For the longest time, the Chicago Cubs have sported a sturdy starting rotation, regarded as one of the best in Major League Baseball; it’s now running out of gas.
Going into the regular season, the Cubs’ quintet of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Cole Hamels, Jose Quintana, and Yu Darvish was arguably the most complete starting rotation in the sport. Lester and Hendricks have been high-end pitchers their whole careers; Quintana has been a consistent left-hander; Hamels experienced a resurgence in his two months with the Cubs last season; when healthy, Darvish has been a potent strikeout pitcher.
With that said, an important element to this rotation is its age. Lester and Hamels are 35; Darvish is 32; Quintana is 30; Hendricks is 29. While they’re proven commodities, this isn’t a rotation budding with youth and upside, as the halfway results prove.
Hendricks owns a respectable 3.45 ERA, but is fresh off a stint on the injured list due to a shoulder injury. While he has been efficient in postseason play, Hendricks is often removed from such starts early. He labors through at-bats, and given his recent injury, there is reason to be concerned about Hendricks’ reliability moving forward.
Like Hendricks, Hamels has been a steady force, but now the Cubs have to worry about recurring injuries. One inning into his Friday night outing against the rival Cincinnati Reds, Hamels was removed from the game due to an oblique strain and later placed on the 10-day injured list. For a 35-year-old pitcher, any injury is one to be cautious with.
Lester got off to a great start this season (he owned a 1.16 ERA through his first seven starts), but he has been inconsistent over the last six weeks. He has surrendered 33 runs over his last nine starts, is getting pulled early in games, and isn’t fooling hitters with his offerings.
Since the Cubs acquired Quintana from the Chicago White Sox, the expectation has been that he’ll eventually turn a corner and return to being the savvy left-hander of old; it still hasn’t happened. This season he owns an underwhelming 4.21 ERA and 1.37 WHIP, and while he has put together some timely outings, the inconsistency overrides the sporadic heroics.
He has put together some vintage outings, but Darvish continues to be a disappointment and flaw on president Theo Epstein’s resume (Epstein signed Darvish to a six-year, $126 million deal after 2017). In 17 starts, Darvish has recorded a 4.98 ERA and 1.36 WHIP while also surrendering 18 home runs. Once one of the most deceptive pitchers in baseball, hitters are now waiting on Darvish’s curveball and high-velocity fastball. Dominance has come in glimpses and, collectively, he has been the Cubs most unreliable starting pitcher.
Tyler Chatwood, who has been used more so as a reliever the past year, has made three starts for the Cubs this season. In his last two outings, he has surrendered a combined eight runs, five walks, 12 hits, and two home runs in nine innings pitched. Chatwood owns a 4.50 ERA and 1.55 WHIP this season.
A nagging issue with the Cubs has been their bullpen, and they hope that the addition of All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel will aid that liability. Unfortunately for the Wrigley faithful, there’s no cure for their limping rotation.
This is who the Cubs are. Their starters have willed their way through outings and seasons since they put themselves back on the MLB map in 2015. They’ve added faces along the way such as Quintana and Hamels, and it has bolstered their roster. But age is taking its course, as is many of their pitchers becoming predictable. It also doesn’t help that they can’t take advantage of a struggling division.
At 45-41, the Cubs are in second place in the National League Central and struggling against their divisional foes. They’re 3-3 against the Milwaukee Brewers, 2-3 against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and 3-6 against the Reds. The St. Louis Cardinals are the one team the Cubs have, for the most apart, had their way with, as they’re 6-3 against their hated rivals.
It’s easy to say that the Cubs should make a move for a top-line starting pitching before the MLB trade deadline. Except, outside of Hamels, the Cubs entire rotation is under team control through 2020. They also have a $211 million payroll — which is third in MLB — and an underwhelming farm system. Adding payroll is the last thing the Cubs want to do.
The Cubs are a threat to win the NL pennant. The frontrunner? Far from it. The Los Angeles Dodgers look invincible, and the Atlanta Braves have arguably the most dangerous offense in the NL and are a couple of relief additions away from being a complete ballclub.
The Cubs’ identity is their high-octane offense and versatile depth chart, headlined by Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo, and Kris Bryant. They also have the likes of Willson Contreras, Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora and, when healthy Ben Zobrist, among others. All in all, manager Joe Maddon probably has the second deepest team in the sport, from a talent perspective — behind the Dodgers.
The NL Central is anyone’s for the taking. All five teams are in the mix. Based on pedigree and talent alone, you could say the Cubs are the favorite to outlast the field, and rightfully so. They’ve won 92-plus games in each of the last four seasons and have shown a willingness to make midseason transactions. But this isn’t the same Cubs team that won the World Series, despite the pieces still being in place; their starting rotation has become a guessing game.
The Cubs have relied on veteran pitchers to carry the load for the last five years. Now they’re at a crossroads: It’s not good enough.