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.

Joe Maddon on so-called Cubs lineup controversy: 'I'm not gonna play hurt people'

Joe Maddon on so-called Cubs lineup controversy: 'I'm not gonna play hurt people'

ST. LOUIS - Despite what angry Cubs fans on Twitter thought during the current nine-game losing streak, this team isn't ready to lay down and quit.

Sure, the Cubs don't have anything to play for this weekend in St. Louis besides pride. But that doesn't mean they were going to mess with the integrity of the pennant race when these three games are huge for the Cardinals and Brewers, who are separated by just 1 game in the NL Central.

"You want to win the game," Joe Maddon said Thursday night in Pittsburgh. "You just don't mail it in, ever."

That's exactly what they did Friday night, churning out an 8-2 win over the Cardinals for the first victory in 11 days.

A day earlier, Maddon had a colorful way to frame his thoughts on any potential complaining from people about his lineups that feature mostly backup players.

"Of course they're gonna bitch," Maddon said. "Of course they are. And I get it. But quite frankly, there's certain things I really don't give a shit about. And that would be one of them."

The context there is important - Maddon was not specifically referencing the Brewers and he qualified it by saying he's focused on what's best for his team right now, not what's best for any other franchise.

Still, the comments struck a nerve with Brewers nation, which is understandable if they saw the quote without context and took it to mean Maddon and the Cubs are going to throw out a "tanking"-style lineup in St. Louis.

Of course, that's not what happened. After giving them a day off Thursday, Maddon inserted Kyle Schwarber, Ben Zobrist, Willson Contreras, Nico Hoerner and Nicholas Castellanos back into the starting lineup Friday before then needing to remove Castellanos with a minor groin injury suffered in pregame warm-ups.

Maddon also said Thursday he specifically held back his high-leverage relivers so they'd be fresh for the weekend in St. Louis and followed suit, utilizing Steve Cishek, Brad Wieck, Kyle Ryan, Rowan Wick, Pedro Strop and Brandon Kintzler in order after starter Alec Mills.

But you still won't see players nursing injuries out on the field for games that mean nothing to the Cubs and are "glorified spring training games," as Maddon put it. That means Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward are all almost assuredly done for 2019 and there’s no guarantee Castellanos plays again either now.

It also means Kyle Hendricks and Yu Darvish will not pitch again despite being on regular rest to be able to throw this weekend in St. Louis. But the Cubs have been closely monitoring Darvish's workload all season and see no reason to push either right-hander at the moment.

"These guys are hurt," Maddon said. "I'm not gonna play hurt people. I'm not gonna pitch guys over limits based on what's best for the Cubs, ever. So the conclusion of my commentary yesterday was pretty much - understand these guys are hurt. So if you want to try and complain, go 'head.

"I had no disrespect to anybody. I really didn't. It's about the Cubs and what we do and how we do and I gotta protect my guys, irregardless of what somebody else might think. At any place you're at, wherever you guys work, it's about circling the wagons within your building and you protect your own. Always. So that's what it really comes down to."

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Collapse? Failure? Disappointment? However you frame it, the Cubs weren't expecting this

Collapse? Failure? Disappointment? However you frame it, the Cubs weren't expecting this

PITTSBURGH — Kris Bryant doesn't want to use the word "collapse."

He prefers "disappointment" in summing up how the last week has gone for the 2019 Cubs. 

Losing five straight 1-run ballgames is one thing, especially when the last four of those contests came against the first-place Cardinals.

But committing 5 errors and losing by 7 runs to a 91-loss Pirates team is another story, especially when this Pittsburgh squad entered play Tuesday night on the heels of a nine-game losing streak and a negative-61 run differential in that stretch.

Use whatever word you want to sum up the last seven games, but the end result is the same — the Cubs are on the brink of playoff elimination with five games still to play in the season.

"Stunning, for sure," said Kyle Hendricks, who took a no-hitter into the sixth inning Tuesday night before the wheels fell off in a 7-run seventh inning. "It obviously doesn't feel good at all. Didn't expect this to be happening. So I don't really know what to say to it. 

"We weren't prepared for this at all. It's just unfortunate that his group, we just couldn't come together and get the job done."

Tuesday night's loss moved the Cubs' record to 20-37 in night games on the road — a perplexing area of ineptitude that the entire organization is struggling wrap its head around.

But this is also a team that had 51 wins at home before dropping the final six contests. Up until last week, they could at least hang their hats on their performance at "The Friendly Confines."

"Losing those games to St. Louis, the way it happened was very shocking," Bryant said. "Just the wrong side of the ball there. I think it's kinda hard to answer the question — like how do you lose that many 1-run games in a row? You just don't know. How do you win those games that many times in a row? Who knows? They just beat us those days. They performed better than us. It happens."

Expanding out beyond the final two weeks of the season, the Cubs have no answers yet for how this season went off the rails. 

A year of reckoning that began with World Series or bust expectations and an "October begins in March" edict from team president Theo Epstein will end with a third-place finish and not even one game in October. 

"I try to think of ways and answers to your guys' questions as to why certain things happened and try to do it genuinely and I can't really think of just to pinpoint here or there," Bryant said. "I really can't. That's the honest truth. I'm trying to think of ways, but it's been a hard season to pinpoint those reasons."

Bryant can't recall a time he's ever been a part of a season that began with such high hopes and ended in such a miserable way.

"Not like this, by any means. No," he said. "It kinda seems like it all came on this last week. I mean, obviously, this is gonna be a week we're gonna look back at for a long time. But not in my whole baseball playing career, even going back to high school. No, I can't. It's been a crazy, weird season for us."

Hendricks is always optimistic and is generally able to rely on his intellect to find answers and solutions to struggles. But even he doesn't have any answers yet and he couldn't hide his disappointment as he stood at his locker in the visiting clubhouse at PNC Park.

He knows changes are coming for this team, whether that's regarding manager Joe Maddon or the core of players that — by and large — have been together since 2015-16.

"Yeah, I feel like that's naturally the next thought to have at this point with what's been occurring," he said. "So I haven't really had a lot of time to think about that yet. But yeah, I'm sure a lot of us in here will have some things said to each other and figure out next steps going forward to just prevent anything like this from happening again."

That last point was something Epstein and a lot of different members of the Cubs said at the end of 2018 — they wanted to find a way to ensure they would not come up one game short again. 

But all the talk of urgency this season and making sure very game counts has now resulted in a situation where the Cubs have to play out their final few games as the role of "spoiler" with only pride — and no playoff implications — on the line.

This certainly isn't how anybody saw this season ending.

"You don't ever envision failing," Jason Heyward said. "As a parent, someone that goes to work, playing a team sport, but you understand you're gonna fail at times. It's part of it. It's cliche, but how do you handle it? What are you gonna do about it?"

Soon enough, we'll see what Epstein and the Cubs are going to do about it.