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.

The Cubs' Achilles' heel is rearing its ugly head again this winter

The Cubs' Achilles' heel is rearing its ugly head again this winter

If the Cubs ultimately don't sign Bryce Harper or another big ticket free agent this winter and fans are wondering why, look no further than Rob Zastryzny.

It's not Zastryzny's fault, of course. 

But he is the poster boy of sorts for the Cubs' issues in drafting and developing pitching that can make any sort of an impact at the big-league level.

Zastryzny has made at least 4 appearances over each of the last three seasons, racking up 34.2 innings to lead the way for the 147 pitchers drafted by Theo Epstein's front office over the last seven summers. 

As a result, the Cubs have had to spend a lot of money to form their pitching staff over the last few years. That money adds up. 

Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr. — who spent time in the Cubs farm system, but were originally drafted and largely developed by the Texas Rangers — are the only two truly impactful pitchers that have come up through the minor leagues and still a big part of the current roster. 

Where are the Josh Haders and Corbin Burnses and Josh Jameses and Walker Buehlers coming up through the Cubs system?

All four of those guys played major roles for their respective teams (Brewers, Astros, Dodgers) this fall.

Look, it's no secret to the Cubs they haven't developed a Hader-type weapon and they're disappointed about it, too.

"Candidly, those guys aren't found on the market very often," GM Jed Hoyer said last week. "Those guys are usually found internally. We haven't been able to develop that guy. Hopefully we will in the future. That guy makes a massive, massive impact."

Former Cubs draft picks accounted for 27 innings in the majors in 2018, and 1 of those innings came from Ian Happ (who is obviously not a pitcher). Of the remaining 26 innings, 5.1 came from Dillon Maples (who was drafted by Jim Hendry's front office in 2011).

That leaves 20.2 innings for a trio of draft picks — Duane Underwood Jr. (2012 selection) Zastryzny (2013) and James Norwood (2014). 

The Cubs are projected to pay more than $130 million (with arbitration included) to only 12 pitchers in 2019 and they still figure to add at least another late-inning bullpen arm or two to that mix.

That obviously hampers what they want to do this winter in a free agent class loaded with potential impact bats that could make a huge difference for an underachieving lineup, though would come with a hefty price tag.

Last winter, Epstein's front office committed $185 million to a trio of free agent pitchers — Yu Darvish, Brandon Morrow, Tyler Chatwood — and all three guys were out of the team's picture by September either because of injury or ineffectiveness.

The contracts of those three guys are hanging over the 2019 squad and major questions follow each guy entering the new year. 

But the Cubs are also in a tight spot financially because their homegrown position players are now starting to get exponentially more expensive.

"Of course we want more out of our homegrown pitching and I think we will have more as we go forward," Epstein said. "But we also built around bats. We built around homegrown bats and developing a nucleus that way knowing that in our minds, the right strategic move was to develop bats and then acquire pitching that's already good or about to become good or known commodities. 

"If you look at our pitching track record, it's really good. Yeah, it's expensive. That's part of it."

The Cubs still have high hopes for young right-hander Adbert Alzolay, the top pitching prospect in their system who was shut down halfway through 2018 with a lat injury. But he's also only pitched 72.1 innings above A-ball in his career and will undoubtedly have an innings limit and other restrictions coming off the injury, so it's hard to count on him as a potential cost-effective part of the 2019 pitching staff.

The Cubs hope more pitchers are on the way along with Alzolay, but they don't know why the arms are lagging so far behind the bats.

"I think it's improving," Hoyer said. "I think our pitching depth is improving and hopefully that will start to bear fruit this year or next year. Overall, I think we've done an exceptional job of developing hitters. 

"The pitching has lagged behind that. That's no secret. We're very accountable to that and we need to figure out why."

Kyle Hendricks takes in a Blackhawks game with... Bastian Schweinsteiger?

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NBC Sports Chicago

Kyle Hendricks takes in a Blackhawks game with... Bastian Schweinsteiger?

A Cubs pitcher taking in a Blackhawks game in a suite is nothing special, but doing so with a World Cup winner is... different.

Kyle Hendricks was spotted by the cameras of Thursday's Blackhawks-Coyotes broadcast on NBC Sports Chicago. The guy he was standing next to was none other than Chicago Fire midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, a World Cup with Germany and Champions League winner with Bayern Munich.

Hendricks is known for being reserved on the mound and in his interviews with the media. Meanwhile, Schweinsteiger was filmed yelling "Bear Down" in the hallway of Toyota Park after a Fire practice earlier in the day.

There's no telling what inspired Schweinsteiger to do this, but he has definitely embraced Chicago sports teams since joining the Fire in March of 2017.

Makes you wonder what Hendricks and Schweinsteiger were talking about. Best places to get brats in Chicago?