Retooling Roster Means Cubs Rotation May Rely on Rookies, Reclamation Projects

With offense at a premium for a team that posted historically bad numbers against lefties, the Cubs had to lean on their rotation to carry them to a postseason berth. Not that it mattered against the Marlins when the bats went cold enough to store Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine. Bringing three full-time starters back, presumably having an improved version of Adbert Alzolay for the whole season, and maybe even facilitating a reunion with Jon Lester means the rotation appears on the surface to be a strength yet again.

However, that appearance comes with a boatload of caveats even if everything falls perfectly into place. Lester clearly isn’t the same pitcher as the coveted free agent who ushered in a new era of success on the North Side and would be filling a spot at the back of the rotation at best if he’s back. That still gives the Cubs just three proven starters, with Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks leading the way.

Alzolay’s development toward the end of the season was legit as his mid-season addition of both a two-seamer and slider turned him into a bonafide starter. Thing is, he’s had trouble staying healthy and maintaining consistent results over the course of his professional career. He’s also never thrown as many as 121 innings in any given season, so stretching out for what figures to be a full campaign in 2020 could be an issue.

Alec Mills might have an easier transition from the short season back to 162 games, but he’d still be looking at a huge jump from 62.1 innings. Hendricks and Darvish will also have to deal with workload increases, though they at least have longer histories of pitching at the big league level.

Regardless of how things play out, the Cubs are going to need to call upon help from either the minors or the free agent pool to patch together a rotation that will be deep out of necessity. Theo Epstein admitted as much prior to stepping down and the priority hasn’t shifted.

“We have to add depth, starting pitching depth,” Tommy Hottovy told Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic. “It’s so important coming off a year when Hendricks threw the most innings in our rotation and he threw 81. He threw another 18, I think, in summer camp. There was the ramp, but our starters threw at most — between spring training, summer camp, and the season — 120 innings.

“So you just don’t know how guys are going to adjust back to that 180-inning workload that they’re used to having. Depth’s going to be important. Guys that can step in and give you big innings when you need them.”

As we saw when Epstein and Jed Hoyer first came to Chicago, that means picking up a pitcher or two who might be coming off a down year and can be signed for next to nothing. Then again, it could mean Edwin Jackson. Realistically, the Cubs have neither the budget nor the desire for a long-term commitment at this point and there might be a few buy-low starters content with a one-year deal to wait out what was expected to be a depressed market.

“Sometimes, when you’re competing at the highest level, you have every position locked up, every rotation spot locked up,” Hoyer said. “You don’t have a chance to take a flier on a guy who you think might perform. Having opportunity allows us to unearth some diamonds in the rough. That’s really important.”

The tacit admission here is that the Cubs aren’t actually trying to compete at the highest level, or that they’re going to have to get lucky and hit big on a lottery ticket or three in order to do so. You already knew that, but Hoyer putting it like this kind of solidifies things. That said, it can be kind of enjoyable to see a player realize his potential and come back from a bad season or two in order to increase his trade value prior to the deadline.

I still laugh when I think about how fans got angry — Why are they trading away our best pitchers?! — when Paul Maholm, Scott Feldman, and Jeff Samardzija were traded away. While there’s a chance the Cubs can thread the needle with some rental contracts, the more likely goal is that they can rehab and flip a pitcher or two after providing a little more length to the rotation in the first half.

After years of talking about how the front office couldn’t get an adequate trade return for any of their core players, there could be a great deal of value in reclamation projects if things work out. Cheap deals fit within a restrictive budget and would yield a decent return from a team that needs just one final piece for a playoff push. There’s no real emotional tie, either, though it seems as though Epstein may have had a more difficult time with that than Hoyer.

Even if the Cubs aren’t able to unearth those diamonds, they’ve got a lot of options waiting in the wings at the upper levels of the organization. Colin Rea is back after agreeing to a deal for 2021, Tyson Miller got a cup of coffee as a result of those 7-inning doubleheaders, Keegan Thompson has gotten rave reviews, Cory Abbott is a stud, and Jack Patterson is a CI favorite who shot up through the system in 2019. Then there’s Brailyn Márquez, who has ace potential if he can harness his stuff and mature a bit more.

Get ready for the Cubs rotation to look like a fantasy lineup in a league that doesn’t limit transactions or innings, because Hoyer and Company are going to be streaming in a big way. Maybe Marquee Sports Network can take a few notes. This coming season might not be very fun in terms of success, but it sure does figure to be interesting from a procedural perspective.

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