Pitchers and Catchers Report
Happy Valentine’s Day, today, 6 million people are expected to propose to their significant others. So let’s talk about the 4 important words a man always dreams of saying: Pitchers and Catchers Report. YES, Baseball is back! Well, kind of. The Cubs officially begin their preseason workouts in Mesa, Arizona and start their title defense. Let’s get up to speed on the Pitchers that is 2 weeks away from their first preseason game.
Free Agent Departures:
Aroldis Chapman, RP- Signed with Yankees (5 years, $86 million)
Jason Hammel, SP- Signed with Royals (2 years, $18 million)
Travis Wood, RP- Signed with Royals (Rumored 2 years, $12 million)
Trevor Cahill, RP- Signed with Padres (1 year, $1.75 million)
David Ross, C
Traded: Jorge Soler, OF (4 years, $15 million)
Received: Wade Davis, RP (1 year, $10 million)
Traded: Donnie DeWees (Minor League Contract)
Received: Alec Mills, P (Minor League Contract)
Brett Anderson, P (1 year, $3.5 million)
Koji Uehara, RP (1 year, $6 million)
Brian Duensing, RP (1 year, $2 million)
Caleb Smith, RP (Minor League Contract, Rule 5 Draft)
Eddie Butler, P (Minor League Contract)
Here’s what the Cubs Depth Chart Looks like
Starters: Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, John Lackey, Undisclosed 5th Starter
Middle Relief Pitchers: Mike Montgomery, Brett Anderson Koji Uehara, Justin Grimm, Caleb Smith*
Setup Men: Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards
Closer: Wade Davis
Minor League Call-Ups: Rob Zastryzny, Brian Duensing, Alec Mills, and Eddie Butler
Catchers: Willson Contreras (starter), Miguel Montero (backup/specialist), possibly Kyle Schwarber depending on health
Preview: As the Cubs break into camp, they find themselves in a good position for opening day. Their starting pitching staff includes a Cy Young award winner, two All-Stars, and the reigning NL ERA leader Kyle Hendricks. They did lose a 15 game winner in Jason Hammel, a lights-out closer in Aroldis Chapman, and solid Travis Wood and Trevor Cahill. Although they lost one of the best closers in the game, they added Wade Davis, a guy who has had three straight seasons of a sub-2 ERA. His only question mark comes with elbow injuries, but if healthy can be an even better pitcher than the All-Star he replaced. The biggest unanswered question lies with who will be the team’s fifth starter. The Cubs let Jason Hammel walk after they declined his $10 million option, wanting to give the opportunity to younger pitchers who would stay with the organization for beyond a year. Essentially, they wanted to prepare for the future instead of having another aging veteran on the roster. This opened up slot appears to be a battle between lefties Mike Montgomery and Brett Anderson.
Montgomery, who had a 2.52 ERA and a 3.79 FIP last year, was solid in five starts for the Cubs last season. In those five starts, he had a 3.33 ERA, averaging about 4 2/3 innings per start. Anderson, on the other hand, has been plagued with injuries in recent years. He only threw 11 innings in 2016, missed more than half of 2014 with a herniated disk, and had Tommy John surgery that sidelined him for most of 2011 and 2012. However, in 2015, he started 31 games, throwing 180 1/3 innnings with a 3.69 ERA and a 3.94 FIP. He’s proven that if he can stay healthy, (that’s a big if) he can be a very reliable starter. If the Cubs can replicate that production out of him as their fifth starter, they will be a very happy ball club.
Both Montgomery and Anderson, have strong enough track records to give the Cubs hope that one of them will stick and be a solid fifth starter. There’s also a legitimate chance that Joe Maddon enacts a 6 man rotation, in order to ease the arms of their workhorse pitchers, who all started at least 29 games last season, and pitched deep into the postseason. They will certainly have a light spring training after pitching into November last season. During the season, you can expect to see both of these guys starting at some point, because it is irrational to expect that the other four starters to have completely healthy seasons. Last year was an exception, teams usually see at least one of their pitchers go down for an extended period of time and the Cubs were extremely fortunate.
Beyond Montgomery and Anderson, the front office made an effort to retool the bullpen and give the team starting pitching depth by acquiring guys like Alec Mills, Eddie Butler, Brian Duensing and Caleb Smith. These players, act as an insurance policy for the Cubs, and all have outside chances to make the major league roster based on their performance in spring training, but will likely be stashed in the minors on opening day along with in house options Rob Zastryzny and Aaron Brooks. While most Cubs fans would expect someone like Rob Z to make the opening day roster based on him making the NLCS roster, he will likely stay in the minors because they can only carry 11-12 pitchers on their 25 man roster, and he falls behind other players on their depth chart. One interesting player to watch who could make the major league roster is Caleb Smith. He is a peculiar case because he was acquired as a Rule 5 Draft Pick, so he must remain on the major league roster or the DL to remain under team control. If sent to the minors, he must be returned to San Francisco.
The pitchers mentioned in the previous paragraph are more than just career minor leaguers who will stay within the system. Each player was acquired because they have the potential to stick around and make themselves a relief pitcher or even fifth starter by October. Alec Mills was rated as the 90th best prospect based on the ZiPS projection system (computer projections that are solely data driven), Eddie Butler was compared to Jake Arrieta by Jed Hoyer, who said, “He’s an excellent change-of-scenery guy,” Hoyer said of Butler. “Our best example is Jake Arrieta. Sometimes a talented guy needs a change of scenery, and that was our logic with Eddie Butler.” Brian Duensing started 28 games for the Twins in 2011 and went 10-3 with a 2.62 ERA in 2010. Caleb Smith struck out 13 batters per 9 innings in the minors, and the Cubs felt he was worthy enough of a Rule 5 selection knowing how crowded of a MLB roster they have.
After examining potential starting pitchers, let’s take a look at the remaining bullpen pitchers expected to make the major league club. There shouldn’t be too much change with Justin Grimm, one of Joe Maddon’s favorite relievers. Keep an eye on young Carl Edwards Jr., who may be the team’s long term closer. Joe Maddon trusted him enough to place him in the 10th inning of game 7 of the World Series, and his ceiling is extremely high as a 25 year-old. On the flipside, the Cubs also signed a player who will be 42 years old in April, Koji Uehara. Yes, he’s 2 full years older than David “Grandpa Rossy” Ross, who retired last season. But, he’s an extremely effective bullpen pitcher with a career 2.53 ERA and was an unstoppable closer on the 2013 World Series Champion Red Sox team. While he is past his prime, Koji is still an effective pitcher and should be very reliable coming out of the pen.
The last pitchers unmentioned are Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop, presumably pitching as setup men in the seventh and eighth inning of games. Last year was a tale of two seasons for these guys. Hector had a sub-2.00 ERA in the first half of the season, before the Cubs traded for Aroldis Chapman and before he got injured. Pedro also sustained a knee injury after fielding a bunt and was never the same. By the time the postseason came, Joe trusted younger guys like Carl Edwards and Mike Montgomery and was reluctant to give the original lockdown guys the ball. Now, after 3 months of time to get back into shape, can these guys prove that their second half struggles were purely because they weren’t healthy?
Parting ways with Jorge Soler wasn’t easy, but the Cubs received one of the best closers in the game in Wade Davis. Davis has critical World Series experience as the closer on the 2015 World Series Champion Royals. He even won the 2015 Babe Ruth Award, the most valuable player in the MLB postseason. His 1.18 ERA as a closer from 2014-2016 is extremely attractive and worth the risk of his previous elbow injuries.
Unlike the uncertainty in the pitching staff, Cubs fans are only seeing familiar faces behind the backstop. Willson Contreras is primed for a potential breakout season after getting called up from the minors in June, and will be backed up by Miguel Montero. Contreras has already proven he can help the team with his bat after posting a 2.2 WAR season in only 76 games. Now, he gets a full offseason, preseason, and regular season to prepare and improve his chemistry with the pitching staff, defense behind the plate, and with his bat. Given his work ethic, expect big things. Additionally, having the chance to work with a veteran like Miguel Montero is extremely valuable given Montero’s reputation as one of the best pitch framers in the game. While behind the plate last year, pitchers had a 3.18 ERA when pitching to Montero, and if he can pass these behind the plate these skills to Willson, Miguel will have served the Cubs well in what will likely be his final season in Chicago.
One of the biggest storylines for the cubs this Spring Training will be the development/recovery of Kyle Schwarber. He’s expected to be the starting left fielder for the Cubs after suffering an ACL tear, returning as a designated hitter in the World Series after only six months and hitting .412 with almost no practice. The question is, could take any reps at his original position? The likely answer is no, because the front office wants to keep him as healthy as possible, and spend as much time working on his defensive skills in left field. But, he would provide great value from a hitting perspective as a catcher, and could pair up with one pitcher like David Ross did with Jon Lester. Having Kyle as a catcher 1 out of 5 games could allow them to keep his bat in the lineup at all times, while also giving Willson Contreras’ knees a rest for the grind of a 162 game season. We’ll probably know pretty early what the Cubs’ plans are for Kyle.
It’s been a long 3 months without baseball, and we’re less than 2 months away from Opening Day and 2 weeks away from preseason games starting. We’re looking forward to getting answers to questions about both the pitching and catching situations as the cubs bring back one of the best starting rotations in the MLB, and a solid group of catchers. This 2017 Cubs team is going to be really fun to watch and expectations should be sky high.