Hey Chicago, what do ya say? With the 2020 MLB season now on the horizon, teams are finally releasing their rosters. Sunday night, the Chicago Cubs released their 60-man roster, which currently only contains 50 names. Teams are allowed to add to that list as Spring Training 2.0 progresses. Fifty names are a lot to cover, so today we’ll take a glimpse at the Cubs’ pitching staff.
The Starting Rotation
If this next round of spring looks anything like the first, tell your bookie that you’re putting your money on RHP Yu Darvish to be the number-one starter. Darvish became insanely hot last summer, continued that run in March, and I’d expect nothing different now.
Kyle Hendricks (RHP) has the potential to earn the number one spot, but the Professor relies on finesse rather than power. He and Darvish are two very different animals, with Darvish daring you to hit any one of his nine – yes nine- pitches. Hendricks is something to watch, as he paints the corners almost flawlessly, but for now, he stays at #2.
Dropping to third is Big Jon Lester (LHP). Sadly, Lester’s career is in its twilight stages. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Cubs exercise their option to buy Lester out for $10M after this season. The alternative is to pay him $25M for 2021.
Also in his walk-year is LHP Jose Quintana, who’ll likely start in the #4 spot this season. I’ve always like Q, but he’s been grinding way too hard the past two seasons. Although he’s struggled, his stats may be falsely inflated, in part due to mismanagement by Joe Maddon. On more than one occasion in 2019, Maddon left Quintana to the wolves, as his bullpen was too worn out to pull him early.
The Coveted Fifth Spot
Not that pitching out of the number-five spot is something to behold. Generally, those are guys who can grind a while, chewing up innings while the number 1-4 starters get rested. After the Cubs let Cole Hamels walk away as a free agent last year, all eyes were on the Cubs choices to fill that spot. Would they import a starter for 2020? Not exactly. Instead, they chose to look from within.
I didn’t have enough expletives for Chatwood through 2018, as he posted a 5.30 ERA. He led the majors in walks with a total of 95. He couldn’t seem to hit the broadside of a barn, and I thought he was done for good after (unintentionally) hitting Chris Taylor (Dodgers) in the head with a fastball.
A former Cubs’ pitcher with whom I’m friends, told me to give Chatwood another look in 2019. He told me that new pitching coach, Tommy Hottovy, would turn both Chatwood and Darvish into something special. He was 100% right.
Throughout 2019, Alec Mills (RHP) and Tyler Chatwood (RHP) served as the spot-starters. Chatwood looked like a new man, but unfortunately Joe Maddon bastardized him, leaving him to languish in the pen. I’ll never know how Maddon couldn’t see what Chatwood could now provide.
The #5 spot in 2020 will go to Tyler Chatwood. His stuff was crazy good throughout March, showing that his improvements in 2019 were no fluke. I expect Chatwood to come out firing again this week, and wouldn’t be shocked if David Ross inserted him into the number-four spot, bumping Quintana to #5.
Relievers: The New Righties
Chicago added several arms over this past winter, a necessity after allowing a couple of key free agents to walk away.
Finally, the meat and potatoes of the pitching staff. My guess is that things will look very different this summer even if the names remain the same.
Some of the names on this list are familiar, others only recognizable if you paid attention to Spring Training 1.0. Just as in years past, the Cubs seem to continue having issues with the bullpen department. Not re-signing guys like Brandon Kintzler may have saved money, but it will likely cost the Cubs in terms of wins.
Over the winter, Chicago added a ton of right-handers. The list includes Jharel Cotton, Jeremy Jeffress, Casey Sadler, Ryan Tepera and Dan Winkler.
I have to be honest here: I don’t hold a lot of hope for most of this bunch. Most are Tommy John survivors or otherwise injury plagued. Unfortunately, this seems to be what the Cubs can afford these last couple of years.
Winkler would appear to have issues not only with the joints and muscles in his throwing arm, but with his bone structure, as well. This is a guy who can throw hard, but literally broke his arm while hurling a fastball while playing with Atlanta.
Colin Rea hasn’t shown me much, nor has Cotton. Cotton had a short, but rough spring training in March. He’s listed as a starter/reliever, but I wouldn’t go benching Darvish for him just yet (heavy sarcasm added).
There May Be Hope
I do, however, have high hopes for a few in that group. Sadler, a former Dodger, who showed promise in L.A., but took a back seat to bigger names. His arm is strong and healthy, and his attitude is great, both toward the game and the fans. Sadler has struggled for years to crack the full-time MLB squad, and hasn’t yet made an Opening Day roster. He’s paid his dues. It’s time he was allowed to be a permanent fixture in the Cubs’ pen.
Jeffress dealt with hip issues in Milwaukee over the last couple of years, but Craig Counsell overused him, never letting Jeffress fully mend from his IL stints. He still throws fire, and if fully healed, may prove to be a worthy replacement for Brandon Kintzler, acting as Kimbrel’s setup man.
Ryan Tepera is also recovering from arm issues, but can be wicked when his stuff is working. In addition to having the potential for a bounce-back year as a strong reliever, Tepera has closing experience. God forbid Craig Kimbrel suffers another injury or can’t find his stuff, but if so (gasp), David Ross could go to Tepera.
The New Southpaws In the Pen
The Cubs went light on southpaws this winter, adding only lefties Rex Brothers and Trevor Megill to the 60-man roster.
Brothers was decent in the early version of spring training, posting a 2.57 ERA over seven innings of work. He kept his WHOP low (1.286), but his walk rate of 3.9 per nine innings stands out. Also standing out are his strikeout rate of 15.4 per nine, as well his strikeout to walk ratio, which is just a shade under 4:1.
Joining Brothers in the pen, is lefty Trevor Megill. who the Cubs snagged from the Mexican Pacific Winter League. Throughout five seasons in the minors, Megill has been shipped all over the place, while compiling an overall ERA of 3.48 (including his NCAA time and while playing in foreign leagues).
Somehow, neither Megill or Brothers never fully impressed me when they worked out with the Cubs in March. Megill posted an ERA of 5.40 over just five innings of work, but he looked as though he wasn’t comfortable on the mound. Brothers’ numbers were good, but it seemed as though every time I saw him pitch, he was missing the plate and issuing walks.
The Remainder of the Cubs’ Bullpen: Lefties
LHP Danny Hultzen made the list. Hultzen has a phenomenal story about overcoming injury after injury, finally getting his MLB debut last year with Chicago. But he’s 30 years old with like 8 minutes of MLB experience. He showed some promise in his brief game appearance last year, and he was perfect in 1.0 innings of work in March. I’m certainly hoping that he’ll become the Cinderella story, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Lefties Kyle Ryan, Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck all proved to be a powerful trio last season, and I’d expect nothing less from them this year.
The Remaining Right-Handers
Dillon Maples has been on and off for the Cubs for the last couple of seasons, but when he’s hot, he’s hot. Fellow righties Alec Mills and James Norwood will also be there.
Mills was (is) vying for that coveted fifth starter spot, but I don’t think he’ll make it. Likely, he’ll serve as a swingman and solid middle reliever, with the potential to chew up quality innings.
Norwood has shown me nothing. He struggles with control, and doesn’t seem to handle pressure well. HIs ERA for 2019 was admirable – 2.89 for 9.1 innings, but his walk rate (7.7) and WHIP (1.821) are going to prove costly to the Cubs.
Righty, Duane Underwood Jr. has struggled some, posting a 5.40 ERA for the Cubs in 2019 (11.2 innings pitched). Underwood debuted with Chicago in 2018, earning a spot start. He labored hard through his four innings on the mound, but with guidance from former catcher Chris Gimenez, Underwood stayed calm and unscathed through a rough first inning, consisting of nearly 40 pitches.
Finally, closer Craig Kimbrel desperately needs a bounce-back season. The Cubs picked him up midseason last year, after Kimbrel held out for what he’d hoped would be a huge offering as a free agent. Kimbrel had no regular workout over the winter, then labored hard for an expedited version of Spring Training which didn’t begin until June.
With added winter weight, Kimbrel tired too easily. His stuff is still fast, with a four-seamer running in the mid-90 mph range, but his control has seemed to be way (emphasis on way) off. I had hoped that a regular offseason followed by a normal spring training would help, but then COVID-19 reared its ugly head. Fortunately, Spring Training 2.0 will last another month, but this last 3-1/2 month hiatus may have Dirty Craig off his game again.
That’s it for the Cubs 2020 pitching staff. Stop back tomorrow, as I start breaking down the rest of the Cubs’ roster.
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