Take a good, long look at Jon Lester when he comes to town with the Cardinals this weekend.
Not only could it be the last chance to see Lester pitch at Wrigley Field, but it’s also a chance to glimpse one of the rare beasts left of a dying breed of baseball players, a bona fide major-league T-Rex (albeit, with a bigger left arm).
Consequently, he’s also a reminder of the Cubs’ blueprint the last time they built a competitive pitching core — and why we’ll never see it again on the North Side, no matter how much the Cubs spend on free agents or how many more championships they wind up winning.
“I think this offseason will be unique,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said.
That’s because the Cubs have plenty of money to go get their Jon Lester, like they did after the 2014 season. But there are no Jon Lesters.
Not this winter, next winter or perhaps any free agent class beyond that.
The 200-inning workhorse starting pitcher is all but gone from the game — already fading away before the conditions of the past two pandemic seasons hastened their demise like a comet wiping out dinosaurs.
And they aren’t being developed in farm systems, where, Hottovy points out, high-tech pitch labs and training methods are producing higher max-effort velocity and spin rates at a cost of the endurance-based training that used to be a staple of player development.
So when the Cubs go out this winter to rebuild one of the worst starting rotations in the game, a perfect-world scenario might mean signing a Robbie Ray or Marcus Stroman.
But the overall blueprint might resemble more of the kind of innings distribution the Cubs had this year than anything close to the long-abandoned traditional goal of the rotation providing 1,000 of the 1,450 or so innings in a season.
And that could mean adding only one high-level established,180-inning caliber pitcher and piecing together a staff out of decent five-inning guys and quality multi-inning relievers to bridge to the setup guys and closer mix.
“Our recipe for success this year is a five-inning start from the starter, a two-inning bridge guy, and then boom, boom, boom, the [back-end] guys in relief,” Hottovy said. “I don’t think we’re that far away from that being the norm of what you see.”
That’s how the Cubs won when they were at their best in May and part of June.
Opening Day starter Kyle Hendricks had his best run of success and deep starts; Adbert Alzolay had his one extended stretch of success; and everyone else in the rotation was managed with the expectation of twice through the order and/or five innings.
It’s why the Cubs continue to evaluate this year’s three key rookies — Alzolay, Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson — for their ability to navigate more than once through the order as starters against their value as multi-inning bridge relievers who won’t be asked to do more than that.
The industry-wide trend away from workhorse starters over the last 10 years in particular has led almost every team in baseball to re-evaluate how to build bullpens to cover more innings — with some teams, such as the cost-conscious Tampa Bay Rays, using aggressive “opener” and “bullpenning” strategies to reach the World Series last year and produce the best record in the American League this year.
Could the Cubs’ blueprint for success the next time around look more like the way they used their staff this year compared to seeking the likes of Lester (six of seven seasons with 200-plus innings and two World Series rings when signed) or John Lackey (six 200-inning seasons and two rings when he signed a year later)?
“I wouldn’t say the blueprint,” Hottovy said. “It’s more like what’s the game plan with the personnel we have.
“If your blueprint is, ‘We need our starters to give us six innings,’ then good luck going to find five of those guys,” he said. “You need more than five. You’re going to need six or seven because you’ve got to have depth throughout the organization.”
And they simply aren’t there to acquire these days.
Only one pitcher, Zack Wheeler of the Phillies, has pitched 200 innings this season, with three more, all in the National League, likely to reach the mark. It would be the fewest by far in a full major-league season in history — albeit, in a season with workloads highly managed and scrutinized because of the ramp-up following last year’s pandemic-shortened 60-game season.
But only 13 reached the mark in both 2018 and 2019, the last full seasons before this year — only 15 in each of 2017 and ’16.
“With last year, workload-wise, it was obviously going to cut a lot of guys short this year,” Hottovy said. “But who knows? Next year, maybe you see 10 200-inning guys again? You may. But I doubt it.”
Ray, who has never pitched 200 innings in his career, leads the American League with 182 innings and would need complete games in his final two starts to reach 200.
It will be the first time in a full season in American League history that a pitcher has not thrown 200 innings; the only other seasons overall were last year and the strike-shortened 1994 season that ended on Aug. 12.
Even in the strike-abbreviated season of 1981, Dennis Leonard of the Royals pitched 201 2/3 innings for a team that played only 103 games.
But that’s not to rip on Ray.
Stroman has pitched 200 twice but not since 2017. He’s made an All-Star appearance since then and this year will head to free agency at or near the top of his class, alongside Ray, despite not getting to 200 again this year.
“If you don’t have true starters, you can find depth in other areas,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “Starting pitching is really expensive. I think you can find value in a lot of other areas. It’s just how you deploy those, and what the depth is, and guys with options.”
In other words, having relievers who have minor-league options allowing them to be shuttled between Triple-A and the majors to sustain a taxi-squad level of depth throughout the season.
“I’m learning a lot about the flexibility of a roster,” Ross said, “and how that can play into long-term success and how you can maximize different areas of a roster with different elements of flexibility.”
The Cubs didn’t have the quality in their rotation — workhorses or otherwise — to do much of anything this season.
But for glimpses of how the potential blueprint might work consider Alec Mills’ spot start for ailing Kyle Hendricks in April against Brewers’ ace Brandon Woodruff; Mills went only four innings but allowed just two runs, and five relievers combined for five scoreless innings in a 3-2 win.
Thompson has pitched four or fewer innings in all five of his starts, but the Cubs won three of them by employing bridge-reliever strategy. Same with Zach Davies once Ross locked in a twice-through-the-order formula — the Cubs winning three straight short Davies starts in late August and early September
And the prototype might be Justin Steele’s five-inning scoreless start (one hit) the Cubs won against the Twins on Sept. 1 after Alzolay finished the final four innings with a dominant, 40-pitch effort.
Even if Steele and Thompson were penciled in as starters who might eventually provide length, neither has pitched enough this year (and not at all in 2020 with the minor-league season canceled) to project a jump to, say, 150 innings next year.
And there’s no reason at this point to think that’s not closer to their long-term ceiling regardless.
“If your ceiling is not 200, if your ceiling’s 150, then absolutely you’re looking at more inning bursts of starts,” Hottovy said of the five-inning plan with an occasional stretch of more.
“But to do that, one of two things has to happen: If you have a blueprint where starters go deep into games, then you better have depth at starters that can also eat innings; if your blueprint is to have guys that can go five innings, then you better have depth in your bullpen of guys that can give you multiple innings.”
It might be no accident that the bullpen is the one area the Cubs have projectable talent and at least modest depth heading into next year.
Can they land a Ray or Stroman to join Hendricks near the front of the rotation? Can they add enough behind that to plan for even four or five innings a start behind that? And will they find enough innings to bridge and close after that?
Enough to make their next pitching staff a playoff contender, even if it looks nothing like the big boys who showed up last time with scowls, looking for innings and rings — who weren’t here for haircuts?
“I definitely foresee those conversations coming about what’s available, how do we want to attack next year,” Hottovy said, “and obviously what the organization wants to do, what Rossy believes in and want to see as a blueprint for success.
“There’s more than one way to skin a cat I guess you could say.”