The reality of the Cubs’ rotation situation
RMESA, Ariz. — In a year where flexibility will be paramount, the Cubs don’t currently have much set in stone for the 2021 season.
But one thing they’re ruling out — at least right now — is the concept of a six-man rotation.
The Cubs acknowledge the entire pitching situation will be fluid following a very unusual 2020 season that will undoubtedly impact pitchers’ workloads this year. But they don’t want to add an extra starter into the mix as a way to help manage all the innings.
“No six-man rotation yet,” David Ross said Tuesday, the day before the first official pitchers and catchers workout. “If you do go that route, you’re shorting the bullpen a guy and those [starters] would have to be really stretched out for that to happen. We’ve got some talks that are ongoing about that process, but it really relies on the players and where they’re at.”
The man in charge of mapping out the pitching plan for each Cubs player shares the same opinion.
“If your starters are not built up and going 5 innings or not quite 6-7-8 innings, now all of the sudden you’ve lost one extra bullpen arm and they’re covering more innings,” pitching coaching Tommy Hottovy said in a “Cubs 360 Daily” interview on Marquee Sports Network Tuesday. “So you’re in really dangerous territory of getting relievers hurt and increasing their workload too much. There has to be a balance there. It can’t just be: we’re going to do a six-man rotation to limit the starters’ innings and then all of sudden you’re burning the bullpen guys in mid-April and guys are really struggling.”
That said, Hottovy also understands the reality of the situation after pitchers threw fewer innings in 2020 than ever before in their professional careers. It’s unrealistic to expect most starting pitchers to approach 180 to 200 innings this season.
“It’s going to take a big group of guys to be able to cover the amount of innings that we’re going to need to have this year,” Hottovy said.
Over a 162-game season, the Cubs will need to cover more than 1,400 innings with their pitching staff. In last year’s 60-game slate, the pitchers combined for 518.1 innings.
With his consistency and low-impact delivery and arsenal, Kyle Hendricks is exactly the type of pitcher who might be able to approach a regular workload in 2021. But beyond that, where will all the innings come from?
There will be a lot of names circulated in and out of the eight or so bullpen spots throughout the season. A team’s relief corps are in a constant state of flux in normal years and that is especially true this season.
As for the rotation, the Cubs lost a trio of veterans to free agency (Jon Lester, Tyler Chatwood, José Quintana) and traded away Yu Darvish this winter. In return, they added Zach Davies in the trade with the Padres and then signed Jake Arrieta (pending a physical), Trevor Williams and Kohl Stewart plus Shelby Miller on a minor-league deal.
Add in the incumbents — Hendricks, Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay — and the Cubs have a bunch of arms competing for the five spots in the rotation.
But that’s by design, as the Cubs know they’re going to need more than five starters all year and they wanted plenty of options.
“It’s going to be balancing, getting innings from different guys, maybe sending a guy to the bullpen and managing some innings that way,” Ross said. “We’ve got a lot of flexibility of some guys that can be swingmen and kind of fill different roles for us.
“This is going to be something that we’re going to have to adjust to and see whether health or performance — there’s going to be a lot of factors into who’s taking the ball as well as innings and protecting these guys.”
On paper, all those names competing for the rotation spots come with their fair share of question marks and most of these pitchers sit in the low-90s with their velocity.
But Jed Hoyer’s front office and Ross’ coaching staff are confident this group of arms can find success in front of a Cubs defense that just won the first-ever team Gold Glove award in 2020.
“Certainly we’re not going to be lighting up radar guns,” Hoyer said. “There’s no doubt that we’re running a little bit counter to some of the trends in Major League Baseball. But what I do feel really strongly is that this is a group of pitchers that do a lot of things really well and things that our pitching infrastructure has been able to see real results with in the past.
“These guys — all of them — throw multiple offspeed pitches for strikes, they can throw multiple pitches down in the count for strikes. Our guys have had a lot of success with pitchers like this in the past. While we may be at the very bottom of the league in terms of velocity, I think in terms of pitchability, we’ll be right at the top. That’s something our guys have done an exceptional job with.”