State of the Cubs: Starting rotation
Uncertainty will be the name of the game around Major League Baseball this winter as the league navigates its first offseason following the pandemic-shortened campaign.
It’s impossible to predict exactly how things will play out in a winter unlike anything we’ve ever seen before in the sport, but let’s take a look at where the Cubs stand with each position group heading into the offseason.
Next up: Starting rotation
- Yu Darvish
- Kyle Hendricks
- Adbert Alzolay
- Alec Mills
- Colin Rea
- Tyson Miller
- Justin Steele
- Brailyn Marquez
The rotation might be the No. 1 item on the Cubs’ offseason priority list. Theo Epstein’s front office typically aims to have 8-10 bonafide starting pitching options to begin a season and that will certainly be the case for 2021.
The list above is only 8 pitchers and it’s doubtful the Cubs will push Marquez — their top prospect — and put pressure on him to join the rotation early in 2021. The left-hander turns 22 in January and just made his MLB debut on the final day of the regular season but has otherwise not pitched above A-ball in his career. Maybe Marquez will emerge as a rotation or bullpen option later in the year, but the Cubs can’t enter the new season counting on the rookie to eat big innings.
Miller, 25, also made his MLB debut in 2020, with a solid performance in a pair of appearances. Steele, 25, was called up to the majors, but was unable to get into a game and is still looking for his debut. Both guys figure to slot in as depth options for the Cubs rotation in 2021.
Rea will turn 31 in July and he’s been a great story of perseverance as he battled injury and notched his first MLB victory during the 2020 season. He made 2 starts for the Cubs, but he fared quite a bit better as a reliever (2.08 ERA, 0.69 WHIP in 7 outings) than in the rotation (11.81 ERA, 2.06 WHIP). In 2021, Rea will likely compete for a rotation spot and could serve as a veteran spot starter or long reliever.
Mills and Alzolay both impressed this season and have earned an opportunity to join the rotation in 2021. Alzolay, in particular, represents a lot of hope for the future as a homegrown young pitcher who developed a 2-seam fastball and a wicked slider to his repertoire:
Mills, meanwhile, turned in the most memorable highlight of the 2020 Cubs season with his dominant no-hitter against the Brewers.
Very few teams in baseball can feel as confident about the top of their rotation as the Cubs, who feature a dynamic 1-2 punch in Hendricks and Darvish. It makes no difference which guy is technically listed as the Opening Day starter — they’re both aces and could very easily be in the Cy Young contention once again in 2021.
Beyond Marquez, there are a handful of young pitchers who have flown a bit more under the radar coming up through the Cubs system and could potentially factor in as rotation options down the road: Cory Abbott, Jack Patterson, Keegan Thompson and Duncan Robinson.
All those names mentioned above indicate the Cubs have plenty of rotation depth in-house entering 2021. But not all of those guys are big-league ready and for a team with aspirations of contending, they need more proven options and veteran experience with Tyler Chatwood and José Quintana both free agents.
Hendricks and Darvish are a fantastic start, but that’s only 40% of the rotation.
Alzolay and Mills are both enticing and it will be interesting to see what they do over a full season, but they haven’t done it before and there are inherent question marks.
If the Cubs bring back Jon Lester on a short-term deal — a definite possibility — that would help add stability and depth and give the team 5 legitimate starters to pencil in.
The Cubs will undoubtedly add other arms to compete for a rotation spot this winter, regardless of what happens with Lester. It’s more likely the front office takes a flier on guys who could be a diamond in the rough (like Mills) than shopping at the top of the free agent market (i.e. Trevor Bauer) given the amount of money already committed to the 2021 roster with other holes to fill.
In addition to depth and filling out the 2021 rotation, the Cubs front office also has to balance the big picture. Hendricks and Darvish are signed through 2023 and Alzolay and Mills are both pre-arbitration. Without a minor-league season in 2020 and uncertainty for 2021, it’s unclear what kind of long-term impact that will have on the development of top pitching prospects like Marquez and Steele.
The Cubs will add several rotation options in the offseason — at the very least to compete for the final spot or two. A realistic scenario exists that the way the front office addresses the depth chart is by bringing back Lester and adding a couple of buy-low guys in the vein of Mills and Rea.