Cole Hamels

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.

8 Cubs takeaways from MLB GM Meetings

8 Cubs takeaways from MLB GM Meetings

CARLSBAD, Calif. — The Cubs left Southern California without adding to their bullpen, pulling off a wild trade or signing Bryce Harper.

Not that any of those items were expected to be checked off the team's offseason list this week, of course.

As Theo Epstein explained Wednesday, the GM Meetings are for "foundation building, getting information and trying to see which teams might be most interesting to talk to based on their personnel and what they're looking to accomplish."

Epstein and Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said they spent their time at the Omni La Costa Resort and Spa talking with other clubs about potential trade fits, chatting with agents of the guys on the open market and brainstorming ideas.

Here are 8 takeaways from the GM Meetings:

1. Cubs don't appear to be big spenders

A little over a week ago, it was believed the Cubs would be major players in the free agent market this winter but a lot has changed in the last eight days. Last Friday, the Cubs traded away Drew Smyly in a move to shed salary before picking up Cole Hamels' $20 million option.

Then Epstein explained the Cubs' financial situation on Day 1 of the GM meetings, indicating it's unlikely the Cubs would be in on Harper or Manny Machado or the other big free agents. 

That's fair and understandable. No team has committed more dollars to their 2019 roster than the Cubs at the moment and they now have Hamels, Yu Darvish, Jon Lester and Jason Heyward all making more than $20 million apiece this year.

No matter what the Cubs do from here, they're on track to have the highest payroll in franchise history and pass by the luxury tax threshold. 

It's hard to see them outbidding some of the teams with an insane amount of free money like the Philadelphia Phillies or New York Yankees.

The one glimmer of hope — some perspective from Harper's agent himself, Scott Boras:

"You do not want other teams knowing that you're interested in a generational player.

That makes a lot of sense. Why show your hand at this point in the offseason and drive up the market?

2. It's the Bryce show right now

Harper was way more of a topic than Machado over the course of the week, thanks in large part to Boras' hour-long session with the media talking up the dynamic young outfielder ("Harper's Bazaar has certainly begun") and the report that Harper turned down a 10-year, $300 million deal with the Nationals in the final week of the regular season.

It's still early, of course, but it certainly seems like Harper is driving the market more right now than Machado, whose value allegedly took a dip with his lack of hustle (and subsequent comments) in October.

Machado will have his time in the just wasn't this weekend in SoCal.

3. Brace yourself for an Addison Russell return

Nothing is set in stone, of course, but assuming Russell continues to go through his therapy and rehab and reformation, he very well could be back with Cubs. Theo and the organization feel a responsibility to be a part of the solution and Russell's camp isn't yet preparing for an alternative.

When discipline was handed down on Russell (40-game suspension) by MLB for domestic violence, it seemed all but certain the Cubs would move on from the young infielder.

That no longer seems to be a certainty and in fact actually the opposite appears to be true — Russell may get a shot at reformation with his current club. 

4. Coaching conundrum

What's going on with the coaching staff?

We know the Cubs won't extend Joe Maddon this winter, but beyond that...crickets. 

We'll find out eventually, but it has become the curious case of the Cubs coaching staff this offseason, indeed.

5. Trades are coming

Hoyer said the Cubs are "open to business" and both he and Epstein admitted several times they're probably more apt to making trades than free agent signings this winter. 

It's obvious the Cubs are looking to remake their lineup if possible, but given their best assets are also position players, how would a hitter-for-hitter trade take shape?

"There's lots of different ways to do it," Epstein said. "You can trade up the service time clock, you can trade backwards for more years of control, you can trade for an established guy, you can trade for somebody you think is ready to break out. There's no one way to do it. You can trade two comparable players with different shapes if you think it benefits you."

The Cubs teased a busy offseason last year with potential trades and nothing took shape. Things may ultimately follow the same course this year and it could turn out to be a very quiet offseason, but remember — the Cubs are at a very different point this year than last. The urgency is much stronger now after a season that ended after just one playoff game and when it's apparent the potential closing of the championship window is starting to emerge.

Hence, the legit case for the alternative:

6. Maybe there won't be impactful change, after all

Hoyer said the Cubs feel like the answers to their 2018 woes are internal — namely getting guys healthy and performing at their standard levels again.

Heading into 2019, you can almost consider Yu Darvish and Brandon Morrow free agent signings given how little they pitched last year (including 0 combined innings in the second half).

You could possibly look at Kris Bryant through the same lens with the shoulder injury that hampered the former MVP from mid-May on. A healthy Bryant last year would've completely changed the complexion of that lineup.

Boras said he's never seen a player have the level of impact J.D. Martinez had on the Red Sox in 2018 after signing last winter, particularly how he shaped the rest of the lineup. One bat of that quality really can make that big of a difference between a high level of production and how they can take pressure off the rest of the lineup.

If Willson Contreras can regain his form from 2016-17 (or even the first half of 2018) plus potential steps forward from the likes of Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. and the Cubs lineup very well may have a much more productive 2019 even if Epstein's front office stands pat this winter.

7. Watch out for the Phillies...and Cardinals

They're ready to spend some money and Harper has already been linked strongly to the City of Brotherly Love. 

With how much money the Phightin' Phils have to spend and given they were a contender for much of 2018 before fading at the end, that poses a potential concern for the Cubs if that's where Harper ends up.

But a much larger concern — and frankly, scarier from the perspective of Cubs' fans — is the potential for the Cardinals to land Harper or Machado or Josh Donaldson or Patrick Corbin or any of the top free agents. 

The Cardinals nearly dealt for Giancarlo Stanton's insane contract last year and ultimately had to settle for Marcell Ozuna. They wound up missing the playoffs for the third straight season and they definitely are feeling a sense of urgency to catch up to the Cubs and Brewers in the division. 

This could be an intense offseason in St. Louis.

8. The rotation is probably set

With Hamels back, the Cubs now have nearly $100 million committed to their 2019 rotation and that's including Tyler Chatwood and Mike Montgomery — two guys who, at the moment, seem to be on the outside looking in at the Opening Day starting staff.

That hasn't stopped the Cubs from popping up in rumors for available starting pitchers, but don't let that fool you. They'll likely still add some depth to ensure they can withstand any injuries that could befall the rotation, but that's about it at this point.

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

Cubs trade away Drew Smyly to clear room for Cole Hamels

Cubs trade away Drew Smyly to clear room for Cole Hamels

Theo Epstein has pulled off another bank shot.

The Cubs president executed a two-part roster move Friday morning, dealing pitcher Drew Smyly to the Texas Rangers and subsequently picking up Cole Hamels' $20 million option. It's a series of deals reminiscent of when Epstein's front office traded away Starlin Castro to clear room for veteran free agent Ben Zobrist ahead of the 2016 season.

Jerry Crasnick first reported the Smyly/Hamels deals:

The Cubs had until Friday afternoon to exercise their 2019 option on Hamels, who turns 35 in December.

The veteran southpaw was a breath of fresh air for this Cubs rotation in the final two months of 2018, going 4-3 with a 2.36 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 8.7 K/9 in 12 starts.

The Cubs acquired Hamels from the Rangers and now send Smyly to Texas in a separate - but related - trade.

Smyly signed a two-year deal with the Cubs worth $10 million during last year's MLB Winter Meetings, but he was unable to pitch at all in 2018 due to his recovery from Tommy John surgery. He will depart Chicago having never thrown a single pitch for the Cubs.

Smyly is still owed $7 million and had a $5 million hit against the luxury tax, so dealing him away frees up some money for the Cubs ahead of a huge offseason of free agents.

Still, it's an interesting move from the Cubs' perspective as they essentially paid Smyly $3 million just to rehab in 2018. Epstein also often says there's no such thing as "too much pitching" and the Cubs could've found a spot for Smyly in 2019 either as rotation insurance or a part of the bullpen, where the only current left-handed relief options are Brian Duensing and Randy Rosario. Smyly has made 71 appearances as a reliever in his career, going 7-0 with a 2.47 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 9.7 K/9 across 87.1 innings.

As part of the original trade, the Rangers were on track to pay Hamels' $6 million buyout if the Cubs did not pick up his option, so from their perspective, they essentially pay a similar amount ($7 million) and yet now get a pitcher (Smyly) out of the deal.

Hamels' return helps bring the Cubs' 2019 pitching staff into focus as he will join Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Yu Darvish and Jose Quintana in the rotation.

The Cubs still need to figure out what they will do with Tyler Chatwood and Mike Montgomery next season, but those two guys provide rotation depth heading into the new season and Montgomery can always fold back into his swingman role in the bullpen if he's willing to go down that road again.

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