Our front office has always been one to make moves and they’re not afraid to do things and we’ve seen that," Kris Bryant said. "We won a world series because of that, getting [Aroldis] Chapman and some of the other guys we got, but we don’t put one ounce of thought into that because we’re happy with the guys we have here.

"The effort that everybody puts forth day in and day out when they’re on the field is spectacular. You know we have a great group of guys here and until someone is gone, we’re going to play with what we’ve got and continue to play the way we have. So, not much thought about [trade rumors]."

Russell has also quietly been very productive over the last month after a slow start to the season. Since April 26, he boasts a .306/.386/.444 slash line (.830 OPS).

It's still hard to see the Cubs willing to give up the next 3.5 years of Russell for 3 months of Machado and MAYBE a slightly better chance of re-signing the superstar this winter.

"I was talking about a 24-year-old hitter, what about a 24-year-old human being having to process all of that?" Maddon asked. "Whether he's hearing it or not from anywhere here, it's just mom, dad, brother, friend, former coach on the phone — 'What's that all about?' 

"He's gotta be inundated with that conversation. He didn't ask for that. He's just doing his job."

Cubs still searching for answers for Tyler Chatwood's puzzling control issues

Cubs still searching for answers for Tyler Chatwood's puzzling control issues

Tyler Chatwood looked to be turning the corner with his control issues, but alas, he and the Cubs aren't so lucky.

After walking only two batters in a solid start in Atlanta last week, Chatwood had taken a big step in the right direction. It was, after all, only the third time he'd walked fewer than 5 batters in an outing this season.

Those control woes reared their ugly heads once again Tuesday night at Wrigley Field in a 10-1 loss to the Indians. Chatwood walked 6 batters and managed to net only 8 outs, getting hammered for 4 runs in the third inning.

"Ugh, it was tough," Maddon said. "The stuff was so good, we just couldn't get a strike."

"It's definitely frustrating," Chatwood said, "because one at-bat, I'll feel really good and the next one, I feel like I'm fighting myself.

"Last time [out], I was able to stay in the rhythm. Tonight, I was kinda battling, rushing rather than staying back, so it's just keeping that feeling and maintaining that."

His season ERA is only 3.74, which looks good until you consider his WHIP is 1.62 and he's walked 40 batters in 45.2 innings with only 41 strikeouts in the process. He now leads baseball in walks per 9 innings.

Chatwood said earlier this month in St. Louis that he's figured out what has led to the startling lack of control and while he didn't elaborate on the mechanical issue, he was working hard at correcting the problem in bullpens.

He's also used the term "fighting myself" at least a dozen times this month alone and it's become a common refrain for his explanation of what's going on. 

"He's got a busy delivery when he throws the baseball," Maddon said. "He's kinda busy what he does with his hands. It's not like he can just change it easily because that's how his arm works, how his body works.

"Sometimes, like you see him the other day, everything's on time and how good it can be and when it's out of sorts a bit, then all of the sudden it becomes shotgun. Ah man, you can see the movement [on his pitches] from the side, how good it is. 

"We gotta harness it somehow. I spoke to him briefly on the bench; I reassured him it's gonna be fine, it's gonna be really good by the end of the year. We gotta figure it out and he knows that. But man, that's good stuff. We just gotta get it in the zone."

Chatwood also admitted part of the problem is mental in that he's trying to force pitches rather than trusting his stuff. He's also gotten into the bad habit of drifting down the mound, though he's not sure when or where he picked up that hitch in his delivery.

Chatwood and Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey are working on slowing his delivery down to get his arm in the same spot on a more consistent basis.

When the Cubs signed Chatwood over the winter, it was easy to see why.

He just turned 28 in December, his peripherals and a move from hitter-friendly Coors Field foretold a potential leap in performance and his stuff is nasty. Plus, he signed a three-year deal at a relative bargain of $38 million.

Once the Cubs signed Yu Darvish in spring training, you could make the case that Chatwood could be among the best No. 5 starters in baseball.

Nine starts later, the honeymoon period is well over with Chatwood, as he threw only 30 of his 74 pitches for strikes Tuesday night and sent catcher Willson Contreras sailing all around home plate for pitches way out of the zone.

Still, it's clear to see there is some intriguing talent there and the season there is roughly 70 percent of the season remaining before the Cubs make what they hope is another run at the World Series.

"I have a lot of faith," Maddon said. "I know we're gonna reap the rewards, the benefits as he figures this thing out."