Spring Training Rundown: Starting Pitchers

Kyle Hendricks (Photo by Stephanie Lynn)

Kyle Hendricks (Photo by Stephanie Lynn)

Starting Rotation

Workload figures to be a buzzword throughout baseball this year, with more attention than ever being placed on innings bumps from previous season, pitch counts, and monitoring pitchers for dead arm periods. It is possible the league will not see a single starter surpass 200 innings as clubs will be cautious to protect their top arms for potential postsesaon runs.

Kyle Hendricks was one of just three MLB pitchers to surpass 80 innings during the shortened 2020 campaign. None exceeded 85. Don’t be surprised to see piggybacks, six-man rotations or at least more frequent spot starts employed by the Cubs and all MLB clubs throughout 2021. The Iowa shuttle figures to be even more imperative than usual in order to keep fresh arms available in not just the bullpen, but the rotation as well.

2020 Innings Pitched

  • Hendricks 81.1 (12 GS)
  • Davies 69.1 (12 GS)
  • Mills 62.1 (11 GS)
  • Williams 55.1 (11 GS)
  • Arrieta 44.1 (9 GS)
  • Alzolay 21.1 (6 G/4 GS)
  • T. Miller 5.0 (2 G/1 GS)
  • Marquez 0.2 (1 G/0 GS)

Other SP 40-Man Roster: Stewart (Opted Out), Abbott (Alternate site only), K. Thompson (Alternate site only), Fenter (Rule 5)

NRI SP: S. Miller (Opted Out 2020)

The Cubs starting rotation may not impress in terms of velocity, but in what figures to be a taxing season on arms, having so many guys who don’t overthrow and rely on contact may not be such a bad thing. It certainly was not the Cubs plan to construct their rotation entirely around soft tossers, but if you are looking for a silver lining, of all the seasons to run out a group groundball specialists, 2021 is probably the best one. The Cubs feel they have the defense (they won the inaugural Team Gold Glove Award for 2020) and that their pitching infrastructure is well suited to get the best return on investment on these types of arms.

Jake Arrieta and Adbert Alzolay both battled injury the last couple of seasons, but Arrieta only missed two starts and Alzolay also went through 2020 unscathed once he got going in South Bend. Their other four main options for the rotation are command and offspeed specialists who rarely break the 90-mph barrier with their fastball. All managed to stay healthy and not miss a start in 2020. The ability to take the ball every five days is always an underappreciated asset, and figures to be so even more this year.

Kyle Hendricks is already lined up to start the Cactus League opener on Monday and the Cubs Regular Season opener April 1st. We all know what type of pitcher he is, and the addition of an improved curveball in 2020 made him even more effective. I’m curious to see whether Hendricks relies even more heavily on it this season, as it was arguably his best pitch in several outings.

Fans may remember Zack Davies from his several seasons up in Milwaukee as an effective but unimpressive innings eater, but he took a step forward in his career with his move to San Diego last year. He stopped relying on his sinker (just 38.5% usage, down from 52.6%) and greatly increased usage of his cutter (up ~5.5%) and most importantly his changeup (up 10.0%). This new pitch mix helped him increase his K rate to a respectable 22.8%. His changeup is even more effective than the one Hendricks throws, so continuing to throw it at a high rate is a no brainer, but I do wonder if the Cubs can help him reincorporate a modified curveball into his arsenal. He rarely throws it anymore (around 2-3% of the time), but Davies had some success with the pitch early in his career, and the Cubs have helped several guys (including Hendricks) rebuild that offering in their pitch lab in recent years. If that happens, Davies could even graduate from being a poor man’s Kyle Hendricks into being a Hendricks facsimile.

Trevor Williams was working his way toward becoming a reliable starter for the Pirates, posting two straight 2.5 fWAR or better seasons in 2017-18 at the ages of 25-26. But he’s backslid the past two years, culminating in the Pirates non-tendering him last fall after he posted a 6.11 ERA in 11 starts. Williams has remained healthy and has not really lost velocity, as he stills sits in the low-90s. He’s tried diversifying his repertoire over the last two seasons, which has meant he’s used his four seamer and sinker less than he used to, which may have proven a mistake as his fastballs were probably his best pitches. If the Cubs can help him regain trust in that sinker especially, Williams should quickly grow to trust the Cubs infield defense, and that could help him get his career back on track.

Alec Mills

Alec Mills

On the flip side is Alec Mills, whose offspeed stuff is legit but the four seam fastball gets him in trouble on occasion (especially with the long ball). Fans shouldn’t write off Mills the way I’ve seen many do this offseason as his sinker, changeup and breaking balls tunnel extremely well and few, if any, pitchers on the Cubs staff gets as much consistent horizontal movement across their entire repertoire as he does. He’d be well served by relying even more so on his secondary pitches and mixing their usage up even more than he already does (he threw all five of his pitches at least 10% of the time in 2020). His no-hitter wasn’t a fluke. He may only be a two times through the order starter, but I do feel comfortable with him in the rotation, and wouldn’t be shocked if he opens the year as one of their five.

Don’t presume the Jake Arrieta signing is just a nostalgia acquisition by the Cubs front office. One thing which has been brought up in regards to Arrieta’s struggles in Philly is that he lost his arm slot, and the lower his arm dropped since leaving the Cubs, the more velo and effectiveness he lost. This is not dissimilar to the challenges the Cubs faced with Craig Kimbrel last year. And once they managed to restore a proper arm slot for Kimbrel during the season, his velo and performance took a huge leap. Now, Arrieta is a little older, with far more wear and tear on his arm, so there may be more of a challenge in restoring it as who knows how much age and injury are contributing factors to it. But again, there is an identifiable path toward improvement, and the Cubs do have a recent example of resolving that particular issue, so it is okay to hope they can do so for Arrieta in 2021.

Adbert Alzolay

Adbert Alzolay

Will 2021 be the year Adbert Alzolay breaks through? His late season performance certainly points toward that outcome. Thanks to improved health and the development of a potentially devastating slider, Alzolay missed bats at an impressive rate (33.3 K%) over his 21.1 innings. Consistent command was still an issue, just as it has been throughout his career, so it is difficult to label him a surefire starter rather than reliever, but if the slider gets locked in as a legit chase pitch Alzolay will not require his command to be as refined as he would have if he was relying on his inconsistent change and curve. He’s the Cubs only option capable of missing bats at an above average rate, so he’ll be afforded every opportunity to seize a rotation slot this spring.

It figures to take a village this year, not just the six starters discussed above. The Cubs have experimented with piggybacks at the MLB level in the past, and I have little doubt we will see that strategy deployed at times this year as well. While I don’t expect the Cubs to run a true 6-man rotation at any point, the Cubs do have multiple stretches in their schedule where they play games for 16 or more consecutive days. In those instances, I can see the club dropping an extra starter into the mix to function as a de facto extra off day for the rotation, especially in the dog days of summer. Those extra starts may simply go to the swingman in the pen, but I think the team can and should use those opportunities to summon help from the Minors. This will not only help keep the MLB arms (both in the rotation and pen) fresh, but will provide valuable experience to their young arms, who they will need production from in the coming years.

Depth

I was a big fan of Kohl Stewart in his draft season, but I have to admit, I never really paid much attention to him as he worked his way through the Minors. He seems to have settled in as groundball specialist who has never really developed an out pitch, especially as he lost velocity working his way up to the Majors. He no longer possesses an exciting profile, but what he has is similar enough to the guys above that presumably he’s worth rolling the dice on in 2021 to see if the Cubs can unlock some of his lost potential. He’s got an option, so the Cubs can send him to Iowa to serve as experienced depth.

Tyson Miller and Brailyn Marquez both received their first cups of coffee in the bigs last year. While I expect the Cubs to remain patient with Marquez, as he further refines his pitches and works on locking in his mechanics, Miller figures to have a real hot at being the first call up from Iowa this year. He’ll have stiff competition from Stewart, as well as fellow prospects Cory Abbott (best shape of his life alert!) and Keegan Thompson, who were both added to the 40-man roster this offseason.

Tyson Miller (photo by Stephanie Lynn)

Tyson Miller (photo by Stephanie Lynn)

Miller offers an intriguing mix of length and athleticism which helps him throw strikes and gives him a boost in perceived velocity thanks to the extension he creates in his delivery. Consistent actual velocity has been an issue for him in the past (he’d fluctuate between 89-92) but he reportedly picked up a couple mph in South Bend last year, and that carried over into his five big league innings where was held both his four and two seamer well above 90 mph mark. His four seamer and changeup both have natural cutting action, so the addition of his two-seamer with arm side run last year was a pleasant surprise and could be a huge key to him becoming a full-time MLB pitcher down the road. He went from being an extreme flyball pitcher when last we saw him in the Minors in 2019 to inducing a 58.8% GB rate in his small sample of MLB action so it is hard to say what Miller really is at this point. Either way, he’ll need to further refine the changeup and/or slider into a more consistent out pitch.

He won’t show up on the Cubs top ten prospect lists (although he certainly has a case) but Cory Abbott should not be overlooked in 2021. Had an injury not held him back last summer, it is possible Abbott could have received a summons to Chicago in addition to, or possibly instead of Marquez and Miller. Coming off a terrific 2019 in AA, he was in line to be a main cog in the Iowa rotation throughout 2020. That figures to be his role in 2021, but now healthy and on the 40-man roster there is nothing holding him back from leapfrogging Miller, Stewart and any other Minor League competition to be the primary rotation depth for the Cubs this summer. Early reports are he he’s throwing better than ever, and if he adds an extra tick or two of velocity this year the way Miller did last year, Abbott should carve out a nice career as a backend MLB starter. His offspeed stuff is solid, as is his command, so as long as the fastball doesn’t hold him back the former 2nd rounder should succeed.

Keegan Thompson (Photo by Stephanie Lynn)

Keegan Thompson (Photo by Stephanie Lynn)

Like Abbott, Thompson is a sum is greater than the parts pitcher. He looked great in his first start in 2019 before an injury cost him the majority of the year. He returned for the AFL and received solid reports before spending last summer in South Bend. Thompson throws the kitchen sink at opposing hitters with what appears to be a four seam, two seam and cutter, as well as a slider, curve and change. The curve has traditionally been his best offering, but with so little data on him the last two years, I wouldn’t be shocked to see a slightly different (and hopefully improved) set of offerings in 2021.

An overslot pick by the Orioles in 2015, TJS cost Gray Fenter his 2016 season, and the Orioles were weirdly cautious working him back into the mix after his return. He eventually posted a dominant 2019 season in Low-A, culminating in a 13K performance in the SAL playoffs) as a 23-year old. He worked in the low-to-mid-90s, with a hammer curve, and was also developing a slider which showed promise according to his coach. He honestly should have been in High-A in 2019, so it is hard to know how to weigh his performance (1.81 ERA, 15.6 SwStr%). Add in that we have no data on him in 2020, and your guess is as good as mine in regards to his chances of sticking with the Cubs in 2021 (as a Rule 5 pick he would need to be offered back to Baltimore if he doesn’t stick). If he does, it is most likely to be as a reliever rather than starter.

The only NRI with much hop of carving out a 2021 role as a starter would be Shelby Miller. He opted out of the season after what was reportedly a decent 2020 spring performance. He hasn’t been good (or healthy) since leaving Atlanta in 2015, so this is most likely just a flier on an experienced arm, but like with so many guys, we just don’t have enough recent info to really know what to expect.

Comments

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  • Haven't heard anything about B Little in a while. Does anyone know how he is pitching?

  • In reply to John57:

    I'll have some more on him when I cover the relievers. Seen some snippets of him hitting 97 in workouts this offseason which is no doubt part of the reason he received an NRI this spring. We still need to see it consistently in games, as he has a history of his stuff fluctuating between appearances, but it is at least a good sign and he is keeping himself on the map.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Thank you for the info. Looking forward to a LH pitcher who can hit 97. In addition to Marquez.

  • In reply to John57:

    He pitched a third of an inning yesterday to close out game with a strike out against a right handed hitter.

    Is Shelby Miller a starting candidate?

  • I'm excited about Hendricks this year. I'm thinking 200 innings?

  • In reply to 44slug:

    No. His career high is 199 and there is no way the Cubs push him that hard after he threw just 81 last year.
    I do expect him to be good no matter how many innings h does throw though. I'd be happy to get 180.

  • Thanks for the rundown, Michael. It does seem the Cubs are doing a zig to the zag, relying on pitching to (soft) contact and letting elite defenders run the ball down, vs. trying to throw the ball past everyone. There may well be more days than we would like when the BABIP dragon steals our lunch money, but I think it is worth the experiment. Especially this year, with concerns about innings and arm strength after the short 2020. I can get behind a lot of 8-pitch innings when the Cubs are on defense.

  • In reply to CubsFanInNorway:

    The hope is that the Cubs defense can temper the number of days the BABIP dragon strikes, and then that the Cubs rotation holds up better physically than teams built around power staffs as the season moves into the second half and pitchers begin to far exceed their 2020 innings totals.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Could be a good strategy. :-)

  • Great article Michael.

    Admittedly I was more than a bit worried when the Cubs let Chatwood, Lester and Q all leave the nest, and after trading Darvish. But this group they have assembled now has me less concerned. And - assuming that the defense remains a strength - these guys should fare well as long as there's no train-wreck of injuries.

    Assuming that the bats are more consistent than last year, and health is not a general problem, this could be an 85-90 win team.

  • I was in the park for one of Abbott's starts a couple of years ago. I thought he looked pretty easy to hit and he had runners on base almost every inning, but threw six innings giving up only one run. I wasn't real impressed with his stuff. He seemed to be good at getting himself out of trouble. He worked up and down in the strike zone mostly. It didn't look as if he throwing with much effort.

  • If Abbott continues to throw 6 innings while giving up 1 run, I will take it. Hopefully Arrieta can take him under his other wing and teach him a trick or two. I think Alzolay is the first one Jake is helping. The A team: Arrieta, Alzolay, Abbott.

  • Michael I enjoyed the article.

    It is tough to get excited about this value driven rotation. I can see the potential if many/few things click right. We all know how hard for teams to find/develop playoff caliber starters.

    Waves and waves, Cubs took a step back. Really hope Cubs are investing big time in player development, & amateur scouting. I have read conflicting articles on the state of the Cubs minor league infrastructure. I really don't know if the Cubs are hyper-focused on player development like some of the better teams? I might be a dreamer, but still hope the Cubs player development can create a surplus of league average to above average bats, and power bullpen arms.

  • In reply to Naujack:

    Frankly, it is nearly impossible to say at this point. What I can say with certainty is that the Cubs have made changes to their scouting and development infrastructure over the last 2-3 years. But that is not a lot of time to see changes bear fruit, and that isn't even taking into consideration the loss of the 2020 Minor League season.

    We know they changed, we just don't know if those changes have/will work.

  • Is Shelby Miller in mix as a starter? He’s looked really good this spring.

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