Do the Cubs need a Fifth Man Up?

Back with a look at the Cubs pitching staff, it’s Michael Ivory

As spring training draws ever nearer, all the talk in regards to the Cubs is that 5th space on the rotation. Losing both John Lackey and Jake Arrieta in the postseason meant there was certainly a requirement. My recommendation however, is that the Cubs would be best placed investing in positions elsewhere and why finding that 5th pitcher to complete the rotation may not be a million miles away from Wrigley already.

In 2017, I’d say our rotation was arguably the strongest part of our team, which only got stronger when we traded for Jose Quintana during the midseason. Quintana joined Jon Lester (a two time Cy Young nominated pitcher, who finished last season with a 13-8 record and a slightly high ERA of 4.33 in the 2017 regular season), Kyle Hendricks (7-5 record in 2017 with an ERA of 3.03 – a future star in my eyes), John Lackey and Jake Arrieta. Quintana himself has been labelled by the MLB as one of the most consistent pitchers in the NL in 2017, and ‘pitched’ in with a 7-3 record for the Cubs and an ERA of 3.74.

Losing Lackey for me was not concerning. Out of our main 5 rotation pitchers, he had the worst record (12-12), the worst ERA (4.59) and the highest WHIP (1.28). Combined with that was a short fuse. If anyone remembers that Cardinals game, and the fact that Lackey turns 40 this year, I do not believe this to be a loss. It did hurt more however, to lose Arrieta. Yes, it’s not the Arrieta of old, and yes, he does suffer with injuries, but a record of 14-10 and an ERA of 3.53 shows how crucial he was for us last year.

So Cubs had two spaces to fill. They filled the first one quickly by acquiring Tyler Chatwood on a 3 yr, $38m deal from Colorado Rockies. I quite like the look of Chatwood. His win record for 2017 wasn’t great (8-15), but his ERA stands at a 4.69, which considering he spends half his time pitching at Coors Field isn’t as bad as it suggests. He has only pitched at Wrigley Field once, but did throw a 1.50 ERA, so I wouldn’t be too upset if that carried through to next season! He also has a batting average of .154 so can contribute with the bat if needed. So Chatwood is a welcome addition to the squad.

So we now get to the crux of the article, the 5th pitcher. We seem to be linked with every free agent going at the moment, but three names that keep propping up are Yu Darvish, Alex Cobb and the return of Jake Arrieta (Gerrit Cole, mentioned in dispatches, has joined the Astros mega-rotation).

First of all, lets start with Darvish. I can almost hear everyone reading this saying, ‘Mike, it’s Yu Darvish. Are you honestly saying you wouldn’t have him in your rotation? IT’S YU DARVISH!!!’ Whilst I agree the guy is a talent, his performances in the world series, especially that last game, leave a bitter taste in my mouth for a pitcher who is asking for $160m. I am also concerned with how long Darvish will want in his contract. Since Shohei Ohtani finally decided to sign for the Angels, Darvish knows that he is one of, if not the, most attractive starting pitches around in the free agent market. Nothing wrong with him using this to his advantage, but I feel he will demand a lengthy deal, and at 31 years of age (and a guy who pitched a 3.86 ERA last season so nothing special), I feel our money is better spent elsewhere.

Next is Alex Cobb. I’m quite a fan of Cobb, especially the splitter he has in his armoury. His numbers are also not too shabby for last year (3.66 ERA and a 12-10 record), but I feel he may go to the Phillies if Cole does go to the Astros, which would be a good fit all round. Rumours are circling that Cobb is asking for a 4 year, $20m a year contract which the Phillies would be willing to part with for a ‘star’ pitcher, and who are awash with cash. This price is hard for me to justify for the Cubs rotation.

If you take away the ‘Coors Field effect’ from Chatwood’s ERA, it comes in at a 3.49, which is almost identical to Cobb’s career ERA. The difference in salary for Cobb and Chatwood, despite having very similar stats across the board doesn’t scream value to me. Cobb also missed the entire 2015 season after having Tommy John surgery, so there is a part of me that fears this could potentially crop up again.

The final name is Jake Arrieta. As mentioned above, I thought Jake was fantastic last year and it was a shame to see him go. However, I can give you, Jake, Scott Boras and anyone else who wants to listen, 200 million reasons why I would not want us to re-sign him! I know he won’t get that much, but Boras is doing what Boras does, and knows this will bump up his pay packet. This is testament to how poor the pitching market is this year when a pitcher who has lost 3-4mph off his fastball in the last few years and has been hampered with injury over the last two (Jake pitched 168 innings in 2017 compared to 229 in THAT 2015 season) can command such figures and a potential 7-year contract. I may also be a bit bitter that he turned down our qualifying offer, but that is neither here nor there.

So, who do I believe should complete the starting rotation for the Cubs this year? Like I mentioned previously, the answer is pretty close to home. In fact, it’s in their own bullpen. It’s Mike Montgomery.

Montgomery had a fairly successful year pitching in 2017, claiming a 3.38 ERA in the regular season. Montgomery was used when needed, a jack of all trades in pitching if you will. He was mainly utilised out of the bullpen as a relief pitcher, due to the value he provides as a long reliever, but of the 44 games he played, 14 of these were starts and he also claimed 3 saves throughout the year. Montgomery has expressed a desire to return back to starting pitching and with figures such as a 1.21 WHIP, his business case is difficult to refuse. Mike also has a vast repertoire of differing pitches which is crucial for any starting pitcher to possess. He has a fastball that clocks in the early 90s, alongside a sinker, change-up, cutter and a curveball.
Another reason why Mike Montgomery should be utilised as a rotation pitcher next season are the acquistions of Drew Smyly, Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek.

The Cubs were thinking to the future when signing Smyly to a 2 year contract, as the LHP underwent Tommy John surgery in July 2017 which has left him out for the standard 12-15 months. So the best we can wish for is potentially seeing him towards the business end of 2018, more than likely in relief. In 2019, Smyly should be fully fit and would have to be considered for one of the rotation spots. If the Cubs were to sign a new starter on a lengthy contract, Smyly may miss out. Jen Ho Tseng will also be in contention in 2019, if not sooner. Having Montgomery in the rotation for 2018, gives us the flexibility of having a pitcher who can start, but if all else fails, can be utilised in relief from the bullpen.

Last season, I felt our relief pitching was one of the weakest parts of our game which ultimately cost us a few wins. Bar Carl Edwards Jr (who needs to shake signs of inconsistency from his game), there was no strength in depth and no-one we could rely on, although this was not helped by injuries to Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon. This weakness in the armoury meant that Montgomery was better utilised from the pen in 2017, as that was where he was needed the most.

The signings of Cishek and Morrow mean we are no longer over-reliant on him being there. Both of these recorded astonishing ERA’s of 2.06 and 1.09 in 2017 respectively (although Cishek did only pitch 24.1 innings) and both have 9+ figures in the SO/9 category. Alongside CEJ and Strop the Cubs finally have a reliable bullpen. And with that, Montgomery has his ticket to the rotation.

So what position do I believe needs money throwing at and prioritising? Well first of all, we need to replace the big hole left by the departure of Wade Davis. This was the one that stung the most. In my eyes, Davis is arguably the best closing pitcher in the MLB, certainly in the NL (yes I do think he’s better than Jansen), who at one point held a 32/32 record for the Cubs in saves. That record stretched back to 38 games if you count his final few games for the Royals in 2016. Last season, he pitched at a 2.30 ERA, a 12.1 SO/9 and his WHIP record stood at 1.14. Now this is a big loss for the Cubs.

There is talk of Brandon Morrow or Steve Cishek potentially being moved to closing if we do not acquire another pitcher. Morrow has only recorded 18 saves in 11 years so this concerns me if we were to utilise him in such a manner. Cishek was a full time closer for the Marlins between 2013 and 2014 and also for the Mariners in 2016, with a career record of 121 saves. Whilst I would much prefer to Cishek to take the reins with this role rather than Morrow, it feels like we’re almost settling with who we’ve already signed.

Personally, I would like us to throw enough money at all star Greg Holland to convince him his future lies at Wrigley. I do have a slight concern with him having Tommy John in 2016, but his stats for 2017 show that it seems to be behind him. Holland led the NL in saves (41) reports at an 11 in his SO/9 and an identical WHIP to Davis. If we get the Holland that pitched for the Rockies in the first half of last season, we have a closing pitcher that is as close to Davis as we are going to get.

Another position I fear the Cubs are weak is catcher. And no, this is not a dig at Willson Contreras! With Willson, I believe that we have a solid catcher who posted a competitive .276 batting average last season, with 21 home runs. His 74 RBI come in 3rd for a team who hit over 800 runs last season (Contreras actually beats Bryant in this statistic) and for the first half of the season, you wouldn’t be ridiculed if you said he carried us for a number of games. We did, however, lose Contreras to a hamstring injury who seemed to struggle upon his return. At the time we had Alex Avila and Rene Revera as back up, who slotted in seamlessly when required (Revera especially who posted a .341 in the 20 games he played in 2017). Now, Revera has signed a deal to play for the Angels and Avila is on the free agent market, leaving Victor Caratini as our only backup catcher in our roster as I type. Caratini did post a respectable .254 in his first season last year, but the lack of experience does concern me if Contreras is hit by injury again.

I would like us to sign Jonathan Lucroy, who has been placed on the free agent market after spending last season with the Rangers and the Rockies. Lucroy carded a batting average of .265 with 40 RBI’s so would be an ideal number 2 to Contreras, and the 7 years he has played in the MLB would put me at ease if anything were to happen to Willson. The only issue with Lucroy is he may not want to play 2nd fiddle, when traditionally he has played 100 games plus every year for the last 7 seasons.

I must admit, if I was writing this article towards the end of last year, my 3rd and final position would be a lead-off hitter/outfielder to replace Kyle Schwarber, who I was adamant would be leaving to play DH for an AL team. This does not seem to be the case. Schwarber was a slight disappointment for me last year, only hitting a .211 (although he does have over a 33% ratio in HR/H with 30 HR’s in 89 hits), with a mindset of ‘it either leaves the ballpark or I’m striking out swinging.’ Schwarber’s fielding has also flagged as slightly concerning with 10 errors recorded when he played LF/OF last year. However, I have seen of Kyle in training this year and he looks in much better shape, so I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for now.

At the moment, it would make no sense signing someone like Lorenzo Cain or J.D Martinez (another Boras $200m player no doubt), as it would no doubt mean paying the luxury tax, something the Cubs are trying to avoid. Also, talks with Hendricks, Bryant and Russell are due to avoid going to arbitration, so I would much rather see the money being spent there rather than on an OF. There are no immediate holes in the outfield unless the Cubs trade either Schwarber or Happ, so this is no longer an immediate concern for me.

Whatever way Theo shakes it out, the Cubs are going to be a team to keep an eye on between now and Opening Day.

Just 76 days to go. Sigh.

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