The Chicago Cubs announced their starting rotation for the 2018 season yesterday, and in doing so, sent out this tweet:
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) February 28, 2018
It immediately made me think of another Cubs rotation picture I vaguely remembered, so I went searching, and then did a little light photoshopping:
The Cubs' reveal of their rotation today got me thinking about the last time I was this excited for a Cubs on-paper rotation in Spring Training. pic.twitter.com/x3yD2msfZc
— Bleacher Nation (@BleacherNation) March 1, 2018
Here’s the question, though: does this year’s crew actually compare with that 2004 group?
You may recall that the 2003 Cubs rotation ended with all the hopes and dreams of the world, with three young studs (Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, and Carlos Zambrano) at the front, and a breakout starter in Matt Clement, who’d been worth a whopping 7.6 WAR over the preceding two seasons with the Cubs. Prior was coming off one of the best pitching seasons in the last 50 years, Wood and Zambrano both made 32 starts and posted ERAs that were about 25% better than league average. Whoever the fifth starter was going to be, that rotation was going to head into 2004 with sooooo much hype.
And then they went out and brought back Greg Maddux in mid-February (right around the same time of year these Cubs signed Yu Darvish). To be sure, Maddux, about to turn 38, was no longer the GREG MADDUX of his early Cubs and Braves days, but he was still about as good as a 4th/5th starter as you’ll ever have, totaling 7.5 WAR in the two years before coming to the Cubs.
Although the 2004 season was a disaster in so many ways, the rotation ultimately did mostly live up to the hype. Prior and Wood, of course, were injured for parts of the year, but were highly effective and valuable pitchers when they were on the mound. Zambrano had the best season of his career, Clement and Maddux were solid, and the starting pitching was generally not the reason for the late-season disappointment of that season.
Bonus fun fact: That 2004 rotation also featured a lefty swingman as the sixth starter (a la Mike Montgomery), and he was excellent – Glendon Rusch wound up making 16 starts that year, posted a 3.50 ERA in those starts, and was worth 2.3 WAR in those starts.
How will this year’s fivesome actually compare to that year (or to the three rotations of the Joe Maddon Cubs era, as we’ve discussed)? If you can predict it, head out to Las Vegas right now.
But as we sit here today, considering the feel of this rotation on paper, I think I am as excited for this rotation as I have been for any Cubs rotation that preceded it, perhaps with that 2004 rotation being the sole exception. (The 2016 rotation was very good, but there wasn’t quite that same zing when you looked at John Lackey and Jason Hammel as the 4/5 in the rotation – perfectly solid back-end starters, but not much in the way of upside.)
The front four in this year’s rotation are all established, excellent starters (three 2017 Opening Day starters and a guy who started Game One in the postseason). All four are arguably among the top 25 starters in the game. You could also argue that each could easily put up better numbers this year than last year. Then you have Tyler Chatwood as the five, and, although there’s real downside there, he’s a 28-year-old with obvious talent, who is getting out of Colorado and into an organization that has a great deal of success helping get the most out of late-20-something starting pitchers who have a ton of natural talent. It wouldn’t shock me at all to see Chatwood wind up having a better season than at least one of the front four starters.
I am very hyped for this year’s rotation.
So, then, here’s your question: based on the feel of the rotation as we sit here in Spring Training, is this year’s group the best you can remember? Or is it 2004? Or is it some other year? Michael tends to think it’s this year’s group. I think I might give the nod to 2004 (probably somewhat reflecting our 10-year age gap).