The Cubs have some big decisions this winter to make regarding their starting staff.
Jon Lester is owed $20 million and is a lock for the Starting 5. You know, unless the Cubs tell him to stay home...
Yu Darvish ($22 million) and Kyle Hendricks ($12 million) are also guaranteed spots, probably as the team's Nos. 1 and 2 starters.
That's $54 million the Cubs already have committed to their rotation, but for only three guys. For perspective, the Tampa Bay Rays had a $64 million payroll for their entire roster in 2019.
Then there's Jose Quintana and his $11.5 million team option. Over the next few weeks, the Cubs have to decide if they will exercise that option and bring back Quintana to give them four spots in the rotation filled, but run the total salary to $65.5 million for four starters.
Quintana ended the season on a sour note (11.09 ERA in September), but he still finished second behind only Hendricks in WAR (3.5) on the Cubs pitching staff and the peripheral numbers show he was a victim of some bad luck in 2019.
As a whole, Quintana was a rock in the Cubs rotation this season while Lester, Hendricks, Darvish and Cole Hamels dealt with varying degrees of injury. The Cubs also went 11-3 in Quintana's starts from late-June through mid-September, so he still found a way to put his team in a position to win even when he was struggling.
But the starting rotation was supposed to be the anchor of this 2019 Cubs team — the key that pushed them to the postseason for the fifth straight season. It didn't quite work out that way, as the Cubs finished sixth in the NL in rotation ERA (4.18).
“We had really high hopes for our starting group this year," Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season presser. "You looked at it 1-through-5, we had a chance to roll out a really quality starter on a nightly basis and that might be an area that was a separator for us vs. some of the teams we were competing with. While we had a couple guys who had really good years and all our starters had their moments, it didn't prove to be a separator.
"There was some injury and regression (especially after injury) that led us to be closer to the pack certainly than we had envisioned. It’s an accomplished and experienced group, but with experience means that we could stand to add some younger talent, refresh the group as well. We certainly need to add depth and we need to add some youth and a little bit of a different look to the staff, as well, going forward.”
Well, that seems clear Cole Hamels is gone, then. The soon-to-be-36-year-old is a free agent and coming off a season where the Cubs paid him $20 million and things went as well as anybody could've imagined before he walked off the mound in Cincinnati on June 28 with an oblique injury. He was never the same after that.
Epstein's quote could also be interpreted in a way that could possibly explain why the Cubs may not decide to exercise Quintana's option.
Given the state of their financials and how much they already have committed to next season's roster, it's hard to see the Cubs being able to afford Gerrit Cole — the clear top starter on the market this winter. But if they were able to make it work, that might be the only strong reason against picking up Quintana's option — saving that $11.5 million in 2020 payroll and applying it to a guy who may get the richest pitching contract in MLB history.
Otherwise, it's hard to see how the Cubs could decline Quintana's option and feel better about their 2020 rotation going into spring training, since that opens up even more uncertainty. And $11.5 million is really not that much in today's market for a quality pitcher who has made at least 31 starts for seven straight seasons.
After his final start in Pittsburgh, Quintana acknowledged his "terrible" September and talked about how frustrated and disappointed he was. But he insists he was healthy and planned on heading into the offseason focused on making adjustments to gain more consistency and reduce the "highs and lows" that he felt summed up his 2019 campaign.
"I don't know what will happen [with my option]," he said. "I want to stay here and I want to keep playing for the Cubbies."
So where does that leave the Cubs 2020 rotation if they pick up Quintana's option?
The only way to get younger in the rotation — as Epstein mentioned — would be in the fifth starter's spot.
No matter what, the Cubs will add some depth, but they also have some intriguing options in-house.
Tyler Chatwood is set to make $13 million next year and enjoyed a resurgent season working as a swingman. There's an argument to be made that he did enough to be considered for a 2020 rotation spot, assuming the late-season shoulder issue he dealt with doesn't carry over into spring.
Alec Mills has also impressed as a spot starter and multi-inning reliever for the Cubs over the last two seasons, pitching to a 3.17 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 65 strikeouts in 54 MLB innings. He had a pair of good starts against the NL Central champion Cardinals in the final week of the season and will still be only 28 this November.
Then there's Adbert Alzolay, one of the organization's top pitching prospect who made his MLB debut in 2019 but has dealt with injuries and was on an innings limit this season. Do the Cubs feel like he's ready to finally make the jump to the big-league rotation in 2020?
Epstein's front office also has to determine if they will pick up the $3 million option on Kendall Graveman, the right-handed pitcher they signed last winter who spent all of 2019 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Graveman will be 29 in December and has a 4.38 career ERA in 83 big-league games (78 starts) with the A's and Blue Jays. He also has a minor-league option remaining, so he could represent valuable rotation depth and work back from his injuries in Triple-A Iowa if the Cubs feel like going that route.
Colin Rea isn't on the 40-man roster, but the 29-year-old right-hander performed well with Triple-A Iowa in a hitter-friendly league in 2019 (14-4, 3.95 ERA) and probably earned at least a look in spring if he returns to the club. He also has 26 MLB games (25 starts) on his resume.
So that's nine options the Cubs have in-house — if they pick up the options on Quintana and Graveman — for five rotation spots and some quality depth that could either move to the bullpen or get stashed in the minors.
But all that still doesn't seem like enough to deter Epstein and Co. from looking for outside upgrades this winter, whether via free agency or trade.
Darvish and Hendricks are the only proven starters under contract beyond 2020 (unless Lester's $25 million 2021 option vests or is picked up by the team), so no matter what, the Cubs have to find long-term solutions for the rotation soon.