I present to you an audience-participation season preview, featuring the reigning World Champion (the entire city of Chicago entered a World Series hangover on November 3, 2016 and has not admitted that 2017 even happened) Chicago Cubs. Let’s start with a little poll. Grade yourself at home and be honest. No fair looking at your neighbor’s paper, especially if your neighbor is named Theo.

Who will have the fifth highest total of games started for the Chicago Cubs’ pitching staff?

The biggest news of the Cubs 2017-2018 offseason has been the acquisition of Yu Darvish. To be honest, the biggest news of MLB’s 2017-2018 offseason thus far seems to have been the Cubs’ acquisition of Yu Darvish. Via free agency, the Cubs have essentially swapped out Jake Arrieta for Darvish. Based on FanGraphs WAR, this is an upgrade – though not a giant one. Arrieta is projected for 3.1 fWAR as he apparently for the MLBPA Free Agent team and Yu Darvish projects for 3.9 fWAR.

Darvish comes with some level of injury concern. Then again, show me a pitcher who is not an injury concern and I’ve got an Old Style to sell you in a Wrigleyville rooftop. But the Cubs are counting on him to be an anchor for their rotation, and FanGraphs projects him for 29 starts and Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA essentially agrees, calling for 30 starts. Lester has been a dependable mainstay for the Cubs as he has not started fewer than 31 games since way back in 2007 when he pitched for Theo Epstein’s Red Sox. Further solidifying the rotation, the Cubs of course traded with the White Sox for Jose Quintana last July and got another dependable workhorse who has been good for at least 32 starts every year since his rookie year on the south side in 2012. Next up is Kyle Hendricks, who missed most of June and July 2017 with a hand injury. He came back very strong in the second half to end 2017 with a nice ERA- of 69 and an fWAR of 2.5 and figures to age a 2018 regular.

All of this brings us to the fifth rotation spot. More to the point, this brings us to the fifth through eighth or tenth rotation spots. Who else will Joe Maddon tap for starts? Where will the Cubs turn for additional starts or if (read: when) something goes wrong with all these rosy games-started projections for the power four? FanGraphs (and most conventional wisdom around the Cubs) would place Tyler Chatwood in that spot. Chatwood is another not-insignificant free agent pickup that the Cubs made this offseason, coming over from that traditional pitching hotbed, the Colorado Rockies. Chatwood slots in as a fifth starter but it would be unfair to expect consistent 30-start production out of him as that has never been in his arsenal – he lost his rotation spot for a stretch in 2017, and his production levels will be pressed to meet Cubs expectations. And finally, hot take: no team in 2018 will get through the entire season with only 5 starters. So where will the Cubs turn if Chatwood does not pitch up to expectations, if he finds himself moved to the bullpen, or if (WHEN) one of these five misses some time?

Mike Montgomery is an interesting choice as both the Mariners and Cubs have tried him in a starting role. But he seems to be much more destined for a long-relief role and also better suited in that role. In three seasons, Montgomery has allowed a wOBA of .312 in 195 IP as a starter as compared to a wOBA of .275 in 125.2 IP as a reliever. I just don’t see him cracking the top 5 in games started. So from where the will help come?

Eddie Butler continues to wait in the wings. Aside from departed free agents Arrieta and John Lackey, Butler was next in 2017 with 11 games started for the Cubs. In 2017, Butler drastically improved his performance from his previous three years in Colorado, posting an ERA- of 91 but in only 54.2 IP. This still leaves him with a career ERA- of 128 and significant questions about his ability to handle this kind of full-time starter workload. Another dark horse candidate is 23-year-old Jen-Ho Tseng who got one major league start in September 2017. Tseng has been impressive at every level of the minors but at 23 years old he figures to need a bit more seasoning before he is a regular fixture at Harry Caray Wrigley Field brought to you by the Ricketts family.

All of this is to say the the smart money to really fill out the Cubs rotation in 2018 comes from “the field.” The Cubs continue to be over-loaded with some key position players who could be valuable trade chips. The team-building strategy for the Epstein Cubs which brought them a World Series trophy and has served them well is about building position player talent and going out to buy or trade for pitchers. The Cubs clearly believe that pitchers are more unreliable and more difficult to consistently develop. They have built this team around Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo along with several other key position players. Pitchers can be found on the market. And that strategy has worked for them and continues to work, so why change it?  The smart money for 2018 is that the Cubs are not done making transactions. They may yet do something before Opening Day, but they figure to be active players during the season to add pitching depth. One lesson the Los Angeles Dodgers have taught the league is that you can never have too much pitching depth. The Cubs figure to trade on position player depth to build pitching depth as they prepare for another run at fall baseball in Chicago.

 

The best-case scenario for Epstein and the Cubs would be for some of that position player depth to show their worth early in the season. Epstein needs Kyle Schwarber to really be in the best shape of his life, and to play (read: hit) like it early. If that happens, and failing the National League suddenly deciding to implement the Designated Hitter rule, look for Schwarber to be moved for pitching talent. This would release a logjam of playing time and trade from a position of depth to add depth someplace where it is more needed. The Cubs have Jason Heyward in right (for good or ill), Albert Almora Jr. in center, and would be better served defensively in left field with some combination of Ian Happ and/or Ben Zobrist and/or a bullpen cart over Schwarber.

Another logjam (read: opportunity for trade) is in the middle of the infield. Corner infield spots are the cornerstones of this team with Bryant and Rizzo locked in. Willson Contreras will be the regular behind the plate, though it will be interesting to see whether Chris Gimenez is really given time as Darvish’s personal catcher and how much time youngster Victor Caratini is given behind the plate. But the middle of the infield is an interesting mix. You’ve got Addison Russell at shortstop and Javier Baez at second base. They are solid and dependable. But then you also have Happ and Zobrist primarily playing second (along with getting some reps in the outfield) in addition to Tommy La Stella, who will split time between second and third off the bench. While part of the legend of Joe Maddon is how he moves people around from position to position in sometimes unconventional ways, the simple reality is that the Cubs have more major league hitters than there are positions for them to play. So do the Cubs trade high on Russell or Baez or move one of the other pieces?

Let’s be clear: these logjams and over-abundance at certain positions are not problems. Or, if they are problems, they are problems that dozens of other major league GMs would love to have. Rather, they are opportunities. These are opportunities for the Cubs to just keep swimming in the direction they started swimming when Epstein arrived, in the direction that ended the championship drought: the Cubs organization thrives on developing a solid, deep core of position players, mixing and matching pitching as it is available using all the money poured into the Theo Epstein/Ron Santo Wrigley FunPark Brought To You By Old Style.

All of this is to say – the Cubs are a solid team. It is very hard to find significant holes in their approach or in their roster construction. They are not being hard-pressed by any team in their division, and although it looks like the Milwaukee Brewers are doing their best to make things interesting, the Cubs should win the NL Central comfortably and be set up for a deep run into October. But how that will go is difficult to envision especially when you believe (as I do) that the Cubs roster as it sits right now, especially on the pitching side, is not the same roster that will do battle with the Nationals and/or Dodgers (spoiler alert) in the playoffs.

I hear Ben Lindbergh concluding this interview in my head by saying “We have to ask for an obligatory win total prediction” and so I’ll make one. After the Darvish signing, the FanGraphs win total prediction sits at 94 and PECOTA calls for 92. I’m going to be a bit more optimistic than either, and say the Cubs will win 96 games, which will be good enough to win the NL Central.

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