MESA, Ariz. -- This is the era of the opener. Teams increasingly are finding innovative ways to utilize their pitchers, thinking outside the box to combine specialization on the mound with extreme shifting in the field. Unorthodox methods can be the key to unearthing important probability percentage points.
And then there are the Cubs.
Chicago is heading into the 2019 campaign with, arguably, the most traditional rotation in baseball. The starting five is full of veterans, innings eaters and arms that rely more on inducing weak contact than missing barrels. And it is via this rotation -- the backbone of the roster -- that the Cubs feel they once again can reclaim the National League Central crown and vie for another World Series ring.
"It's always a good feeling when you can almost put five guys in a hat," Cubs Opening Day starter Jon Lester said, "and pull one out and say, 'OK, yeah, that one sounds good.' I love our rotation. I love kind of how unique each one of our guys are."
The Cubs know they need to be a better offensive team than they were last year, especially over the season’s final two months (.695 OPS and an MLB-high 47.8 percent ground-ball rate). There has been an increased emphasis on situational hitting during Spring Training, with manager Joe Maddon leading daily drills. He wants a more well-rounded offensive attack with improvement in two-strike, two-out and scoring-position scenarios.
"We're looking to play a really good brand of baseball -- period," Maddon said.
That said, the goal there is to provide enough offense to help that day's starting pitcher last deeper into the game. In turn, that would help minimize the exposure of the Cubs' bullpen, which heads into this year without closer Brandon Morrow (out the first month due to a right elbow issue) and a bevy of question marks. Chicago needs every inning it can squeeze out of its rotation.
"If we don't allow Joe to take us out by pitching well, then that pretty much sums it up," Lester said. "There [are] going to be National League games that come into play where he's going to have to make moves to either create offense or just [due to] pitch counts or whatever. And those games happen. But, I think more times than not, we dictate if we're going to stay in or not."
Overall, the Cubs' pitching staff ranked near the bottom of MLB in average four-seam fastball velocity (26th at 92.4 mph, per Statcast) last year, making the group more of a ball-in-play cast of arms. That makes a solid defense crucial. According to FanGraphs, Chicago's 29.4 defensive runs above average ranked second in the NL and its 43 Defensive Runs Saved were sixth in the NL.
Expect more of the same in '19 for the Cubs, too.
"We have to catch the ball on defense for the group to be good," Maddon said.
And the rotation has to defy Father Time.
Chicago's starting pitchers (Lester, Cole Hamels, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks and José Quintana) enter this season with 8.8 years of Major League experience on average to go along with an average age of 32.2 years. Combined, the five starters have 13 Opening Day starts among them, along with 14 All-Star appearances, four World Series rings, three no-hitters, three postseason MVP awards and an ERA title.
"I love our guys. I love our competitiveness," Lester said. "I love where we're at. I love us as a staff. It's just a matter of going out and pitching now and getting ready for the season. So, I'm not too worried about our guys."
And, what about the concept of the opener?
Lester let out a laugh.
"There's a reason why it says 'starter' before my name," he said. "I'm a starter. I get paid to start. I get paid to throw innings -- plain and simple."
The Cubs are counting on those innings.