Jon Lester

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.

What to make of Jon Lester's 2019 struggles and how he should be viewed in 2020

What to make of Jon Lester's 2019 struggles and how he should be viewed in 2020

In the grand scope of everything, how should Jon Lester's 2019 season be viewed? 

And subsequently, how does that impact how the Cubs view their starting rotation going into the 2019-20 offseason?

The three-time World Series champion is entering the final guaranteed year of his deal with the Cubs (he has a $25 million option for 2021 that vests if he hits 200 innings in 2020) coming off one of the worst seasons of his career.

For the first time since he was a 23-year-old still trying to make it in the big leagues with the 2007 Red Sox, Lester failed to eclipse 180 innings in a season. He still made 31 starts, but managed only 171.2 innings — an average of a little over 5 innings per outing. 

For the second straight season, Lester did not throw a single pitch in the eighth inning or later of a game. In his first three years with the Cubs, he pitched into the eighth inning 14 times, including 4 complete games. 

Baseball has certainly changed over the last few years and bullpens now cover more innings than ever before. But for the most part, a lot of it was related to performance in Lester's case. Even with the low innings total, he still gave up a league-leading 205 hits, good for a 10.7 H/9 ratio that was way above any previous season (9.5 H/9 was his only other mark even close to it in his career). 

All those hits led to a 1.50 WHIP and 4.46 ERA, which ranked last and third-to-last, respectively, among the 34 qualified National League starters in 2019.

So it's easy to just point at Lester's age (he'll be 36 in January) and career workload (2,691.2 big-league innings, including postseason) and conclude that he's finished or close to it right? 

Not so fast.

Lester did see a dip in fastball velocity in 2019 — down to 90.9 mph, the lowest mark of his career and well below the 93.1 mph he averaged in 2016 — but he also made adjustments and is now throwing his fastball less often than ever before. As a result, he's ramped up his cutter usage (34.4 percent), and that velocity is roughly the same as it was a year ago and not far below where it clocked on the radar gun in his first couple years with the Cubs:

(Cutter velocity)
2019 - 88.1 mph
2018 - 88.4 mph
2017 - 87.9 mph
2016 - 89.4 mph 
2015 - 88.7 mph

The problem is that his cutter — like the rest of his arsenal — took a dive in pitch value this season, by FanGraph's metric. Pretty much across the board, Lester's "stuff" has declined, but that's to be expected with an aging pitcher with that much mileage on his arm. 

However, compared to his 2018 season when he put up a 3.32 ERA and won 18 games, Lester actually saw a nice jump in strikeout rate (21.6 percent, 8.7 K.9 compared to 19.6 percent, 7.4 K/9 in 2018) and lowered his walk rate (6.8 percent, way down from his 8.4 percent in 2018). 

He also felt like he found some things he liked later in the season, as he summed up after his final start in Pittsburgh:

"[My year was] not great," he said. "Made some adjustments here late that I feel like put me in a lot better positions with my pitches. Looking back on it, I don't want to say it was an easy fix — nothing's ever an easy fix — but I just think sometimes when you get into the position I'm at in my career, you start kinda buying into having to change. And I don't think I had to change.

"I think change sometimes can be bad and I think it put me in a bad position for most of the season. And a couple adjustments that we made here lately that I wish we would've gone back and kinda found those and talked about them a little bit sooner.

"...Sometimes you buy into what other people say about you as far as changing and adapting and you really don't have to do an overhaul. You just have to pick your spots to change and it put me in bad positions this year."

Lester didn't elaborate on those changes, but he's admitted several times over the last couple seasons that he's a different pitcher now than he was even in 2016, so he knows some adjustments to his overall profile are necessary.

Throughout the year, there were more than a few instances where Lester said he felt like he actually had good stuff and made good pitches, but watched as the opposing lineup still found holes in the defense. Take the Aug. 23 outing against the Nationals at Wrigley Field when his final line (4.1 IP, 9 H, 6 ER) looks bad, but 8 of the 9 hits were singles and many of those were infield hits (including a bunt by pitcher Anibal Sanchez) and groundballs that either went through the shift or rolled just past Cubs defenders.

That's baseball. It's exactly what people around the game mean when they talk about "baseball luck." 

Lester had bad baseball luck that day in late-August and in general, had some bad baseball luck in 2019 (.347 BABIP — 49 points above the MLB average of .298) but generally had some good baseball luck in 2018. 

No, Lester is not the pitcher he was in 2016 when he finished second in NL Cy Young voting. That guy is gone and probably not coming back.

But it's also maybe a bit premature to say he's washed up. 

"I've been written off before," he said. "I think I've done alright for myself. I don't care about that. I care about winning. At the end of the day, you can say I'm done. That's fine. I want to win. I don't care. Winning's winning and that's what I show up for. 

"The season sucked personally for me, but it also sucked for the team and that's what matters most."

When the Cubs handed Lester the $155 million deal before the 2015 season, they knew he would have an impact not only on the mound when he takes the ball every fifth day, but also in the clubhouse in between that time. He's done that and more over the last half-decade, serving as a respected veteran voice in the clubhouse and helping build the winning culture and show the young players what it truly means to be a professional.

Even though the team is now at a crossroads, don't expect Lester to change that mindset.

"I put my name on that dotted line. I'm not walking away from anything. I'm not a quitter by any means. I'll be here next year if they want. If they suggest for me to stay home, then we'll have that conversation," Lester joked. "I signed that line with the intention of playing six years and when the option comes up, we'll discuss that."

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What the Cubs are looking for in their next manager

What the Cubs are looking for in their next manager

In the 28 or so hours after the Cubs officially announced they were parting ways with Joe Maddon as a manager, Theo Epstein made it a point in several instances to mention the Cubs aren't looking for an anti-Joe or anything along those lines.

There's no doubt this result isn't fair to Maddon, whom Epstein called the "perfect guy for this team at the perfect time." 

But the Cubs want change and that started with not offering an extension to the man that helped bring the organization a championship just three years ago. 

So what do the Cubs want in their next manager? What qualities and traits would the ideal candidate possess?

Epstein attempted to answer that question in his end-of-season presser Monday, but he didn't want to get too specific (and he didn't mention anything about the next manager needing "Dancing with the Stars" experience). 

Again, Epstein emphasized the qualities he and the Cubs front office are looking for are not a knock on Maddon, but rather focusing on what can help this team now and in the future.

"We struggled as an organization this year to make sure that with the major-league team, the whole was as good or better than the sum of the parts," Epstein said. "I think we had a lot of good individual performances; we had a lot of talent and ability. I think if we do our job the right way, we’re going to have a lot of talent next year. We’re going to score a lot of runs, we’re going to prevent a lot of runs. 

"The next manager has to create an environment that turns that into wins. And that’s not solely on the manager at all. That’s roster construction and everything else. That’s what we’re looking for in a manager, is to try to help our group. Any team is looking for that in a manager. Come together and make sure the whole is as good or exceeds the sum of the parts. 

"I think the next manager will be a success if he can find a way to get the most out of each player. That’s an obvious goal, but we want to make sure that the players that we have, we’re reaching them, we’re developing them, we’re providing an environment where they can continue to grow and thrive. If we have players that are gonna be successful major-league players, we have to find a way to make it here. I think that’s really important. That’s an organization-wide challenge, not just on the manager. The next manager, that’s going to be an important part of his responsibility."

Epstein has mentioned several times that — for whatever reason — the whole was not greater than the sum of the parts with this Cubs team in 2019. 

He's right. As a whole, the Cubs won only 84 games and missed the playoffs by 5 games. But break it down individually and there are a lot of good things:

—Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras had resurgent seasons and both made the All-Star team.
—Yu Darvish was one of the best pitchers in baseball in the second half of the season.
—Kyle Schwarber and Victor Caratini had true breakout campaigns. 
—Anthony Rizzo maintained his steady production.
—Javy Baez was an All-Star starter and one of the best players in baseball before he got hurt.
—Nicholas Castellanos notched an OPS over 1.000 in his two months in a Cubs uniform.
—Jason Heyward had his best offensive season in Chicago.
—Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck emerged as reliable relief options.
—Brandon Kintzler and Tyler Chatwood had impactful bounceback seasons.
—Steve Cishek struggled in some big moments but still wound up posting an ERA under 3.00.
—Kyle Hendricks couldn't quite find consistency yet finished 13th in the NL in ERA and WHIP.

That's 16 players who can head into the winter with a pretty high level of pride in their own individual seasons. 

So, again, how did this team fall short?

The Cubs don't quite know and while they insist they're not pinning that on Maddon, they want the next manager to make sure history doesn't repeat itself in 2020 and beyond.

"Cultivating a winning culture behind the scenes," Epstein said. "We’ve obviously had a winning culture [and] Joe did an unbelievable job creating that. Again, at this moment in time, I think it’s important for us to pick certain areas of emphasis that will reach this group and help us meet our current challenges, not the challenges that we’ve had over the last five years. Picking priorities and values to emphasize work, I think is gonna be really important. 

"For this group at this time, we need to find a way to create a culture and environment that compels every player to push himself, to be the absolute best version of himself, to be the absolute best player that he can be. It's a culture where that’s expected. If a player joins our culture, he's lifted up by the culture in terms of the amount of work, the habits, leaving no stone unturned to be the best version of himself that he can be. Joe, again, was wonderful at this. 

"But it’s gonna be important for the next manager of this particular group at this time to find a way to foster a team identity. I think this group, our routines tended to me more individualized. There wasn’t a lot of work as a team, and I think it’s gonna be important for this group that we find time to work as a team, that we find time to assemble as a team, that we find ways to deliver messages to the team so that there can be a greater sense of team identity and purpose for this group. I think that's something that we need."

The Cubs could certainly use a team identity. What was it in 2019? If anything, it was inconsistency, as Baez admitted they couldn't get hot for even two consecutive weeks.

Again, that's not a knock on Maddon. If anything, it's a knock on the "winner's trap" this organization has fallen into over the last couple seasons.

That also moves into accountability, which was another point of emphasis Epstein has in searching for the next manager of a Cubs team coming off a season in which they ranked at or near the top in both outs on the basepaths and fielding errors.

"We were pretty mistake prone this year," he said. "Again, [this is an] organization-wide challenge, not on the manager, but the next manager should be a part of this — helping to create a culture of accountability. There’s a sense that sloppy mistakes, mental mistakes, aren’t tolerated. There's an expected level of focus that we all work together to establish that mitigates the amount of mistakes like that. A sense of grind, grinding from the first pitch of the season through the end. 

"With the last couple Septembers, our team sometimes, we just expected to get it done in September and the second half 'cause we always have. I think the last two Septembers have proven that you can't take that approach. You have to find a way to grind from the beginning. It's a challenge, and certainly some years we were better at it than others. It's not something that falls solely on the manager, but I think that's a unique challenge for the next manager of this group going forward."

Of course, that accountability needs to happen from inside the clubhouse, too. Maddon always said players should police themselves to a certain extent, and he's right. 

David Ross excelled at that in his two years with the club. Pedro Strop has done a great job of that with Baez, in particular. Epstein said veteran Daniel Descalso filled that role well in 2019 despite his difficult season on the field.

That's not to say Ross would find similar success in that area if he were named the next manager, however. It will ultimately be up to the players.

As for the players, what do they want to see from the new guy running the ship?

"I think at the end of the day, you want a genuine person that will shoot you straight and try to win every game," Jon Lester said simply. 

Communication was also a central focus for Rizzo when asked what he wants to see in the next skipper.

"For me, it's just different because I'm usually playing first base and hitting third every day," he said. "I can't relate more to the guys who split playing time. I know how hard that is for them. So being able to communicate with your bullpen and guys that aren't playing every single day, just keeping them up because it's not easy to have good games and not play or bad games and sit for a while. That line of communication is very important just to keep everyone oiled up and in sync."