Making Sense of the Cubs’ Rotation in 2021

Last week’s Winter Meetings proffered little for Cubs fans. After a tumultuous beginning to the offseason, the Hot Stove season’s biggest week was a huge let down — for Cubs fans specifically, and MLB generally.

Begrudgingly accepting the realities of this winter isn’t fun, but I imagine most of the dedicated fan base understands this offseason is what it is at this point. The Cubs won’t be spending much money, core players might yet be traded, and the team in 2021 will remain a question mark as the front office determines whatever the hell course it is that they’re going to take.

In the midst of such uncertainty, none of the roster conundrums are greater than the construction of the starting rotation.

A Steep Dropoff

At first blush, it’s odd to fret about a rotation boasting a terrific one-two punch in Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks. There are precious few rotations in baseball that can claim without question a better combination of aces. If Darvish and Hendricks extrapolate over 2021 their performances this season, a weak NL Central could be ripe for the picking — despite the several questions this roster maintains.

Significant questions abound for the final three slots of the rotation, however. Alec Mills seems to have an inside-track to a rotation spot in 2021, but I have sincere reservations about his inconsistent performance in ’20, coupled with peripherals that lack appeal.

As I’ve written previously, his 5.44 FIP this season was worst in the NL among qualified starters, even as he was aided by an especially low .233 BABIP. In six of his 11 starts he surrendered four or more runs, and in three of those starts he failed to make it through four innings. The league average 4.48 ERA certainly wasn’t terrible, but came in the midst of just 62.1 innings. Including the minors, Mills’ highest single season inning total is just 124.2 innings.

He has value on the roster in 2021, to be sure, but relying on him to be a consistent starter every fifth day isn’t wise, it’s desperate.

On the other hand, Adbert Alzolay has become a sexy option for the Cubs in 2021, and I am quite high on his potential should he slot into the rotation full-time. The newfound slider and increased use of a sinker toward the end of the season portended a dominant arm. Questions about Alzolay persist despite the promise, however, as he’s battled myriad injuries and has yet to fully get his legs under him at the highest level. While a breakout 2021 campaign isn’t out of the question, it’s also far from a guarantee.

What About the Farm?

Outside of Mills and Alzolay, the Cubs have a bevy of interesting arms in-house — though none of which offer considerable confidence for next season. Rule 5 pick Gray Fenter has an intriguing arm, though he’s never pitched above low-A ball. (For a full scouting report, Brett Taylor offers a terrific breakdown of Fenter.) The Cubs’ most-hyped pitching prospect in years, Brailyn Marquez, should see action in ’21, but it’s hard to imagine he’s ready for full-time action quite yet — and, per Sahadev Sharma, the Cubs are still assessing his role. And then there’s a whole host of arms that might live in Iowa/26th-man limbo: Colin Rea, Tyson Miller, Keegan Thompson, Cory Abbott, et al.

After a shortened 2020 season, depth is at an absolute premium. The Cubs must do more than simply fill out their rotation; they need reliable depth to cover over potential injury and the expectation that a traditional five man rotation simply won’t cut it in ’21. It would be wonderful should any of this young talent capably contribute; it’s also both prudent and necessary to sign a couple of budget friendly starters this winter.

The Free Agent Market Isn’t Barren

Signing a capable starter to a multi-year deal would be reassuring, but sadly it’s a pipe dream for the Cubs this winter. Tomoyuki Sugano, a 31 year-old two time Sawamura winner (NPB’s Cy Young equivalent), has recently been posted by the Yomiuri Giants. With an impressive track record and belief that he’d slot into the middle/back of a rotation with aplomb, his expected contract of $10-$12 million annually is, at face value, a steal.

The Cubs, of course, are unlikely players in signing a starter to a multi-year deal outright this winter — as intriguing and (relatively) cheap as an arm like Sugano might be. Thankfully for the Cubs all is not lost, as the bargain bin has some appeal.

I’m sold on a pursuit of a pitcher like Mike Leake. Although he sat out the 2020 season due to Covid-19 concerns, Leake has been nothing but a consistent, durable arm throughout his career. He could likely be had on a cheap, one year deal with some club options attached — precisely the type of arm the Cubs could use.

In my breakdown of Leake’s fit I offered the following take:

Leake’s most appealing attribute is his durability. From 2012-2019 he started at least 30 games, logging no fewer than 176.2 innings in the process. Adding in his rookie campaign in 2010 (22 starts, 138.1 innings) and sophomore season in 2011 (26 starts, 167.2 innings), his career averages warrant appreciation: 29.6 starts, 182 IP, 4.05 ERA, 4.24 FIP, 1.8 fWAR.

If the Cubs wanted to take a flier on a true reclamation project, there’s no shortage of acceptable low-risk options. Jose Ureña, Chris Archer, Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Wood, Carlos Rodón, and Julio Teheran are among the many noteworthy arms that could likely be had on one year ‘prove it’ deals. Each arm is equipped with a variety of caveats, of course, but that’s the reality that exists in bargain bin shopping.

Jon Lester remains an option to return, but his shaky 2020 campaign (career worst 5.16 ERA and 6.20 K/9) and lengthy career makes a reunion more about nostalgia than a measured response to rotation needs. Certainly this wouldn’t be a terrible move; it’s also not one that signals a readiness to compete for real in 2021.

What ’21 Rotation will Reveal about Cubs’ Path

Despite a lack of spending money, the uncompetitive nature of the NL Central leaves the Cubs in position to compete for yet another division title next season. For Jed Hoyer’s first offseason at the helm, the existential questions about the nature of this team supersede all others. Should the Cubs ‘thread the needle’, aiming to compete in ’21 without mortgaging the future? Should they sell short-term assets this winter, effectively punting on ’21 and hoping for a quick reboot come 2022? Should they make clear their plans now, or sit back and see what avenues open up as the offseason unfolds?

Regardless of what direction they ultimately take, the need for starting pitching depth remains. Perhaps such arms help form a capable rotation that creates noise in the playoffs. Conversely, maybe a resurrection project is flipped at the deadline for future assets.

At the end of the day, the Cubs need to find rotation depth this winter. They should feel fortunate they can do so cheaply — without making clear 2021’s direction.


All stats courtesy of Fangraphs.

Featured photo: David Zalubowski, Associated Press.


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