Notes on the starting rotation from the first week of Spring Training

Kyle Hendricks

Kyle Hendricks

Starting Rotation

Kyle Hendricks looked comfortable while going two innings in his debut after reportedly changing his offseason workouts to better prepare him for the start of spring. Early on he appears to be the "most ready" among the veterans to open the season and there is some buzz growing that 2020 could be a big year for him. The most important thing would be for him to avoid the dead arm periods he's experienced each of the past two years which saw his velocity drop below his already modest outputs. Perhaps the new offseason regime will be the answer.

Jon Lester did not look comfortable on the other hand. Both his stuff and command were off as he allowed five base runners in his first inning of work. It's way too early to be concerned though. Until he consistently gives us reason to worry, Lester deserves the benefit of the doubt that he'll continue to hold his own once the season kicks off, despite his age.

All reports indicate Yu Darvish is throwing well during his side sessions and he should begin appearing in Spring games soon.

The reports were equally strong for Tyler Chatwood and he then made it through his first spring inning unscathed. I know fans are still scarred from watching his abysmal 2018 season as a starter, but the mechanical tweaks he made heading into last season led to vast improvements in his walk rate and overall effectiveness. He only got better as the year progressed and became more comfortable with the new delivery, including when he was given opportunities to start. I've had him pegged for the 5th spot once it became clear the Cubs were not going to trade any of their starting pitchers this offseason, and Pitching Coach Tommy Hottovy has already declared him the front-runner.

Jose Quintana has been among the Cubs down with the flu at the start of game action so he is currently behind the others but we should see him on the mound in the near future. He's going to be trying out a new version of his changeup, and the plan is to pair it with more four-seam fastballs after he was forced to fall back on two-seamers and his curve in too many starts last season.

Depth

At this point it would be a shock to see anyone else open the 2020 season in the rotation instead of Tyler Chatwood. But that is a testament to how well his spring has opened rather than a failure of his competition.

Alec Mills

Alec Mills

Alec Mills looks just as solid as he did in the 2nd half of 2019. Given he is versatile enough to act as a swing man and spot start when necessary (and that he is out of options), Mills appears to be a lock for the Opening Day roster. His fastball lacks velocity, but it has enough movement, and his wide array of offspeed stuff looks good so far. Few Cubs pitchers understand how to change speeds as well as Mills. He'll always require command to succeed but he usually has it.

It will be important for the Cubs to have a couple of starters in Iowa on the 40-man roster who can be called up when the needs arise. Among the returning options, Adbert Alzolay is the highest upside arm in the bunch. Consistency is still the key with him. When he's got all three pitches working, he can outperform any of them. There wasn't much life on his fastball his first time out, but his big curveball looked very sharp.

Colin Rea was the PCL Pitcher of the Year in 2019 and has plenty of past MLB experience. He won't blow anybody away, and needs a strong defense behind him, but he's savvy enough to survive if needed. Added to the 40-man  alongside Rea this offseason, Tyson Miller looked solid in his first outing. Given his lack of AAA experience he figures to be low man on the totem pole, at least early in the year.

The name to keep an eye on is Jharel Cotton. Once a top five prospect in the A's system, Cotton was up-and-down during his rookie season back in 2017 before TJS wiped out all of 2018 and most of his 2019 campaigns. The Cubs picked him up in exchange for cash back in November after Oakland designated him for assignment. Not wanting to risk another team picking Cotton up off waivers ahead of them the Cubs made the trade instead, and the risk appears to be paying off early on.

Cotton has tossed two clean innings so far, throwing in the low-to-mid-90s while his go-to pitch, a Bugs Bunny changeup thrown in the mid-to-upper-70s, looks to be back on track. The 28-year old is at a similar point in his career as to where Colin Rea (29) was entering 2019. His upside is a bit higher though, and there's a chance he could work his way back to the Majors quickly if he continues to throw as he is. He'll need to prove he can maintain this kind of stuff into the middle innings, but even if he doesn't he could have bullpen utility, perhaps as a backup to Mills in the swingman role.

Non-roster invitee Brock Stewart is the only other starter in Big League camp. I didn't get an opportunity to review his first outing, so I can't report on how he looked, but he did manage to punch out four batters without walking anyone over 1.2 innings. Another 28-year old former top prospect who has battled injury and inconsistency, Stewart is coming off a very rough 2019 as a starter in AAA and reliever in the Majors, so we'll have to wait and see if the Cubs have managed to unlock anything new in his game to provide hope that the big righty can regain the form which saw him post a 3.41 ERA as a swingman for the Dodgers back in 2017.

It's been an encouraging first week, all in all. Viruses not withstanding, the Cubs starters are healthy. No one is in danger of opening the season behind schedule at this point. Key depth pieces (Chatwood and Mills) have looked good in the early going, and one of the bounce back candidates the Cubs rolled the dice on (Cotton) has been a pleasant surprise. While we would all love it if the Cubs had an impact starter ready and waiting in the wings, Alzolay still provides some hope in that regard if he can stay healthy, and the Cubs do appear to have solid depth built up in order to withstand common levels of attrition at the bottom end of the rotation as long as Darvish and Hendricks remain in place at the top. If either of those two should falter or miss long stretches of the season the Cubs will have difficulty replacing their high end production.

Comments

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  • Sorry about the lack of content this week. My allergies having been wreaking havoc on me the last 10 days or so. It has left me with little time or energy for writing. I'm hopeful I am past it at this point and can get back on a regular writing schedule.

  • I post some semi-nice things about Colin Rea and then he goes out, misses the zone consistently and gives up a grand slam. He's a pitch to contact guy and so needs to pitch ahead in the count as often as possible. Not doing that this afternoon.

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    Glad to have you back Michael. There are certainly enough pitchers in camp and we can only hope that some will distinguish themselves.
    Do you know if any of the prospects are there, such as Jensen, McAvene, Riley Thompson, etc?

  • In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    There are few pitching prospects in MLB camp beyond the guys on the 40-man (Alzolay, Steele, Miller, Norwood, Underwood, Megill). Cory Abbott didn't even get an invite. Dakota Mekkes, Wyatt Short are a couple of relievers getting a look.

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    Thanks Michael. I saw a clip from either today or yesterday and Manny Rodriguez (who was put on the 40 man roster) hit 99mph with good location. We want power arms and he certainly has one.

  • In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    Rodriguez likely opens the year as a closer in Tennessee. Probably shares the job with Oscar de la Cruz and maybe Bailey Clark/Ben Hecht. Rodriguez topped out around 97 last year, but maintained 94-95 consistently. I'm curious if touching upper-90s will be a new norm for him or if he settles back into the mid-90s.

    He's got a good curveball to go with the heat. Control and command were a big issue in 2018 as he struggled in South Bend, but he righted himself in 2019 at Myrtle Beach. Needs to prove he can throw strikes and stay ahead of hitters. When he runs into trouble it is generally when he walks a guy, then falls behind 2-0 and lays a fastball down the middle. When he works ahead in the count he is really tough.

  • Rodriguez has been impressive.

  • What did Hendricks do differently this off season?

  • In reply to HJW49:

    He started his routine sooner and changed some of his workout techniques

  • In reply to HJW49:

    He switched to a new athletic trainer. Focused more on movement and flexibility than on weight training.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Basically, he felt like his mechanics got out of whack at times the past couple of years, and he thinks increased flexibility and freedom of movement will help prevent that.

  • Welcome back Michael. I suspect the #5/#6 SP slot should be well covered by Chatwood & Mills. Onward!

  • Right now, I want Ian Miller as the 26th man. I think a legit base-stealer is underrated. What was the Cubs record in 1-run games last year?

  • In reply to DarBar15:

    19-27 in 1-run games.

    A lot of that had to do with the bullpen blowing late leads, but the base running gaffes played a role as well. Cubs were top three (might have even been the worst IIRC) at running into outs on the bases last year. The defense also continued to slip.

    That is one of the reasons why I wanted Maddon gone. Complacency had set in. Attention to detail was lacking in all facets. That isn't a knock against Maddon, who is a proven winner, but all leaders have a shelf-life. A new voice was needed.

  • In reply to DarBar15:

    Miller was name dropped by Ross during yesterday's broadcast as a candidate for the role. Trouble is, Souza is a lock, and Almora is off to his own hot start this spring. I can't see the Cubs rolling with 3 OFs and just 1 IF on the bench. Miller likely needs to beat out Almora (who does have an option) by a significant margin given Almora has previous MLB success and is already on the 40-man. The Cubs would need to make room for Miller, and they are likely going to have to do the same for Kipnis already.

    I think it is more likely Miller has put himself in position to be the first call up from Iowa if injury strikes or Happ/Almora struggle as a CF tandem.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    I get why they might do it but keeping both Kipnis and Descalso on the roster seems like a waste of a spot.

  • In reply to DarBar15:

    I don't think they will. Kipnis and Descalso are redundant.

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    In reply to DarBar15:

    If you've read CubsDen for a while you know I love speed and I agree that Miller should be our 26th man. He can also play a good CF too so he's not just a runner.

  • Great article Michael thanks again. Loving all these arms coming through the system. Finally the FO started drafting power arms.

  • I read that Alzolay has one minor-league option remaining. Does that mean if he starts the season in Iowa, someone gets hurt and they call him up, that he can’t go back down again without clearing waivers?

    I’m actually excited about Darvish and Hendricks at the top of the rotation. The bottom three concern me.

  • In reply to Cubs09:

    Alzolay can be brought up and down without going on waivers.

    Only applies to players with multiple years (I think 3 or 4+) of MLB experience gain certain rights to refuse the assignment, and then they are granted free agency, rather than waivers.

    That is why even guys like Schwarber, Happ, Bote, Almora and going back to TLS could get optioned and have no recourse despite having spent more than a year in the Majors.

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