How Cubs are approaching their starting rotation amid baseball’s uncertainty
With vaccines starting to circulate, the prevailing hope is that we’re nearing the “post-pandemic” portion of American life.
But that doesn’t mean everything is going to automatically go back to normal in the Major League Baseball world for 2021.
Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts and president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer have each said multiple times this winter that they are unsure if the season will start on time or if it will be a typical 162-game campaign.
Regardless of when the season starts, there will undoubtedly be a carryover effect from the bizarre year that was 2020.
Baseball players prepare themselves for a couple months of a season in high school or college, then have to adjust to a five-month minor-league season and then step it up one more notch for the six-month MLB season (plus playoffs). A year ago, every player in the big leagues was planning for a six-month season and went through most of spring training with that same mindset. Then the shutdown occurred and the season was transformed into a two-month sprint.
That’s going to have a major impact on players’ health, particularly with pitchers.
The Cubs have not yet formulated an exact plan for innings limits for each of their pitchers, but expect them to exercise caution in 2021 (along with the rest of the league).
Kyle Hendricks and Yu Darvish have proven they’re capable of making 30-plus starts and approaching 200 innings throughout their careers. But in 2020, they each made only 12 starts and totaled 81.1 and 76 innings, respectively. That would be quite the leap physically to go from there to 200 innings.
The Cubs also face uncertainty within the rest of the rotation beyond those two aces, with Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay expected to slot into the rotation but both lack much in the way of a track record. Jon Lester, José Quintana and Tyler Chatwood are now free agents, making starting pitching near the top of the Cubs’ offseason wish list.
“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,” Hoyer said. “Everyone’s not going to be able to be healthy. People aren’t going to be able to take every fifth turn throughout a season the way we have in the past. I think the whole industry knows that and is talking about that.
“We’re happy we have those guys. We know we have to add some length and add some arms to that group. But I’m definitely not looking at it like: Here are five guys and everything else is depth. We have to look at it a little bit more holistically and we’re going to have to give guys breaks and not push guys in the same ways. We played 60 games this year.”
With regards to Lester, Hoyer maintained the Cubs have a few items on their offseason checklist to figure out before determining if there’s a fit for the veteran southpaw on the 2021 roster.
Colin Rea represents rotation depth and the Cubs also acquired Gray Fenter in the Rule 5 Draft last week. In 2020, Tyson Miller and Brailyn Marquez got their first taste of big-league action while Justin Steele was called up and did not appear in a game. All three could serve as depth with Marquez likely spending more time in the minor leagues to develop to begin the year.
Beyond the need for depth, the Cubs feel an open competition for the 2021 rotation could actually provide hidden benefits.
“Sometimes opportunity allows you to give guys a shot,” Hoyer said. “As an example, if we had been really good, we might not have been able to give Jake Arrieta the shot he was able to get.
“We’ve talked about that a lot — the challenge of competing but also having available innings and available at-bats for people to take those opportunities. 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 flier on a guy that you think might perform.
“Having opportunity allows us to unearth some diamonds in the rough and I think that’s really important.”