We are about to reach the halfway point of the 2017 season. Overall, it’s been a disappointing first half for the Chicago Cubs, though they are still in contention for the NL Central title thanks to a weak division. How have the individual pitchers fared? Let’s hand out midseason grades. (Position players were in a separate article.)
Koji Uehara: B. He was one of those bargain bullpen pickups this offseason that has turned out well. At 42 years old, Uehara continues to be an effective reliever and a guy that Joe Maddon seems to trust in late inning situations. Of his 28 appearances, 14 have been in the eighth inning, and he’s also tied for the team lead in holds. He’s had a few bad outings but for the most part has been getting the job done.
Justin Grimm: C. It was not pretty the first few weeks of the season, and Grimm was eventually sent to the minors in May after allowing 12 earned runs in 14.1 innings. Since coming back, he’s allowed just one earned run in 14 innings. Hopefully he’s recapturing the success that earned him a 1.99 ERA in 2015.
Mike Montgomery: A-. I still think he has more value as a reliever than as a starter, though he’s gotten a chance to start with the injuries to the rotation. He’s held his own as a starter but was excellent as a reliever, posting a 2.21 ERA and not allowing any inherited runners to score. He reminds me a lot of Sean Marshall from several years ago. Acquiring him last year from Seattle for two prospects with no future with the team has been one of Theo Epstein’s best moves. Since the bullpen is short on southpaws, hopefully the rotation can get healthy so Montgomery can move back into his relief role.
Pedro Strop: C-. For whatever reason, Strop has been the most maligned Cubs reliever in recent years. This is in spite of the fact that he has posted an ERA below 3 every year since joining the team in 2013. This year, however, his ERA has risen to 3.45, and he’s allowed 11 of his 23 inherited runners to score. He has not been terrible, but the fact that he isn’t having a typical Strop year has caused the criticisms to grow even louder.
Hector Rondon: D. At the middle of last year, Rondon had established himself as one of the game’s more effective closers, but things have changed dramatically in a short amount of time. Shortly after the All-Star Break, the team traded for Aroldis Chapman, which bumped Rondon into a middle relief role, and due to injuries and ineffectiveness down the stretch last year, by the playoffs Joe Maddon had lost almost all faith in Rondon. It looked like he had recovered early in the season, as his ERA through May 2 was at 0.87, but since then he’s posted a 6.52 ERA, and Maddon continues to avoid using him in key situations. A big reason for his struggles: His walks per nine innings have jumped from 1.4 in 2016 to 3.3 this year. He has a lot of work to do to regain Maddon’s trust.
Carl Edwards: B+. For years, Edwards was one of the few Cubs pitching prospects worth getting excited about. This year, he’s been getting a lot of key assignments out of the bullpen and, a couple of recent rough outings aside, for the most part has been getting the job done, including tying for the team lead in holds with 10. He’ll need to cut down on walks to continue to be effective long-term – he’s allowed 16 of them in 31.2 innings after allowing 14 in 36 innings last year.
Brian Duensing: B+. This signing didn’t get much attention in the offseason, and after a couple of rough outings early in the season, it looked like Duensing’s time in Chicago may be short and forgettable. But he was able to recover and has quietly pitched very well for most of the season, trailing only Mike Montgomery on the team in innings pitched out of the bullpen while posting a 1.88 ERA since April 24. He’s also allowed only four out of 15 inherited runners to score. In a bullpen that’s short on left-handed options, Duensing figures to keep getting the ball a lot more in the second half.
Wade Davis: A. As other teams shelled out insane amounts of money for closers this offseason, Theo Epstein went the more reasonable route and instead gave up the underachieving Jorge Soler to get the one-year rental Davis from Kansas City. To this point, it’s been about as one-sided as a trade could be. While Soler has done nothing for the Royals so far, Davis has been lights out as the closer, going 16 for 16 in save chances. He didn’t even allow a run until May 24. It’s a shame the team hasn’t had more save chances for him; amazingly, he ranks seventh on the team in innings pitched out of the bullpen.
Felix Pena: Incomplete. It’s too early to make any judgments, but in limited action he’s shown the ability to give the team some innings in low pressure situations. He wasn’t on many radars coming into the season, but he’s worth some more looks.
Eddie Butler: C+. We had no idea what to expect out of this once highly regarded prospect when he was pressed into starting duty because of injuries. But he really has not pitched all that bad, posting a 3.71 ERA over nine starts while going at least five innings in six of those starts. We’d eventually like to see him be able to go deeper into games, but I think right now they have something they can work with here.
Kyle Hendricks: D. No one expected Hendricks to repeat last year’s incredible performance, as he led the league in ERA. Still, he had taken a gigantic step backward in his fourth season before landing on the disabled list. Last year, he went more than six innings in 11 of his 31 starts, whereas he only has done that twice in 11 starts so far this year. Hits per nine innings is up to 7.7 from 6.7 last year, and walks are up to 3.1 from 2.1. And after allowing at least four earned runs only four times all of last year, he’s already done it four times this year. The team sure has missed the consistency he provided them last year; hopefully he comes back from injury and rediscovers that success.
John Lackey: F. This has been painful to watch. In 16 starts this year, he’s allowed at least four earned runs eight times. And after allowing 23 home runs all of last year, he’s already allowed a stunning 24 this year – endangering the all-time record of 50 set by Bert Blyleven in 1986. The fact that he seems to get easily irritated with umpires doesn’t exactly make things more bearable. If there’s one positive thing we can say, at least he’s been able to give the team at least five innings in all 16 of his starts, though given how ineffective he’s been, I’m not sure even that’s a good thing. Lackey was actually pretty good overall last year, so this comes as a big surprise, but at age 38 it looks like he’s nearing the end of the line. Thankfully, he’s only signed through this year.
Jake Arrieta: F. As this season began, I think most observers had conceded that Arrieta had likely peaked. But even the most pessimistic fans have to be stunned at how far he’s fallen in such a short amount of time. Between June 21, 2015 and and June 22, 2016, his ERA was 1.21 over 35 starts. Since then, his ERA is 4.55 over 31 starts. That’s not a small sample size. But it gets worse: After going at least five innings in every start since September of 2014 coming into this season, he has already failed to last five innings five times in his 16 starts this year. We keep getting all kinds of excuses – a heavy workload, injuries, and sweating are among those we’ve heard – but the bottom line is that his velocity is down, his mechanics look all out of whack, and as the league has figured him out he has failed to make the adjustments necessary to keep being effective, much less to keep pitching at a high level. As he’s scheduled to hit the free agent market this winter, his declaration just a few months ago that he was seeking a seven-year contract seems laughable now. Still, even if he keeps pitching like this, there still will be some desperate team willing to overpay this offseason. If there’s a silver lining to all this, it’s that it should make the Cubs’ decision whether to pursue a long-term deal with him easy to make.
Jon Lester: C. In a rotation that has woefully under-performed, Lester continues to be the team’s most reliable starter. Yet coming off a career year in 2016, in which he posted the lowest ERA of his career while tying his career-high in wins, he looks a lot more vulnerable here in 2017. His ERA has risen from 2.44 to 3.69, largely because he’s had trouble settling in early in games. He has already given up 21 runs over the first two innings of games after giving up 23 all of last season. And check out this statistic from Baseball Reference: Last year, in high leverage situations, the league hit an incredible .115 against him. This year, that number has skyrocketed to an equally incredible .340. Does Lester miss having David Ross behind the plate? Maybe, but in any case, Lester needs to step up his game if this team is to make another big run this year.
Brett Anderson: Incomplete. Many fans will say he deserves an F for pitching so poorly before going on the disabled list. I won’t necessarily argue with that, but he did have a few decent outings before the wheels came off. With the team looking for pitching help at the trade deadline, we’ll see whether he truly gets another chance.
Brian Johnston is the author of the book The Art of Being a Baseball Fan, his story of following the 2015 Chicago Cubs, available on Amazon. He lives in St. Joseph, Michigan with his wife and two children.