With Cole Hamels headed to free agency and only a possibility to return, and with offseason additions never a certainty, it’s worth discussing here in the early going of the offseason who might fill the fifth starter spot for the Cubs if it comes to an internal requirement.
We’ve discussed how Alec Mills stood out late in the year, but that was all framed around another guy – the guy the Cubs signed to be in the rotation two years ago. The guy who sure looked mighty playable this past year.
In the second year of his three-year contract with the Cubs, Tyler Chatwood really took to the swing role for the Cubs, ably filling in for five starts, going multiple middle innings in many other outings, and even pitching in tight spots late in games. Overall, he posted a 3.76 ERA (4.28 FIP) over 38 games and 76.2 innings. His strikeout rate exploded (for him) to a career-best 22.8%, and his walk rate dropped to 11.4% – high, but way down from his terrifying near-20% the year before.
So you look at that, perhaps you’re optimistic on his mechanical tweaks from the previous offseason, and maybe you say why not just bet on his stuff and let him be a starter next year?
To that I say … yeah, sure, maybe, depending on what’s been done elsewhere on the roster. I think it’s important to note, though, that for all his success this past year, it’s not quite the same as saying Chatwood was a “great pitcher” – his strikeout rate, relative to the league, was still just below average, and his walk rate was 33% worse than league average. Throw in struggles with the long ball, and, even in his good year, that version of Chatwood would still be a starting pitcher that gave you palpitations and threw games away from time to time. Acceptable as a number five? Yeah, sure. But I’m just saying: let’s keep perspective.
If Chatwood was to be the guy, I did find very interesting read over at Cubs Insider on Chatwood’s role next year, and how you could use him in tandem with an opener.
Because of the nature of their rotation the last few years, the Cubs really haven’t ever had occasion to deploy – or even really consider – an opener, as that model has developed (i.e., a very good reliever pitches the first inning or two to dispense with the top of the order the first time through, then the nominal “starter” takes over, protecting him from seeing those guys a third time through the order, even if he goes deep (or maybe even protecting him from seeing some of the guys a second time)). For the right combination of players, it’s a good strategy, as much as it frustrates traditionalists.
Could it work for the Cubs? With a reliever and then Chatwood?
Well, for one thing, I’ll reiterate, that this setup necessarily means the Cubs have a rotation that features Chatwood as the nominal fifth starter. When you consider the risk and age in the front four (Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, Jon Lester), I’d sure feel a lot better if the Cubs targeted and added an impactful starter this offseason. I still think that’s gonna be my primary “point” when discussing this whole idea.
But let’s say the Cubs don’t get an impact starter, and lets say Chatwood is the guy for the five spot. Should the Cubs use an opener, or just let Chatwood start-start? The theory is that he’s a clearly capable of coming out of the pen – he was better in that role last year as a starter, and has been in all ways for his career, too – and if you do have a good opener option against particular teams, why not protect Chatwood a little bit? Get an inning out of that reliever, and then cover the next four or so with Chatwood, during which he can max out on his fastball a bit (dude has shown he can sit 97+ mph in non-starts), and see opposing hitters only once or twice.
To that setup I offer a provisional “sure,” but I’m going to need to see the Cubs add another couple impact arms in the bullpen before the whole thing is going to make sense, otherwise all you’re accomplishing in that first inning is ensuring that the other team’s best hitters get to face a pitcher who might not be as good as any of your starters anyway – and you’re leaving yourself one reliever option down later in the game.
Two coming rules changes might make the opener strategy a little more palatable, though, for what it’s worth: (1) the increase to a 26-man roster will afford more flexibility either to carry an extra reliever or at least comfortably stay at eight relievers throughout the year without feeling like the bench is too short; and (2) pitchers must face at least three batters (or get to the end of an inning), which means you’ll have less flexibility to play match-ups in later innings anyway.
One other possible bonus with this setup? When the pitcher spot comes up to hit the second time might often be right in that window when you’re considering an early pinch-hitter anyway for a short starter like Chatwood (or any other fifth starter). In other words, instead of that second pitcher spot plate appearance coming after you tried to ring out five innings from your fifth starter and he crapped a bit in the fifth, maybe it instead comes up after you got four good innings out of him, and you’re kinda kicking around the idea of pulling him anyway. I leave it to the Cubs’ math nerds to figure out if that’s accurate enough to matter in the calculus.
The long and the short here is what I’ve tried to hammer home: the best option for the Cubs, when you consider the whole rotation (the upper minors) and that fifth spot, is to seek out a younger, impactful starter this offseason. But if that’s not happening – it’s a tall ask, I admit (Gerrit Cole? Noah Syndergaard?) – yes, I could absolutely see this setup working well for the Cubs.
Just have to get the new manager on board.
(Bonus fun galaxy brain here at the end: What if Tyler Chatwood … *is* the opener? … oooooohhh …. )