What are options for Cubs in the starting rotation?


by - Correspondent -
Joe Camporeale - USA Today Sports
Joe Camporeale - USA Today Sports

The Chicago Cubs enter the 2019 offseason with many questions after missing the playoffs for the first time in four years. One of the biggest problems facing this team is what will the 2020 starting rotation look like? As the Cubs try to make it back to the postseason, their rotation may look significantly different than it did in 2019.

One of the obstacles in rebuilding the rotation is that the Cubs had a respectable five-man rotation, finishing 10th in starter ERA the past two years. What’s alarming is the rise in ERA from a 3.84 starter ERA in 2018, to a 4.18 in 2019. The sad answer to this spike in ERA may just be an average decline. In the graph below, you can see how the veteran arms the Cubs relied on last year, weren’t as effective this year.

The reality is that the typical age in which regression begins for an MLB player is around 30. Only outliers like Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander can count on being dominant well into their thirties. For the Cubs, the best days of most of their rotation may be well behind them.

To re-tool this rotation, the Cubs will have some help with an estimated $30 million freed up in salary, dependent on arbitration. Cole Hamels and Ben Zobrist account for most of that free space. Given a little bit of financial freedom, the Cubs could either go for a full youth movement or try to win now with free agents.

For the youth movement, the Cubs don’t have a lot of top pitching prospects to call up and make an immediate impact. Adbert Alzolay, the Cubs' second-best pitching prospect, according to MLB.com, got a taste of the big leagues in 2019 with a 7.30 ERA to show for it. The next likely pitching prospects to be called up are Justin Steele or Tyson Miller. Both of whom show the middle of the rotation potential.

The Cubs' best pitchers will have to wait to see time in the majors. Brailyn Marquez is their most exciting pitcher as he’s pitched well with a low workload, producing a career 3.19 ERA in only 257 innings since 2016. The 20-year-old is expected to have an increased innings limit this year as the young starter looks to make a name for himself.

In free agency, the Cubs will have a chance at some top veteran arms. While the bullpen seems to be the most significant talking point in free agency, there are plenty of quality starters to choose from. The first is an in-house option in Kendall Graveman. Graveman was signed to a two-year deal with a club option after an injury-plagued career in Oakland. If the Cubs pick up his contract for 2019, he could be a cheap rotation arm with high upside.

Graveman could fill the fifth spot in the rotation if the Cubs don’t bring Cole Hamels back. The only situation in which they would need to sign a free agent starter will be if the club decides not to exercise Jose Quintana’s team option. In that case, veterans like Tanner Roark or Wade Miley could fill in that final rotation spot.

While Roark’s 4.35 ERA isn’t spectacular, he would still be a reliable option to fill a spot in the rotation. Before being traded to the Oakland A’s, Roark had a respectable 4.24 ERA with the Cincinnati Reds. Roark also showed he could be a great pitcher through stretches. In an 11 game stretch from May 7 to July 2, Roark was 5-6 with a 3.25 ERA.

Miley had a spectacular 2019 season, despite finishing the year with only a 3.98 ERA. This was mostly due to some horrible games in the last part of the season. Entering September, Miley had a 3.06 ERA, battling teammates Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole for the AL ERA lead. That kind of production could lead to substantial interest from multiple teams looking for a high upside veteran pitcher.

The starting rotation will be one of the keys to the Cubs' success going forward. Whether or not it will change drastically is yet to be seen. With a new manager incoming, anything can happen. The good news for the Cubs is that there are a multitude of options in their organization and through free agency that could help change the rotation for the better.

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