2018 was a disappointing year for the Chicago Cubs. Coming into the season, the Cubs were the hands-on favorites to win the NL Central. But despite lofty expectations, they never pulled ahead of the Brewers, always allowing them to be a stone’s-throw away.
Despite having their largest divisional lead of the year on September 2nd, the Cubs tempted fate, ended up in a Game 163, where anything can and did happen. When the Cubs woke up on Labor Day, they had a comfortable five game lead with 26 games to go...err, 27, actually, when you include their loss to Milwaukee in game 163. Following a brutal home loss in which the offense only scored one run, Chicago lost yet another home game in a one-and-done Wild Card game.
In the Wild Card game, the Cubs hobbled together nine pitchers who performed really well despite the loss. It took 13 innings before the the Rockies broke a 1-1 tie and took the ‘series’, earning a spot in the National League Divisional Series. Despite Chicago’s solid starting pitching performances in both games, the late-season small sample belies the difficulties the staff endured all season, which consequently led to the Brewers being able to keep pace in the Central.
Although Chicago starters gobbled up the most innings of any pitching staff in the NL, their starters ranked 11th in National League fWAR, with 12.9, basically tied with the 66-96 last place Padres. The Brewers, Cardinals, and Pirates all finished the season with more wins above replacement from their rotation including more strikeouts and significantly fewer walks than the Cubs starters.
Kyle Hendricks earned his spot as the default Cubs’ ‘ace’ by tossing 199 innings, posting an ERA 14 percent better than league average, but behind hendricks is a bunch of names that sound better than they’ve actually performed. Behind the 28-year-old Hendricks are mid-30-somethings Jon Lester and Cole Hamels. Together, Lester and Hamels combined the total value Hendricks posted himself, not a great sign. Lester put up the worst season of his career by fWAR, and struck out fewer batters than he ever had, even in an environment that is becoming more and more strikeout ridden.
Hamels wasn’t much better overall in 2018, though he did show a remarkable improvement after his trade from Texas to Chicago. Hamels improved his ERA from an atrocious 4.72 in Texas to an excellent 2.36 in Chicago. He increased his strikeout rate, lowered his walk rate, and significantly improved his home run rate when he changed leagues and cities. Considering the Cubs sunk-cost in Yu Darvish, the $20 million Hamels is owed in 2019 is probably something the Cubs will be glad to spend if he even finds a happy medium between what he did for the Rangers and what he did for the Cubs. Even so, there are clear indications Hamels is in his decline-phase, which is expected at his point on the aging-curve.
Overall on the season, Hamels put up the worst FIP of his career, his second-worst fWAR, and he gave up the most home runs of his career. While we can’t ignore the success he had in Chicago, we also can’t ignore how bad he was to start the year in Texas. 2019 could potentially end up costing the Cubs $20 million for an over-the-hill Hamels who remains an average pitching innings eater.
Behind Hamels is Jon Lester and his $27.5 million salary. Lester is quickly becoming the poster-boy of paying for past performance rather than future value. He has not lived up to billing as an ‘ace’ for many years. Adding on $20 million going towards a broken Yu Darvish, the Cubs have $67.5 million earmarked for three players who likely will not emerge as ‘the guys’ to take the Cubs back to the World Series. When comparing Chicago to the other strong teams in the National League, including some in their own division, they have no differentiators in the rotation.
Looking forward, it’s hard to see how the Cubs can go through the offseason without adding an impact arm. At first glance, it appears they have more starters than rotation spots, however, each starter comes with significant risk. Although the Cubs seem to loaded with starters going into 2019, including Kyle Hendricks, John Lester, Cole Hamels, Mike Montgomery (who remains arbitration-eligible), Jose Quintana (whose option the Cubs selected for $10.5 million), and the injured Yu Darvish, the question remains how much value they will receive from most of the names on that list.
Bottom line is, depth is good, but with so many questions marks in this rotation, better talent is well….better! Considering the affordability of Hendricks, Montgomery, and Quintana, the Cubs would do well to supplement another impact arm; someone who can step in and throw 150+ innings of better-than-average ball. They can afford to add a J.A. Happ or a Lance Lynn type starter, and it would certainly position the Cubs to take back the division from Milwaukee.
The Cubs need to start thinking about the future of their rotation now, because if they don’t, they will continue to keep pace with their divisional and league rivals.