For starters: Cubs' rotation thriving down the stretch

Pitching coach Tommy Hottovy discusses how improved rotation could impact winter plans

September 25th, 2022

PITTSBURGH -- The Cubs' rotation has quietly ranked among the best in baseball over the past two-plus months. Look no further than the starting pitching ERA leaderboard during the second half.

Four of the top five teams with the best rotation ERA since the All-Star break are ticketed for the postseason. The lone exception is Chicago, which enjoyed another quality start from Adrian Sampson in an 8-3 win over the Pirates on Sunday to seal a series victory at PNC Park.

"On great teams, you have five starters, but you need 10," Sampson said. "You need guys that come in and are competitive and keep the team in games, stuff like that, and kind of just take the weight off one another. It's a huge thing."

Sampson has helped plug a hole in a starting staff riddled with injury setbacks this season, putting himself in the 2023 mix in the process. If anything, the overall showing in the second half lets the Cubs know that there is perhaps an improved base layer for offseason roster planning.

The rotation is nonetheless an area of need ahead of next year.

"I know we've done some really good things the second half of the year," Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. "But we struggled early in the year when we didn't have the consistency and the depth that we quite wanted. When you have good, consistent starting pitching in this league, you can do a lot of things."

Here are three rotation-related questions Hottovy addressed in a chat with reporters prior to Sunday's game in Pittsburgh:

1. Can the Cubs count on Kyle Hendricks for 2023?
The leader of Chicago's rotation is currently in Arizona getting an early start on his offseason, following a campaign marred by a persistent right shoulder issue. The hope is that he will have a relatively normal winter, but it is hard to know which version of Hendricks the Cubs will be getting next year.

Hendricks was limited to 16 starts this season, posting a 4.80 ERA that was right in line with his production over the last two tours combined (4.78 ERA). Prior to '21, Hendricks had a 3.12 ERA across seven seasons with a mostly clean injury history.

"Right now, I do [think we can count on Hendricks]," Hottovy said. "In his career, he's had some really, really good stints of being an elite, elite pitcher. ... I'm confident in him having a good normal offseason and build up. So as of right now, we absolutely are believing in Kyle Hendricks to be a huge part of what we want to do next year."

2. Can the young foundation help the Cubs' approach to free agency?
The Cubs built a veteran-based rotation this year by bringing in Marcus Stroman, Drew Smyly and Wade Miley to join Hendricks. All four pitchers missed time with injury setbacks at various points, exposing a lack of experienced depth early in the season.

As the season progressed, arms like Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson continued to solidify their place in the rotation picture, while younger options like Hayden Wesneski and Javier Assad have impressed here down the stretch. There is more pitching talent coming soon from the farm system, too.

It is possible that the increased confidence in the in-house depth could help the Cubs be more targeted in their search for impact rotation help over the offseason.

"The more pitchers, the better," Hottovy said. "I think when you have the ability to have a group of guys that you feel like can start and eat up innings, I think that's valuable. But as an organization, what you can't do is assume they're all going to throw 150, 170 innings."

3. How do Adbert Alzolay and Sampson fit into the pitching puzzle?
After a solid showing last year, Alzolay appeared poised to be a homegrown rotation fixture for the Cubs. That was until a right shoulder injury shelved him for most of this season.

Now back as a multi-inning reliever to finish this campaign, Alzolay has expressed a willingness to tackle any role Chicago has for him in 2023. Hottovy said the plan will be to build Alzolay up as a starting pitcher, but the team is not ruling out having him as a long-relief leverage option, either.

"We know Adbert's done a great job of starting," Hottovy said. "But having that multi-inning guy -- you've seen when Steele was in that role, when Keegan's been in that role, when Adbert was in that role last year -- it's such a valuable role to have."

The Cubs could take the same approach with someone like Sampson. He has answered the bell as a starter -- the righty allowed one run over six innings Sunday, lowering his ERA to 2.81 in his last 10 turns -- but may not fit in the Opening Day rotation picture.

"He fits into that bucket of a guy who can do a lot of different things," Hottovy said. "Having that depth, and guys that can start, guys who can throw a leverage-inning role, multiple-inning roles out of the bullpen, they're valuable to have."