In the weeks leading up to the start of Spring Training, MLB.com will go Around the Horn, examining different facets of the Cubs' roster. This week: starting rotation.
There are plenty of teams that will be heading into Spring Training with pitchers competing for rotation jobs. In some camps, clubs will continue baseball's experimentation with the opener. The Cubs do not currently fit into either category.
Barring any injury setbacks, Chicago does not have any openings in its starting rotation. The only question to sort out will be which arm slots into which spot. And in this era of specialization and decreasing pitch counts for starters, the Cubs have five pitchers capable of hauling a lot of innings. The rotation is deep, experienced and one of the reasons the Cubs are confident in their ability to reclaim the National League Central crown.
• Around the Horn:Bullpen | Outfield
"It's great," Cubs lefty Cole Hamels said. "I think we all have a good idea of how to get ready for a game and what's expected out of us and we know how to get good results. And if we have a bad game, we've got guys that will pick up the pieces the next day. And that's comforting."
Let's take a walk through the Cubs' starting pitching situation.
Left-handers: Hamels, Jon Lester, José Quintana
The Cubs picked up Hamels' $20 million option at the start of this offseason after he spun a 2.36 ERA in 12 starts following his trade from the Rangers. Hamels -- who, like Lester, is 35 years old -- said he sorted out some mechanical issues that plagued him in Texas. A full season of Hamels could help eliminate some of the back-end turnover experienced by the starting staff in 2018.
Lester has been a source of stability throughout his career, logging at least 31 starts in 11 straight campaigns. That includes at least 32 starts each of the past four years for the Cubs, who have seen their significant investment in the lefty back in December 2014 (six years, $155 million) pay off. Last year, Lester went 18-6 with a 3.32 ERA in 181 2/3 innings.
Every pitch that Quintana throws comes with an extra layer of scrutiny from Cubs fans, given that the club sent highly touted prospects Eloy Jiménez and Dylan Cease to the White Sox for the lefty in July 2017. Last season, Quintana went 13-11 with a 4.03 ERA over 174 1/3 innings. That is strong production out of the back end of a rotation, but the Cubs have yet to see the pitcher who averaged 4 WAR while suiting up for the South Siders from 2012-16.
Right-handers:Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks
Darvish has ramped up his throwing program, and the pitcher said during Cubs Convention that he expects to have no limitations this spring with Opening Day as a realistic goal. That would be fantastic news for the Cubs, who received only eight starts last year from Darvish due to right triceps and elbow issues. A healthy Darvish could go a long way in helping shore up the Cubs' strikeout-minus-walk rate (11.1 percent in 2018, 17th in MLB). For his career, the righty has a mark of 20.5 percent.
Hendricks won't break the radar gun (his sinker averaged 86.6 mph last year, per Statcast™), but his elite control and plus curveball have helped him emerge as a reliable rotation arm. The righty led the Majors in ERA (2.13) in a breakout showing in 2016 and went 14-11 with a 3.44 ERA in 199 innings last season, striking out 161 and walking 44.
Major League depth:Tyler Chatwood, Mike Montgomery
The potential of a healthy Darvish, combined with the Cubs' decision to pick up Hamels' option, has pushed Montgomery and Chatwood out of the MLB rotation. They will be the top two depth options, with Montgomery holding the next-man-up edge. Chatwood's well-documented walk woes (he had a 19.6 percent walk rate with 8.25 per nine innings) make him sort of a wild card. There is plenty of potential, as long as he cuts down the command problems. His presence in the rotation last year helps explain the staff's 27th-ranked walk rate (3.5 per nine innings).
Prospects to watch:Adbert Alzolay, Thomas Hatch, Duncan Robinson, Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson
Although there are other pitchers on the 40-man roster (Alec Mills, Jen-Ho Tseng and Duane Underwood Jr. among them), this is a group to closely monitor this Minor League season. In reality, the best path to the big leagues in 2019 for a Cubs pitching prospect is in the bullpen. That said, if there were multiple setbacks, the organization believes it has some capable young arms emerging as MLB rotation depth options.
Statcast™ says ...
The Cubs' starting staff as a group averaged 90.3 mph on fastballs last season. That ranked 29th in the Majors and last in the NL. While pitch velocity is not everything -- just ask Hendricks -- it goes a long way in explaining why Chicago's strikeout rate (20.4 percent) ranked 17th in MLB last year. If the Cubs are not going to miss bats, they need to continue to play plus defense, and the bullpen will need to improve its own whiff rate.