Having acknowledged that some of their starting pitchers wore down late in 2015 and into the team’s playoff run, the Chicago Cubs designed the 2016 roster to, among many other things, accommodate extra rest days for their five primary starting pitchers. At times, this took the form of something approximating a strict six-man rotation, with Mike Montgomery the primary beneficiary of extra starts down the stretch. Injuries to John Lackey and Jason Hammel eventually made the rotation look a lot more five-man-ish, but the principle was clear and sound: save some bullets for the playoffs by periodically buying extra rest days.
And, as we say, the strategy worked, insofar as the front of the Cubs’ rotation was rested and healthy for the playoffs, able to go deep into games where the situation dictated.
That the Cubs would want to do the same in 2017 should be no surprise, though, to date, the lack of clear sixth man options has been the issue. Last year, the Cubs had not only Montgomery, whom they added midseason, but guys like Trevor Cahill, Travis Wood, and Adam Warren, each of whom could also take a start here and there, and then swing back into the bullpen. Warren, it seemed, was primed to be the 6th starter early in the year, but things did not work out, and he was ultimately sent back to the Yankees in the Aroldis Chapman trade shortly after the Cubs acquired Montgomery.
Who would that presumed-6th-starter-guy be today, if Montgomery is the 5th starter?
Well, for now, there is no such pitcher in the bullpen. It’s possible that lefty Caleb Smith, a minor league starter, could be that guy if he makes the team, but that’s relying a whole lot on a Rule 5 Draft pick. It’s possible that Rob Zastryzny could be that guy (indeed, it seems very likely that he will make some big league starts this year), but he figures to be more of an up-and-down AAA/MLB pitcher this season, rather than consistently operating on the big league roster.
If the Cubs are able to land Tyson Ross, however, might they have their 5th and 6th starters right there in Ross and Montgomery?
Joel Sherman writes that the Cubs are indeed once again hoping to operate with a six-man rotation for at least parts of the 2017 season, and the pursuit of Ross – about which we heard more this morning – could help in that regard. If the Cubs don’t land Ross, Sherman writes, they could look to re-sign Travis Wood.
If the roster can accommodate six starters, then buying extra rest for the primary starting pitchers always sounds like a good idea to me. The trick will be in keeping everyone fresh and sharp – and keeping the bullpen robust – if all six “starting” pitchers are on the 25-man roster at the same time. As we saw last year, it can be difficult to keep a “starting” pitcher stretched out while he’s hanging out in the bullpen.
On the Ross front, by the way, Sherman reports that the Cubs are viewed as one of four finalists for the free agent righty. Jeff Passan reported overnight that the Cubs and Rangers were the favorites.