Immediately after the Chicago Cubs signed Yu Darvish to a six-year/$126 million deal earlier this offseason, I realized something about the Cubs’ newly-finalized rotation:
The Cubs have four pitchers who could make a case for “Opening Day starter.” That’s a very good problem.
— Michael Cerami (@Michael_Cerami) February 10, 2018
To be sure, being the “Opening Day Starter” is more of a mark of honor than a strategic deployment. After all, there are 162 games to be played, and the season is not a playoff series – everyone will get his turn.
But still, this group, you know? Each member of the front four has a very legitimate argument for top billing:
- Jon Lester is the veteran of the staff, and is only one season removed from finishing as a finalist for the NL Cy Young award.
- Yu Darvish is also a veteran ace and was the offseason’s big free agent splash, so to speak. Sometimes, guys like him are given the Opening Day nod for that reason alone.
- Jose Quintana has, in my opinion (and according to the projections), a good chance to wind up as the Cubs’ best starter by the time the season ends, which would make him a pretty reasonable choice.
- And finally, Kyle Hendricks has proven himself time and time again, and even played himself into being the Game 1 starter the last time the Cubs were in the postseason.
Not only could you make a strong case for any of the players above, I don’t really think you could make the wrong choice.
… and, for that reason (and some stray comments we’re about to explore), I think Jon Lester might make the most sense. Manager Joe Maddon has avoided naming a pitcher yet (which makes sense – we’re still pretty far out from Opening Day), but does seem to be leaning towards Lester.
Via Cubs.com, Maddon said that while he hasn’t made a choice yet, Jon Lester certainly looks the part: “I’m seeing the best version of Jon who I’ve witnessed as a person and how he goes about his business,” Maddon said. “His leadership – believe me, it’s coming out. It’s a couple years removed from the signing, and we’ve all gotten comfortable with one another and he’s definitely comfortable in his Cubs skin.”
Sahadev Sharma shared the same discussion at The Athletic, and added some more comments from Maddon, including his praise of the work Lester must’ve put in over the offseason. In fact, Maddon even went as far as to say he looked better on the mound this week than when he did at this point back in 2015 (when he went on to have a 5.0 WAR season for the Cubs) and said he already looked ready for Opening Day.
Gordon Wittenmyer added at the Sun-Times that if Lester were to get the Opening Day start against the Marlins on the road, he’d also be set up for the home opener against the Pirates at Wrigley Field if the rotation held. Maybe the Cubs go something like Lester, Darvish, Quintana, Hendricks, Chatwood? Breaks up the lefties, and also sets up Darvish to open the early-season four-game set in Milwaukee on April 5.
Because the Opening Day starter decision doesn’t really matter too much strategically, I’m all for Lester playing the part of staff ace and clubhouse leader. And, let’s be clear, Lester is still a *really* good pitcher. If and when he gets the nod, that’ll sound just fine to me.