Despite a rocky second half of 2015 for Jason Hammel, and some questions about Kyle Hendricks‘ ability to last more than a couple of times through an opponent’s rotation, things seem to be solidifying in the Chicago Cubs rotation. Jake Arrieta has only thrown two innings so far this spring, but he looks strong and as unhittable as ever. Jon Lester and John Lackey are locked in. They are still working on their mechanics and “feel” for 2016, but no one doubts their ability. The questions have all focused on the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation, and the large number of pitchers being stretched out as starters.
It seems that this might all be moot, because, of those contending for the spots, when he’s on, Jason Hammel is clearly the best. His slider is working well, his command of his fastball is on – he has looked good through the spring – confident, and more like the Jason Hammel of last spring than that of last September. In his last outing, he gave up only three hits and one walk in four scoreless innings. If the Jay-Hammer is back, and it appears that he is, the number four slot is filled.
I wrote about the work Hammel put in over the offseason a month or so ago. He’s changed his fitness routine, dropped weight, and spent a lot of time with a pitching specialist working on the mental aspects of his game. As long as the new confidence holds tight, and he trusts in his arm, expect great things of Jason Hammel in 2016.
Kyle Hendricks is a very different pitcher from Hammel. His velocity is lower and he depends on a variety of pitches intended to induce ground balls. Near the end of 2015 he picked up some steam. He appears to have rediscovered the changeup that helped win his starting role in the first place, and he has been strong in spring games.
In his last start against the A’s, Hendricks struck out five batters, mostly due to his magnificent changeup. He allowed only one hit, no runs, and only one walk. This strikeout to walk ratio is better than his norm, and we probably can’t expect him to keep fanning batters at that high rate going into the season, but if the changeup remains strong, he’s going to miss a lot of bats and get deeper into games. It would take a pretty impressive performance or two from any of the other possible starters to bump him from the rotation, or a complete breakdown on his own part.
The number of pitchers that will be carried into the regular season is still in question, and the names attached to those arms aren’t set in stone, but things are shaking out, and it’s looking a lot like it was projected to look early in the offseason. Arrieta, Lester, Lackey, Hammel (who could work up that line if he remains strong) and Hendricks.
This is a team that is focused, and working hard. Nothing is being taken for granted, and the bats are starting to come alive. It’s going to be a very interesting season in Chicago.