A year ago, the Chicago Cubs, on the heels of a 103-win regular season, entered the National League Division Series with the deepest, most dependable starting rotation in the game — four quality starters, three right-handers and a lefty, all having made 29 or more starts that season, all with ERAs at 3.35 or below, all with postseason experience. Combined, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey started all 17 playoff games, posting a 2.62 ERA as the Cubs marched to the World Series title.
Nothing has come as easy for the Cubs in 2017. They needed until the season’s final week to clinch the NL Central, entered the final weekend with the fewest wins (90) of any division champ and now face a series of decisions about their postseason rotation, none of which presents easy solutions.
“Everybody’s in play,” Manager Joe Maddon told reporters Thursday night. “We’ll play out the weekend and see.”
While the Washington Nationals, the Cubs’ opponents in the NL Division Series beginning Oct. 6 at Nationals Park, have had the luxury, by virtue of both their early clinching of the East and the clearly delineated hierarchy of their starting staff, of setting up their playoff rotation weeks in advance, the Cubs have yet to indicate who will get the ball, opposite Nationals ace Max Scherzer, in Game 1.
Given a perfect set of circumstances, the choice would almost certainly be Lester, the veteran lefty who was the Cubs’ Game 1 starter in all five playoff series in 2015 and 2016. But the circumstances surrounding Lester are anything but ideal; entering his scheduled start on Saturday, he had an ERA approaching 5 and an opponents’ OPS of .881 since coming off the disabled list in early September. The Game 1 starter is particularly important in the Division Series, because the same pitcher would be in line to start a decisive Game 5.
The Cubs planned to use Lester’s start on Saturday, and Arrieta’s in the regular-season finale Sunday, to gauge the health of their veteran workhorses before making final decisions about a playoff rotation. After lasting just three innings in his most recent start, Tuesday at St. Louis, Arrieta acknowledged his balky right hamstring, which forced him to the DL in early September, is still affecting the “drive” in his delivery.
“You need to see health,” Maddon said, “and after that, make your decisions.”
With that in mind, the Cubs’ best choice to start Game 1 could be Hendricks, who, after striking out nine batters in a five-inning tuneup Thursday night, owns a 2.05 ERA in his past nine starts, during which opposing hitters are batting just .237/.285/.357 off him. “He might be pitching as well as anyone in the National League right now,” Maddon acknowledged.
Hendricks also has an impressive big-game resume, having beaten Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw in the clincher of the 2016 NLCS and having gotten the start in Game 7 of the World Series, surrendering just one run in 4 2/3 innings.
Lefty Jose Quintana, whom the Cubs acquired from the crosstown-rival White Sox at the trade deadline, stated his case for a start in one of the first two games of the Division Series with a complete-game shutout Tuesday at Milwaukee in his final regular-season start. Quintana, the only member of the Cubs’ rotation with no playoff experience, is 7-3 with a 3.50 ERA since joining the team.
There is a perception that the Nationals are susceptible to left-handed pitching — due largely to the fact two of their best hitters, Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy, bat from the left side — but collectively the Nationals do almost equally well against lefties (.273/.328/.448) and righties (.263/.332/.448).
Unless Lester or Arrieta suffers a setback this weekend that would call into question their ability to start in the postseason, veteran John Lackey, their Game 4 starter in the 2016 postseason and a guy who owns three World Series rings with three different franchises, won’t have a spot in the Cubs’ October rotation. The NL-high 36 home runs he allowed this season made him an easy choice as the odd man out.
But Lester and Arrieta’s dodgy health might be reason enough for the Cubs to carry Lackey — who has indicated he will retire at the end of the season — in their bullpen, as a long reliever and potential emergency starter.
It is fitting the Cubs will need every last day of the 2017 season to get themselves in order for the postseason, because that is the type of season it has been on the north side of Chicago. The Cubs were just 25-27 at the end of May and 43-45 at the all-star break, falling as far as 5 ½ games out of first place in mid-July. Even after seizing first place for good on July 26, their lead was as small as two games as late as Sept. 12.
The downturn wasn’t only the fault of the Cubs’ rotation — most of their core position players badly underperformed in the first half, the bullpen started to show signs of unraveling in the second half and the team defense took a step backward from 2016 — but the performance of that rotation was the starting point of any discussion of the team’s 2017 woes:
2016 starters’ ERA (MLB rank): 2.96 (1)
2017 starters’ ERA (MLB rank): 4.07 (8)
The Cubs are not a team to take lightly — not with the best record (47-24), most prolific offense (5.74 runs per game) and largest run-differential (+119, nearly double that of the Nationals) in the NL over the second half.
But the difference between 2016 and 2017 is this: Last year, their rotation was capable of winning a postseason series almost single-handedly. This year, it appears capable only of losing one.