It’s now official: the Chicago Cubs will not be reuniting with outgoing free agent starting pitchers Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, and Tyler Chatwood. Three-fifths of the team’s starting rotation is now gone – all signing in boom-boom-boom succession elsewhere, incidentally – and will need replaced. (Technically, four-fifths is gone, but for the purposes that follow, Yu Darvish was swapped for Zach Davies.)
While we strongly suspect the Cubs will be focused exclusively on filling out the rotation with (1) Adbert Alzolay and Alec Mills, (2) low-cost, high-risk free agent signings, and/or (3) upper level starting pitching prospects, I wanted to set aside the “who” for the moment and simply focus on the innings. When you lose three of your five starting pitchers, and you have yet to actually replace any of them externally, you’ve lost a shitload of innings. Even if you didn’t care a lick about the actual performance in those innings, you’ve gotta cover ’em!
So, that is to say, I was just curious if we could figure out how many innings the Cubs still have to “add” to the rotation to realistically cover the “starting pitcher” component of innings in 2021. You can leave only so much to the bullpen …
The 2021 season is expected to include the full 162-game slate, so I was curious how many innings Cubs starting pitchers covered in the last few full regular seasons. I was looking into it for this post, but that alone wound up being a humorously weird thing, so I shared it on Twitter:
Ladies and gentleman, I have unearthed a bonkers statistic.
Cubs starting pitcher innings in
— Bleacher Nation (@BleacherNation) January 20, 2021
That’s nuts, isn’t it? Suffice to say, there is usually MUCH greater variance than that. (Oh, and if you were curious: the Cubs didn’t quite hit that same number in 2020 – prorating for the shortened season, the Cubs’ starters would’ve accounted for 877.2 IP. But that’s actually still pretty close!)
We can’t look at those numbers and automatically say, OK, the Cubs’ starters obviously need to cover 888.0 innings in 2021. But keep in mind, even if you have to use MORE starting pitchers because of the jump back to a full season, you still want to get a lot of innings OUT of those starting pitchers. It just might be spread around more guys.
Moreover, those innings’ totals for the Cubs were 7th, 14th, and 15th in baseball in those seasons, which is to say they weren’t some aggressively over-the-top starting-pitcher-reliant team in that period. (They were in 2020 – second most innings – but obviously that was weird for a lot of reasons.)
In any case, the point here is that, even if starters are pitching a little less in 2021 (maybe more of the fill-in guys are able to do only shorter starts?), the Cubs are going to want to get pretty darn close to, say, 880 innings in 2021. That’s an average of about 5.1 innings per start. Seems pretty darn reasonable to me.
Now the question: how many innings do the Cubs already “have covered” in-house?
Assuming health (never a fair assumption!), I could ballpark Kyle Hendricks and Zach Davies at something like 160 innings apiece. It’s just impossible to see guys jumping from 60 to 75 innings in one year to triple that the next year. These two have been pretty durable, though, and their command/control style might allow them to step up a little more than most. Eh. Maybe. Maybe not. I’m being generous here. So let’s say that’s 320 starting pitcher innings covered by the two established starters. ONLY 560 TO GO!
We fully expect Adbert Alzolay and Alec Mills to be among the starters (if healthy), so how much can they cover? Let me start with Alzolay and say: not a lot! I love him as a pitcher and I think he could be very good, but I also think the Cubs are going to have to be super cautious with a young guy who threw just 21.1 big league innings last year, just 81.2 pro innings the year before, and just 39.2 pro innings the year before that. If Alzolay could throw 100 innings this year, that’d be huge.
As for Mills, he had more of a “full” season last year, and also has gone over 100 innings many times in recent years. For him, maybe you say he can just about double what he did last year, and he gives you 120 innings. That’s still quite a bump.
Now we’re up to 540 innings covered by the presumed front four of Hendricks, Davies, Alzolay, and Mills. That means, between additions from here and the minor league group, the Cubs might have to cover 340 innings. In this environment, that might be THREE starting pitchers’ worth of 2021 innings. It might be several guys more when you factor in huge innings bumps from last year.
Can the Cubs get 50 innings out of Shelby Miller? Yeah, maybe.
Can the Cubs get 50 innings out of Tyson Miller? Yeah, sure.
Can the Cubs get 50 innings out of Cory Abbott? Yes.
Can the Cubs get 50 innings out of Justin Steele? Probably.
Can the Cubs get 50 innings out of Keegan Thompson? Probably.
Ope, still 90 innings to go.
Maybe Brailyn Marquez actually gives you some starts? Maybe Duane Underwood, Jr. makes some starts? Maybe Rule 5 pick Gray Fenter just jumps straight from the low minors to make some starts?
As you can see, the whole thing is just an aggressive pile of assumptions and generosity and maybes. It won’t actually play out like this. And, like I said, I’m COMPLETELY IGNORING actual performance! If the Cubs actually doled out innings like I’ve described above, they would probably amass one of the worst starting pitching performances in recent memory. Much love to all the youngsters mentioned, but we’re talking about guys who’ve barely pitched above A-ball in the grand scheme of things, and then didn’t (or barely) pitch competitively at all in 2020. The results would almost certainly be a disaster.
The conclusion here? It’s obvious: the Cubs need to add starting pitchers from here. Several of them. And that remains true even in a world where lots of the guys above are expected to get lots of innings, because again, so many more starters than usual will be needed this year, and also there will be injuries!