How Cubs will choose their Opening Day starter
For the fifth straight year, the Cubs will open the season away from Wrigley Field.
But when they trot out onto the field for the bottom of the 1st inning against the Brewers on March 26, who will be on the mound?
For the last three years, the answer to that question has been Jon Lester. It’s very possible he gets the call again in 2020, but it’s not quite as simple as it has been in recent seasons.
Yu Darvish — who was scratched from his Thursday start due to the flu — is coming off a phenomenal second half while Kyle Hendricks hasn’t posted an ERA over 3.46 since 2015. Both would be fine options to get the ball on Opening Day against the division-rival Brewers.
First-year manager David Ross has yet to announce his Game 1 starter, but he at least gave some insight into how he views the role:
“I’m gonna put the guy that I see best fit for that spot,” Ross said. “I think the past success and who finished the season before and looks the best — I look back on who might’ve been the Game 1 starter last year in the playoffs and that’s kinda how I move forward. It’s all about how you’re throwing now.
“I think there’s a lot more that goes into it. It’s not about me. It’s about winning the game and the best chance to win the game is put our No. 1 starter out there.
“We’ve already started those conversations. It is collaborative. My coaches are totally empowered to speak freely to me. I bounce a lot of questions off them. This is not something I feel like I’m attacking on my own. I really want a lot of input. … I think it’s important to get everybody’s take and then I get to make the final decision. Everybody sees things through a different lens and I don’t want it to be just mine.”
If the Cubs made the playoffs last fall, Darvish probably would’ve been the Game 1 starter after posting a 2.76 ERA and a sparkling 118:7 K:BB ratio in the second half.
The Opening Day starter is an honor bestowed upon the pitcher and Lester’s career — and his impact on the Cubs — certainly warrants that honor. But he’s also 36 now and coming off a season in which he posted his highest ERA (4.46) since 2012.
Then again, Ross knows Lester better than anyone and he still sees ace-level potential from his close friend and former teammate.
“He is a guy that still has the top of the rotation potential for me,” said Ross, who was encouraged by how Lester came into camp. “He looks good, he looks fresh, he looks lean. … He put in some hard work this offseason. I know he was kind of switching up some things he had done in the past and it looks like it’s paid dividends.”
For his part, Lester isn’t worried about where he pitches, he just wants to be relied upon as he enters the final guaranteed year of his contract with the Cubs.
“I don’t care as long as I have a spot,” he said. “I’ll pitch wherever they tell me to pitch. Whatever day they tell me, I’ll be there and try to do the best I can.”
Whatever decision Ross and Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy make on the Opening Day starter, they feel good about their chances with some combination of Lester, Hendricks and Darvish in the season-opening series in Milwaukee. However, there may be a wild card in the mix, as José Quintana’s career success against the Brewers (9-4, 2.87 ERA, 1.02 WHIP) could push him up to pitch at Miller Park and bump one of the aforementioned trio back to start the Wrigley Field opener on March 30.
If it is Lester on Opening Day for Ross’ managerial debut, that will be another memorable moment in this new chapter for the duo.