Cubs

Jose Quintana's option and the Cubs 2020 rotation

Jose Quintana's option and the Cubs 2020 rotation

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.

Cubs Talk Podcast: MLB Insider Jeff Passan talks about Cubs offseason plan

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: MLB Insider Jeff Passan talks about Cubs offseason plan

02:00 Jeff Passan predicts a significant trade or two for the Cubs this winter

03:00 Passan says the Cubs will be retooling, not rebuilding, because they still have good players

04:00 Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras are the most likley to be traded

05:00 Passan explains the perception of Contreras around the league

07:00 How active will the Cubs be in free agency?

08:00 Any chance the DH will come to the NL soon?

09:00 What would a Cubs team with Anthony Rendon look like (even though it's very unlikely)

12:00 What are you more disappointed in? The haul the Cubs gave up to the White Sox or the results they have gotten from Jose Quintana?

19:00 Is Willson Contreras the most likely Cubs player to be traded this winter?

21:00 If the DH is eventually coming to the National League, is it worth hanging on to Kyle Schwarber even longer?

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

Subscribe:

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Be ready for anything: Cubs open to all trade avenues this winter

Be ready for anything: Cubs open to all trade avenues this winter

While Cubs fans sit on the edge of their seats waiting to see if Theo Epstein's front office trades away a core player — and which guy that might be — the question has really become more of a when

Both because it seems likely Epstein shakes up this Cubs roster this winter and because there's natural curiosity about the timing of such a move. 

If the Cubs don't get the type of return they're seeking for players like Willson Contreras and Kris Bryant, they are not going to trade just for trade's sake. But it's clear the roster needs a change and the front office has also shifted a good amount of focus on the long-term future of the organization — beyond 2021, when most of the core players are set to hit free agency.

As for when a major trade may come down, there's really no indication on that front. The MLB Hot Stove season has taken longer and longer to get going in recent winters and that very much appears to be the case again this 2019-20 offseason as many teams — including the Cubs — have just recently finalized their coaching staff and key front office hires.

At the GM Meetings last week, the Cubs said they were in the early stages of any offseason moves and had just started to exchange names with other teams about who is and isn't available.

They're not pigeonholing themselves into any one avenue for how the winter will play out.

"Sometimes you get a feel for the marketplace or kernels of ideas and they end up coming true and you look back and you're like, 'ah, that feel we had really matched the whole tenor of the offseason with certain teams,'" Epstein said. "Other times, you can go through a whole Russian novel's worth of twists and turns in an offseason depending on one or two player moves or clubs changing course or being able to execute things or not execute things. 

"We'll see. I think the important thing is to keep a really open mind and be prepared for all different permutations of how things can work out."

As for what shape the trades may come in, be ready for anything. 

The Cubs have said they still have no issues trading within the division, so even in a year where they're planning on competing in the wide-open NL Central, they're more concerned with improving their organization in the long run than worrying about potentially making a rival better.

Epstein also said they're not afraid of acquiring a player with only one year of team control left, as long as it makes sense. But there's no reason right now for the Cubs to mortgage the future to go all-in on 2020.

"It just depends on the player and the fit and the acquisition cost, and everything else," Epstein said. "I think we're like every team — to one extent or another, we're trying to balance an immediate future vs. a longer-term future. We knew that as we got closer to the end of the period of club control with some of our best players, we had to be increasingly mindful of if you put the longer-term future rather than just the short-term. 

"It's a bit of a transition for us, but it doesn't mean you rule anything out, even if it's something short-term. But you try to strike that right balance."

The Cubs also insist they're not locked into adding any one specific position or type of player. For example, they're not only looking to trade for centerfielders or leadoff guys — even if both are clear areas of need in the short-term.

Anything is on the table, which makes sense considering trading a core guy would also open up a hole elsewhere on the roster. If Contreras is dealt, the Cubs could feel pretty confident about Victor Caratini sliding into a larger role, but they would obviously need more catching depth both in the short- and long-term.

"I still think we have a lot of pieces that can move around the board a bit," Jed Hoyer said. "As we think about what we're gonna do [and] have conversations the whole winter, there's a big picture element to it where I think we're not gonna be entirely married to this position or that position — making moves that make sense both long-term and short-term. 

"We do have pieces that you can move around that makes us able to do that. We don't have particular holes that we feel like we have to spend the whole winter trying to fill, but rather we can make some moves maybe a little bit more strategically."

So the Cubs are saying all the right things, but what does that mean? 

For starters, it doesn't appear any major move is approaching on the horizon and regardless of what the first trade or free agent signing is, it will be just one piece to a larger puzzle. This is shaping up to be a crucial offseason in every aspect of the organization, so the final judgement of the winter will be the most important one.

But as the Cubs try to put that puzzle together and make their big-picture plans a reality, they're not going to get sidetracked by the incessant rumors and aim to continue trying to shield their players from a similar fate.

"We can't chase down every rumor," Hoyer said. "People are gonna put stuff out there about our guys and there's definitely some clickbait opportunity about our guys. We have a lot of guys who have been All-Stars and you can put a story out pretty easily that gets clicks. 

"One of the things about our players in general is we're in a big market, they're used to having their name in trade rumors, they're used to having their names out there. I think they have a sense of what's real and what's not real. But we can't chase down every rumor. We can't deny every rumor because we know that's going to happen. We have to live with that. We're not gonna add fuel to that fire, that's for sure." 

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