They say pitching and defense wins championships and the Cubs had both in spades last year. Joe Maddon’s starting pitching absolutely dominated their opponents and three of the Cubs starting five finished in the top 10 of the NL Cy Young voting. Eleven pitchers made a start last year and combined for an outstanding 81-39 record with five complete games, two shutouts, a 2.96 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 929 strikeouts in 989 innings.
Arguably the best of the starting five was Jon Lester who redeemed himself after a rocky start to his Cubs’ career. Lester had a 19-5 record in 32 starts with two complete games, a 2.44 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 197 strikeouts in 202.2 innings. He finished second in Cy Young voting and ERA and earned himself an All-Star nomination. Lester was clutch when the team needed him most pitching to a 1.76 ERA in his final 14 starts and in seven appearances in the playoffs posted a 2.02 ERA. It helped earn him Co-MVP in the NLCS and featured him in his first relief appearance since 2007 helping the Cubs lock down their World Series victory. Lester figures to be a lock for the rotation next year and it will be interesting to see how he performs without David Ross.
Close on the heels of Lester for best pitcher in the Cubs rotation was Kyle Hendricks who started the year as the fifth starter. Not happy with his performance last year, he tinkered with his release point, relied more on his four-seam fastball and developed more confidence in his off speed stuff. The changes made the difference and Hendricks ended up leading the league with the lowest ERA, placed second in WHIP and placed third in the Cy Young voting. In 31 games pitched, he finished with a 16-8 record, two complete games, one shutout, 2.13 ERA, 0.97 WHIP with 170 strikeouts in 190 innings. He was equally as effective in the postseason giving up just four earned runs in 25.1 innings. Next year, he’ll look to build on his momentum and prove to the league that this past season was not a fluke.
While Lester and Hendricks impressed, Jake Arrieta was unable to repeat his historic season from the year before. Still if an 18-8 record in 31 starts with a no hitter, 3.10 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 190 strikeouts in 197.1 innings and finishing ninth in Cy Young voting is an off year that shows how dominant the Cubs rotation truly was. Dig a little deeper though and it was apparent that Arrieta struggled with his command at times. His ERA in July (4.88) and September (4.60) were his highest in a month since August 2014 (5.34). In his Cy Young season, Arrieta walked four or more batters in just one start, but did so in eight starts last year. Arrieta brought his A game in The World Series though and gave up just three earned runs and struck out 15 batters in 11.1 innings. His final year of control will be next season and a strong start could earn him an extension.
After confounding the Cubs in the playoffs with the Cardinals the year prior, John Lackey jumped ship with teammate Jason Heyward and joined the Cubs in the off-season signing a two-year, $32 million deal. Lackey showed that age was just a number and at the age of 37 showed he still had gas left in the tank with a solid year. In 29 starts, he finished 11-8 with a 3.35 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 180 strikeouts in 188.1 innings. It was concerning though when he missed three weeks with a shoulder injury in the regular season and struggled with command in the postseason battling to a 4.85 ERA in three starts. Since he’s under control for another season, Lackey will probably slot in the fourth or fifth spot in the rotation.
Being left off the postseason roster seemingly caused many to forget the major contribution Jason Hammel made to the rotation during the regular season. Hammel had one of the best seasons of his career posting a 15-10 record in 30 starts with a 3.83 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 144 strikeouts in 166.2 innings. He was a lot more consistent in his third go around thanks to an improved off-season training regiment and posted his best month in August where he scored four wins in six starts and posted a 2.84 ERA. A poor September ERA of 8.71 led to a quick hook and dust up between Hammel and manager Joe Maddon possibly contributed to the team not picking up his option and allowing him to test free agency in the off-season.
Another possibility for letting Hammel leave was an impressive five-start audition by Mike Montgomery who became the sixth starter in an effort to rest the club’s starting rotation to keep them fresh for the playoffs. In those five starts, he pitched to a 3.33 ERA, 1.15 WHIP with 24 strikeouts in 24.1 innings. Montgomery was acquired in July from the Seattle Mariners for RHP Paul Blackburn and 1B Dan Vogelbach.
Five other pitchers each made one start for the Cubs including Adam Warren, Brian Matusz, Trevor Cahill, Rob Zastryzny and Jake Buchanan and they combined for a 2-0 record, 2.91 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 18 strikeouts in 21.2 innings. Of the five, only Zastryzny and Buchanan are still under team control. Zastryzny and Montgomery could be the front runners for the fifth starter job with the odd man out filling a long relief role that departed free agent Travis Wood held.
The front office could also go the route of acquiring a controllable young starting pitcher to fill out the rotation. The club wanted to go in that direction last year, but the Shelby Miller trade drove up the price to more than they wanted to pay and the team opted to go with a short term deal for John Lackey instead. With Hammel leaving, the chatter has started to pick up again, especially with Arrieta under contract for one more year and Scott Boras as his agent. Names like Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, Jake Odorizzi and Sonny Gray have been the most recent rumored pitchers lately.
The Tampa Bay Rays and Cubs have reportedly to have been in talks since last season to acquire one of their three starting pitchers in Archer, Smyly or Odorizzi, but may prefer Archer the most.
Odorizzi will be entering the first of three years of arbitration eligibility and pitched to a 10-6 record in 33 starts with a 3.69 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 166 strikeouts in 187.2 innings. Odorizzi’s season was a tale of two halves with a 3-5 record and 4.47 ERA in the first and a 7-1 record and 2.71 ERA in the second.
Smyly will be entering his second year of arbitration eligibility and has just two years of control left. He suffered through some shoulder issues two years ago and struggled with the long ball last year, serving up 32 home runs. In 30 starts, he managed a 7-12 mark with a 4.88 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and 167 strikeouts in 175.1 innings.
Archer should be very familiar to Cubs fans as the prize the Rays got when the Cubs acquired Matt Garza back in 2011. He currently has three years left on a team extension that still owes him $19 million with another potential $20 million in team options available in 2020 and 2021. He’s probably the most talented of the Rays starters but pitched to a poor 9-19 record last season in 33 starts with a 4.02 ERA, 1.24 WHIP with 233 strikeouts in 201.1 innings. Like Odorizzi, he had a rough first half where he went 4-12 with a 4.66 ERA, but bounced back with a 3.25 ERA in the second half.
Any of the three should prove to be fairly costly, but with the Rays desperately needing offense and the Cubs loaded with hitting talent, they should be able to match up on a deal.
Gray was also a hot name last offseason, but a poor season and a forearm issue may have cooled his interest this year. Nonetheless, he could be a strong buy low option and a good project for pitching coach Chris Bosio. On a poor Oakland team, Gray struggled to a 5-11 record, 5.69 ERA, 1.49 WHIP with 94 strikeouts in 117 innings. He’s currently entering his first season of three years of arbitration eligibility and the Cubs have matched up on trades with the A’s before.
Cubs 2016 Position Reviews
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