Cubs

State of the Cubs: Starting rotation

State of the Cubs: Starting rotation

As the Cubs maneuver through a pivotal offseason, we will break down the current state of the team each week by sectioning it off into position groups. Here is the first installment on the starting rotation.

Hot Stove season is heating up, but don't expect the Cubs to be linked to a bunch of starting pitchers.

That's because the rotation is really the only position group that is close to a finished product at the moment. 

When Theo Epstein's front office decided to pick up Cole Hamels' $20 million option for 2019, they also sent a message about how they feel about this rotation moving forward. Drew Smyly was dealt to the Texas Rangers to shed his $7 million salary for 2019 and create room for Hamels, who became a clear fit for this rotation with his contributions both on and off the field down the stretch last year.

In the minds of a large part of the fanbase, Hamels may have etched his spot in the 2019 rotation when he scoffed at the idea that the Brewers were even a rival of the Cubs

Still, the Cubs weren't expecting to shell out so much money to this rotation in the short-term, as Hamels, Jon Lester and Yu Darvish are all set to make more than $20 million next season. The team also picked up Jose Quintana's $10.5 million option and Kyle Hendricks is slated to make about $8 million in arbitration in 2019.

Throw in the $12.5 million the Cubs are paying Tyler Chatwood despite a lack of a clear role for the embattled right-hander and it's easy to see why the organization is not looking to spend a bunch more money to add depth beyond the Top 5 guys.

"The areas we're looking to address are our position group and the bullpen," Epstein said at the GM Meetings last week. "We're looking at a little starting depth here and there when we can, but right now, I think our rotation is a strength."

Here's how the 2019 rotation looks at the moment:

Depth chart

1. Jon Lester
2. Kyle Hendricks
3. Cole Hamels
4. Yu Darvish
5. Jose Quintana
6. Mike Montgomery
7. Tyler Chatwood

Assuming the Top 5 guys make it through spring training healthy, that will likely be how the Cubs line up their rotation in order. Hendricks and Darvish would ensure the Cubs aren't throwing out back-to-back-to-back lefties often like they were in the final couple months of 2018.

On paper, this looks like it could be one of the best rotations in baseball, but clearly we've said that before — even as recently as February after Darvish signed — and it hasn't played out that way.

But Darvish's first year in Chicago was a total disaster, bogged down by injury (triceps and elbow) and ineffectiveness (4.95 ERA, 1.43 WHIP). He will head into 2019 as maybe the biggest X-factor on the roster — a guy capable of pitching like an ace but he has fallen on rough times since the start of the 2017 World Series. The Cubs still have more than $100 million committed to Darvish over the next five years, so getting him right ranks way up there in terms of importance for a team aiming to take home another ring.

Hendricks got off to a slow start, but he continues to show that he has emerged as a co-ace of this pitching staff thanks to an 8-3 record, 2.84 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 88.2 innings after the All-Star Break. 

Quintana had an up-and-down 2018, but dealt with some shoulder issues around the All-Star Break and posted a 2.92 ERA with 48 Ks in 49.1 innings over the last month-and-a-half of the season. He's under team control for the next two years at only $22 million (if his 2020 option is picked up by the Cubs), which is a relative steal for a team with serious money issues in the short-term.

Lester and Hamels will both be pitching in their age-35 seasons, but they've proven they still have what it takes to get outs — Lester with some lesser stuff than in years past and Hamels has a wide array of pitches he can utilize to keep hitters off balance while still touching 95 mph on the gun.

Montgomery represents quality depth for this team if injury strikes and wound up making 19 starts last year — posting a 3.69 ERA in the rotation.

Chatwood is the ultimate wild-card in that he's still under 30 (he turns 29 next month) and has never had control issues anywhere near his 2018 struggles, so it's reasonable to expect he still has the potential to turn things around. But will it be too little, too late? Can the Cubs find a trade partner for Chatwood if they're willing to eat some of the remaining $25.5 million on his contract? 

What's next?

Epstein and Jed Hoyer constantly talk about the need to go 9-10 arms deep in the rotation because they know a lack of quality starting pitching is the quickest way to flush a season down the toilet. 

Beyond those seven options above, the Cubs still have some rotation depth waiting in the wings.

Alec Mills impressed in his late-season audition with the clubs, flashing strikeout stuff and turning heads with his composure and versatility to pitch both out of the bullpen and in the rotation (which is good because he's out of options). 

The Cubs are really high on top prospect Adbert Alzolay and they believe he can be a major part of their future rotations, but he's still only 23 and coming off an injury-riddled season. He figures to have major restrictions on his workload next year even if he shows enough development to make it to the majors at some point in 2019.

Duane Underwood Jr. made his MLB debut in a solid 4-inning showing in LA in 2018 and it seems like he's been around forever, but is still only 24 after spending the last seven years in the Cubs system. 

Jen-Ho Tseng has been a spot starter over the past couple seasons and 23-year-old Trevor Clifton figures to be added to the big-league roster this winter now that he's Rule-5 eligible. But those guys are probably only emergency options in the short term.

It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Cubs take a few fliers on veterans on minor-league deals — similar to how the Brewers signed Wade Miley in February and watched the southpaw emerge as a major piece of their rotation.

The bottom line

The rotation was supposed to be the strength of the Cubs in 2018 and after four months of nothing but flashes of greatness, they finally hit their stride in the final third of the season once Hamels joined the rotation. Now there's the potential to be even better from Day 1, especially if Darvish can actually return to the pitcher he was before the start of the 2017 World Series. 

It has to be a comforting feeling to Epstein and Co. to know they pretty much are set with their rotation for next season even before Thanksgiving hits, allowing the front office to turn their attention to more pressing needs like the bullpen and trying to fix an underperforming lineup.

Anthony Rizzo joins Cubs All-Decade Team behind efforts on and off field

Anthony Rizzo joins Cubs All-Decade Team behind efforts on and off field

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

You saw this one coming, right?

As the Cubs’ longest tenure player, Anthony Rizzo was a shoo-in for this group. He hasn’t relinquished his starting first baseman job since making his Cubs debut in June 2012. The guy’s longevity alone is impressive.

But besides that, Rizzo has been a model of consistency during his time on the North Side. Since 2012, he’s hit 217 home runs (averaging 27 per season) and hit 32 three times from 2014-17. The lone exception? 2015, when he hit 31. So close…

As a Cub, Rizzo is a .277/.376/.496 hitter with a 132 OPS+. He produces at a high clip each season, whether he’s hitting third, cleanup or leadoff, all while simultaneously playing stellar defense. The 30-year-old is a three-time Gold Glove Award winner (2016, 2018-19).

Rizzo is the guy who comes up huge in key moments but will be there to address the media after tough losses. He’s the de facto captain of the Cubs, the guy who suffered a nasty ankle sprain in September that could have ended his regular season. Instead, he returned four days later for a key series against the rival Cardinals, as the Cubs were fighting to keep their October dreams alive.

When he’s not leading his team on the field, Rizzo is giving back to the community off of it. He’s one of the most charitable athletes in the world and recently raised $1.3 million for children’s cancer research at his “8th annual Walk-off for Cancer” in his home state of Florida.

Rizzo was the first building block of the Cubs core which snapped their infamous 108-year championship drought, but he’ll be remembered for more than that. He’s a leader on and off the field, the clear choice for starting first baseman on our Cubs All-Decade Team.

Also considered: Derrek Lee, Bryan LaHair

Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but price tag could stymie trade talks

Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but price tag could stymie trade talks

With Anthony Rendon officially joining the Angels, the Nationals have a vacancy at third base.

Washington has options to replace Rendon; Josh Donaldson is still available in free agency, and Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant could potentially be had via trade.

The Nationals have reportedly inquired with the Cubs about Bryant, and while they “love” the 27-year-old, their focus is on Donaldson, according to MLB Network’s Jon Heyman. The Cubs would likely seek center fielder Victor Robles in a deal, a holdup on Washington's end, Heyman said.

From the Cubs perspective, it would make all the sense in the world to ask for Robles. He’s 22 years old, plays excellent defense (22 DRS in 2019, No. 1 in MLB by center fielders) and is only scratching the surface as a big-leaguer. Robles is projected to be a star, but Bryant already is one. If the Nationals want Bryant badly enough, they’ll have to sacrifice talent in a deal.

On the other hand, it’s easy to understand why Washington would be unwilling to trade Robles, who's under team control through 2024. Bryant will hit free agency after 2021, but if he wins his ongoing grievance case, he'll hit the open market after next season.

Nonetheless, if the Nationals do engage in Bryant trade talks, you can bet the Cubs will at least ask for Robles in return. A trade could be worked out without him, but for a Cubs team searching for better center field production, you've got to wonder who could be more enticing than Robles.

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