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How the Cubs Pitching Staff is Primed for a Turnaround

After leading the NL Central division for the majority of 2019, the Cubs were eliminated from postseason contention following a 9 game losing streak which embodied an epic collapse. This was caused by a number of factors, including injuries at highly inopportune times, offensive under performance, and, most notably, struggles from the pitching staff. Even with all of the question marks surrounding the franchise this offseason, it appears likely that the Cubs will once again field a very strong team next season, but that depends on a solid pitching staff, which raises the largest concern: how well will the Cubs staff turn itself around to anchor the team next season?

The primary narrative of the Cubs pitching staff is the inefficiency of the money which has gone into supplementing it over the last several seasons. Consider this: in 2019, ten of the Cubs 13 most expensive contracts belonged to pitchers, which added up to roughly $130M – well over half of the contract money that the team spent on its major league roster this season. Based on rough $/WAR calculations given the split of money spent on starters compared with relievers, these pitchers would be worth their contracts if they combined to produce 24.4 WAR in a season – just 2.4 per pitcher. In reality, in 2019 these ten pitchers combined for just 15.1 fWAR – well under the expected value of their contracts. It’s easy to point to several contracts that are driving this: Brandon Morrow earned $9M and never pitched once, Craig Kimbrel was paid $10M to post an fWAR of -1.0 as he struggled with the long ball, and Tyler Chatwood has still failed to live up to his 3 year, $38M contract even after improving drastically from last season. Still, as relievers each of these players would only need to post around 1 fWAR in a season to validate his contract; the main culprits of this discrepancy are the starting pitchers earning the most money. 

While Yu Darvish, Jon Lester, and Cole Hamels were all respectably productive in 2019, posting at least 2 fWAR each with a combined total of 7.8, their contracts are worth over 16 WAR combined, meaning that they weren’t even worth half of what they’re paid. The Cubs don’t have a whole lot of control over this whole lot of contracts in 2020 either: with the exception of Hamels, Steve Cishek and Pedro Strop, all of the aforementioned pitchers are still under contract in 2020 for similar earnings, set to cost the Cubs over $100M before any offseason moves. Still, there appears to be hope for the staff to live up to their contracts to a much greater extent in 2020 than they did in 2019. 

The most convincing example of a pitcher who holds promise for a much better 2020 season was the poster child of the sequence of poor free agent contracts doled out by the Cubs before he turned around his season and posted one of the best second halves by any starter in baseball: Yu Darvish. In his first season with the Cubs, Darvish suffered injuries that made his season largely unproductive, and while he had no major injuries to start 2019, his continued ineffectiveness seemed to indicate that he was not at all the pitcher the Cubs hoped to acquire when they signed him to a $126M contract prior to the 2018 season. However, Darvish appeared imbued with confidence as he requested the first start of the second half of the season, and this was more than justified: of all pitchers with at least 50 IP in the second half, Darvish posted the second lowest xFIP, driven by the lowest BB% and second highest K-BB%. After struggling with his command and being unable to pitch deep into games throughout his Cubs tenure, Darvish found some adjustment which helped him regain his command, and it certainly showed. Though Darvish enters his age 34 season in 2020, he showed sustained success in the second half, including this ridiculous stretch:

This was fueled by the reemergence of this stuff, which makes Darvish a strikeout monster:

All of this seems to indicate that Darvish will be much more dominant in 2020.

With Darvish performing as the ace the Cubs signed him to be, the rotation will be much more stable, even if Darvish can’t single handedly fix every rotation problem. Behind Darvish, the rest of the rotation projects to be fairly similar: Jon Lester will very likely put up 2-3 WAR as he has consistently over the past three seasons, Kyle Hendricks should be expected to post another 3-4 WAR, and Jose Quintana, who somewhat quietly posted 3.5 fWAR in 2019, could very well contribute just fine as well, though in 2019 he posted his worst ERA with the Cubs even with his best FIP since moving to the north side. Projecting optimistically, those four pitchers could easily combine for 700 IP and 18 fWAR, a very strong showing from the front four of the rotation.

The fifth starter, though, is a pretty considerable question mark. Hamels earned $20M to fill this role in 2019, money that the Cubs absolutely cannot commit to the position once again in 2020. There are several options for the fifth starter role within the organization already, though none of them appear too formidable after 2019: first and foremost is the return of Tyler Chatwood to the starting role that he was expected to fill when he signed before the 2018 season. Chatwood was projected by many as a breakout candidate upon moving to a home ballpark that wasn’t Coors Field, and even with a pretty middle of the road 2019 season he looked much closer to that starter after a rough 2018. Chatwood’s largest issue by far in 2018 was walks: he issued nearly 3 more walks per nine innings than the next most walk prone pitcher with at least 100 IP. In 2019, while he had a smaller workload coming out of the bullpen, Chatwood’s walk rate was roughly half as much as in 2018, much closer to his career numbers. On top of that, Chatwood still has some pretty great raw stuff; his velocity and spin rate are among the best in baseball:

Graphic courtesy of Baseball Savant

It will unquestionably require another stride forward for Chatwood to be the starting pitcher he was supposed to be upon coming to Chicago – a 3-4 WAR pitcher at a minimum – but it’s remotely feasible with the right game planning to take advantage of his raw skills. To have that kind of production out of the fourth or fifth starting pitcher in the rotation would be excellent, and it would seriously round out the Cubs rotation as a whole.

Still, it seems most likely that the fifth starter’s name won’t be Tyler Chatwood, and that the Cubs will find another arm to fill that spot. There are at least a few options who pitched for the Cubs in 2019: Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay are both starters who have good potential, but neither has ever had a full season of the workload of a regular starter. The Cubs could bring back Hamels on the right deal, but it would take a significant discount from his $20M tab last season and it’s difficult to bet on the lefty as he heads into his age 36 season and posted poor numbers following an oblique injury sustained in late June.

The Cubs could venture into free agency once again; other notable starters who will be free agents this offseason include Gerrit Cole, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Zack Wheeler and Jake Odorizzi, all of whom would be more than okay as plug-ins to the current rotation. While the biggest names, Cole and Ryu, seem out of the financial reach of the Cubs, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein recently declared that no move is out of the question for the team, so any one of these pitchers has at least a slight chance to slot into the Cubs rotation in 2020. In the same vein, it’s possible that the Cubs make a trade for a starting pitcher as well; Epstein could try to strike a deal for either of Lance Lynn or Mike Minor, the Rangers 2019 breakouts, for example. One consideration is that the Cubs may look for a younger starter given that the average age of their rotation in 2019 was over 32 years old. Regardless of how it comes, though, the addition of an additional starter is more likely than not, and could seriously upgrade the rotation depending on the magnitude.

Regarding the bullpen, the Cubs have a lot to figure out heading into next season, but it’s important to remember that the team has a great deal of talent under contract in 2020 already. Consider that just two years ago, a bullpen backended by Craig Kimbrel and Brandon Morrow would have made a case for the best in baseball with replacement level relievers filling every other role. While their respective 2019 seasons can’t be ignored, they’re certainly still capable of pitching at elite levels assuming they can stay healthy. If all goes well for both pitchers, a regular schedule will also be a positive factor: Kimbrel didn’t pitch until June this season and Morrow was on and off the roster with injuries in 2018. Age is a large factor for both and may limit their health, but it’s reasonable to assume that both pitchers will be much better in 2020 than they have been so far in their Cubs tenures.

Additionally, even if Chatwood doesn’t factor into the rotation, he was effective out of the bullpen in 2019 and there’s no reason to believe he won’t be at least that good in the same role again. Beyond those three, the Cubs have many great young options to fill the rest of their bullpen: Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan, Brad Wieck, Danny Hultzen, Duane Underwood Jr., Adbert Alzolay, Dillon Maples and James Norwood are all pitchers younger than 30 who saw time and showed promise in the Cubs bullpen in 2019 and look to improve moving forward. 

Still, given that all of these pitchers have limited Major League experience, the Cubs need to supplement their bullpen once again this offseason. They will undoubtedly tread carefully given the negative consequences of nearly all of their recent bullpen moves, and if the Cubs didn’t have room for error before, they’re being suffocated by a pressure to perform now. The free agent class of relievers is considerably thin, though, with Will Smith, Dellin Betances and Will Harris headlining the group and not many others available from there. It’s hard to say that the Cubs will be able to sign one or more of these players considering the money already dedicated to the pitching staff, and it’s also difficult to say that the free agent class of relievers will be incredibly impactful: only four free agent relievers posted at least 1 fWAR last season, and the average age of free agent relievers who were worth any positive value at all is 34.5. It seems likely, then, that the Cubs will venture into the trade market this offseason to bolster the bullpen. With no options off the table, it’s difficult to predict any details of such a deal, but I would expect Scott Barlow, Ken Giles and Jose Leclerc to be among those the Cubs look into this offseason.

Even with the losses of Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler and Brian Duensing, then, the bullpen should have both high profile arms and legitimate competition for the back end spots. This is just one factor that projects to contribute to the improvement of the bullpen; in addition the Cubs are making distinct efforts this offseason to improve the coordination of their player development connecting up to the major league level, and they already saw success with a pitching lab that helped Wick, Ryan and Wieck perform well in 2019. With these efforts contributed to improving the effectiveness of the Cubs’s arms, there’s great potential in the bullpen to exceed their 2019 standard by far, an excellent sign for a team that watched the bullpen struggle far too often down the stretch this season.

While the Cubs have experienced more than their fair share of turmoil in the pitching staff over the last few years with injuries, inconsistency and coaching staff turnover alike, they have more than enough talent to turn things around heading into 2020. The largest factor to consider is this: following the 2017 season, had you imagined the Cubs pitching staff and then added Brandon Morrow, Craig Kimbrel, and Yu Darvish, you’d see the Cubs as a pitching juggernaut. The talent is there. Yes, the Cubs still have several moves to make to actually solidify their pitching, but the staff is in a better place than it seems, and they promise plenty to look forward to in 2020.

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Ryan Ruhde

Cubs, Royals and general analysis writer. Emory University class of 2023. Find me on Twitter @ruhdolph

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