CHICAGO -- The Cubs' rotation has had a distinct lack of flexibility in recent springs. The five-man cast has essentially been set when camp has opened, leaving little wiggle room unless a setback on the health front created opportunity.
Things might be different as new Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer plots the team’s course for 2021. Not only could a little spring competition be a good thing for Chicago's starting staff, but teams have to view the coming campaign differently than a traditional year.
"We played 60 games last year and guys didn't pitch a full season," Hoyer said. "And so, there's an awareness that we're going to have to use a lot of different guys to get through a season from a starting standpoint."
That puts the Cubs in an interesting position, given that there are multiple spots to fill in their starting staff. For Hoyer, the task is not just to acquire arms that can be locked into starting jobs for the big league staff, but to ensure that there is enough depth to navigate through a longer '21 season.
Consider that Chicago's rotation logged 325 innings as a group in 2020. That was 36.6 percent of the total amount of starter innings (888) in the '19 season. Last year, the top three innings eaters (Kyle Hendricks, Yu Darvish and Alec Mills) combined for 219 2/3 innings. In a normal year, one ace might approach that figure.
And in '21, pitchers who worked 60-80 innings last year may not be able to jump right back to a normal workload.
"People aren't going to be able to take every fifth turn throughout a season the way we have in the past," Hoyer said. "And I think the whole industry knows that and is talking about that."
Here is how the Cubs' rotation looks right now:
Locked in: Darvish, Hendricks
Next in line: Mills
Leading internal candidate: Adbert Alzolay
Free agents from '20: Tyler Chatwood, Jon Lester, José Quintana
"We're happy that we have [Darvish and Hendricks]," Hoyer said. "I think we know we have to add some length and add some arms to that group. But I'm definitely not looking at, 'Here are five guys and everything else is depth.'
"I think we have to look at it a little more holistically, I guess, and realize that we're going to have to give guys breaks and we're going to have to not push guys in the same ways."
Maybe that means considering a six-man rotation, or trying to acquire pitchers who have at least one Minor League option for flexibility. Hoyer has maintained that there is still mutual interest in Lester re-signing, but there are other roster priorities ahead of that potential step.
One thing Hoyer is keeping in mind is the idea that staying flexible in the rotation -- rather than locking in five arms -- can be attractive for free agents looking to prove themselves in '21. That could be an avenue for adding more arms with MLB experience to lengthen out Chicago's options.
"Sometimes opportunity allows you to give guys a shot, you know?" Hoyer said.
He pointed to Jake Arrieta, who had a bloated ERA with Baltimore when he was acquired in '13. Having flexibility with the rotation at the time -- when the Cubs were still rebuilding -- allowed Arrieta a chance to get right in the Minors, earn an MLB job and eventually flourish.
"We've talked about that a lot," Hoyer said. "The challenge of competing but also having available innings and available at-bats for people to take those opportunities, right?
"Sometimes when you're competing at the highest level, you have every position locked up, every rotation spot locked up and you don't have a chance to take a flyer on a guy that you think might perform.
"So I think having opportunity, it allows us to unearth some diamonds in the rough. I think that's really important."