Signing Tyler Chatwood was a good idea, in theory.
Just consider the fundamentals of the deal, as we saw them at the time. At worst (we thought), Tyler Chatwood was a soon-to-be 28-year-old starter, who had already enjoyed some success in the past despite pitching in one of the best offensive ballparks in the country. Even if there were no reasons to believe he’d improve his underlying statistics, the simple move out of Coors Field should have been enough of a bump to make him a more than serviceable fifth starter.
Of course, I believed his potential far exceeded that. So did the Cubs. With a completely different pitch mix away from Coors Field, as well as huge spin rates, a killer ground-ball rate, and excellent batted ball data, we believed that Chatwood might have even held middle-to-middle-up rotation potential. And when his three-year, $38M contract was announced – a price higher than many were anticipating for his services – it seemed as though other teams may have felt exactly the same way.
A lot can change when the games are actually played, eh?
As we’re all painfully aware, Chatwood, the starter, didn’t even make it through his first full season as a Cub in the rotation, as a tenuous grasp on the strike zone crippled any other strengths or advantages he held as a pitcher. Having killer stuff – which Chatwood showed, even in a terrible year – doesn’t much matter if you cannot consistently locate your pitches (or even keep them remotely close to the strike zone.
Chatwood’s 19.6% walk rate was so bad that it wasn’t just the highest mark among pitchers with at least 100 innings … it was the highest mark by over SIX PERCENTAGE POINTS. In fact, it was a mark that hadn’t been topped IN OVER 30 YEARS.
You cannot overstate just how bad Chatwood’s control problems were.
“It sucks that it happened,” Chatwood told the Sun-Times of his season. “It definitely stunk to not be out there every fifth day, able to help.”
It stunk, indeed.
So … what now?
Chatwood, who doesn’t turn 29 until December, has another two years and $25.5 million left on his contract with the Cubs. Would the Cubs just eat that this winter, or will they at least give Chatwood an opportunity to reset himself this offseason, and then take a crack at winning a rotation job next spring?
According to Chatwood, he needs another shot: “I’m 100 percent sure and there’s no doubt in my mind I’ll be back to what I know I can do,” he told the Sun-Times. “I know my stuff is still there. It’s not like I was getting hit around. It’s just [about] me, my command. I still have all my stuff. There’s no doubt I’ll be back out there.”
To an extent, Chatwood isn’t wrong. His stuff did look good and he really wasn’t getting hit around (he still had a killer ground ball rate and good batted ball data), but it’s not as if the Cubs can plan to go into 2019 with Chatwood in the rotation.
I don’t mean that to sound mean-spirited, but I genuinely cannot imagine a scenario unfolding in which the Cubs go into next season with Chatwood *penciled in* as the fifth starter. Even if you set aside the lack of trust in Chatwood’s control, the Cubs have Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, Yu Darvish, Mike Montgomery, Drew Smyly, and maybe Cole Hamels available for next year.
So if you’re keeping score at home, that’s three locks, another guy, Hamels, who would be a lock if the Cubs picked up his contract, a great if healthy guy in Darvish, and two very good options with solid past success and experience fighting to be depth in the rotation. And that’s ALL before the offseason takes place, which could include additional maneuvering.
But that doesn’t necessarily spell the end of Chatwood’s time in Chicago. For one, he’s under contract and it’s not like he’s making pennies ($25.5M due over the next two seasons). Like it or not, that’s one reason to try and make it work (and one huge roadblock if you hope to trade him away in the offseason). With that said, the Cubs can’t expect – let alone, plan – to get anything out of him either. And that leaves them in a tough spot.
My best guess, given the current options (i.e. without any significant rotation shakeups over the winter) is that the Cubs will allow Chatwood to come into Spring Training fighting for that fifth/sixth spot in the rotation, with the possibility of sliding into the bullpen if that somehow makes sense at the time.
Chatwood cited some unnecessary mechanical tweaks to his delivery this year as the source to his problems, and that very well may be true. But as far as I’m concerned, he’ll have to prove – throughout the entirety of Spring Training and without the benefit of the doubt – that he’s overcome those problems.
To be sure, Chatwood somehow figuring it out and become a quality fifth/sixth starter is the best outcome of all modestly plausible outcomes, so that’s what you should be rooting for. But the Cubs front office will not have the luxury of planning like it’s anything resembling a likely outcome.