Chicago Cubs: Options aplenty for final rotation spots

Feb 23, 2016; Mesa, AZ, USA; Chicago Cubs pitchers pitchers talk during spring training camp at Sloan Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 23, 2016; Mesa, AZ, USA; Chicago Cubs pitchers pitchers talk during spring training camp at Sloan Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports /

As teams head into Spring Training, most if not all tend to have a battle for the last rotation spot. The Chicago Cubs are no different, but not for the lack of depth like last year.

The Chicago Cubs solidified their rotation this winter by adding John Lackey, giving them a solid top three with defending Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester. Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel figure to battle it out with Adam Warren, Clayton Richard and Trevor Cahill for the last two spots. It’s possible you can throw Travis Wood into the conversation but I think he’s found his home as a reliable option in the bullpen.

Last season the Cubs avoided long-term injuries to the starting five, but the fifth of that group continued to be a revolving door. Wood, Dan Haren, Dallas Beeler, Clayton Richard, Tsuyoshi Wada and Donn Roach all got a start in that final spot. Wood opened the season as a starter but ended up in a successful bullpen role. With Lackey moving into the No. 3 spot, Hammel and Hendricks are still the favorites to close out the rotation but will be pushed by several others.

Entering this season, the first concern on most people’s minds was the second half struggles of Jason Hammel. Two seasons ago it was in Oakland, but last season faith was lost as Joe Maddon went to the pen early in his starts. The two had some verbal sparring over it but for the most part moved on. This winter Hammel was quick to admit his shortcomings in the second half and has worked to change that.

"“At some point you have to realize you have to do something more,” Hammel said from Cubs camp. “It’s well-documented the second half over the last couple of years has been a struggle for me.” h/t Jesse Rogers, ESPN"

How do you do that? Be more like Arrieta. Beard included. Hammel has changed his diet and fitness regimen and is a leaner, healthier looking pitcher. Once Hammel gets on the mound we’ll see if they make a difference, and even then it might take till July to know for sure.

“He rededicated himself,” Arrieta said. “He wanted to make some changes. I’m very happy for him. He’s committed to making himself better, which in turn will make us a better team.

Hendricks’ battle to stay in the rotation won’t be anything new to him this spring. even after a breakout 2014, Hendricks had to earn his way into the rotation last season. The numbers weren’t as impressive, but Hendricks, as well as pitching coach Chris Bosio, fell it was a mechanical issue and not the league “catching up” to Hendricks.

"“I had some struggles,” Hendricks admitted. “My mechanics weren’t really working but at least at the end of the year I kind of found it. I started getting it back. Now I have these cues to my mechanics that are different than before, so hopefully I can run with it.”"

Compared to Greg Maddux early for his cerebral methods as much as his physical attributes, Hendricks still has a chance to be a very effective starter for the Cubs. There are several ways to look at last season. His innings pitched was way up, and it could be a matter of adjusting. Strikeouts per/9 were up from 5.3 to 8.4, so the total number of pitches was up. He also exceeded 100 on four occasions, only one of those a complete game. For Hendricks, it’s about out-thinking the hitter, not out pitching him.

While Warren seems to be getting the most press as Hendrick’s competition, Richard may deserve more. He filled in with spot starts very well, and Maddon is likely to stretch him out early to have him ready for the first month of the season. After being forced to DFA Richard, the Cubs got lucky to sign him before someone else did, and he rewarded them by being a key member of the bullpen down the stretch.

With that said, Warren’s numbers last year with the Yankees were impressive as he posted a 7-7 record in 17 starts with a 3.29 ERA. After spot starts and bullpen work in his first few years, Warren achieved moderate success and the trade for Starlin Castro may work out in both their favors.

With Arrieta to see an innings limit in 2016, having three or four starters in the bullpen may work out just fine. Maddon isn’t afraid to break from the norm, meaning possible spot starts based on matchups, or possibly to give a pitcher an extra day of rest. Having four capable arms–assuming the Cubs keep them stretched out–avoids the one out specialist routine many managers follow. Maddon trusts many of his pitchers against hitters from either side of the plate, allowing him more flexibility with a very deep bullpen.

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However the rotation pans out, it’s clear that the staff could be a strength in 2016–only fueling the talks of championships that will continue to bounce around sports outlets. Joe has it right–#EmbracetheTarget.