The clock is ticking. Can you hear it? Tick-tock. Tick-tock.
In just ten days, pitchers and catcher’s report for spring training.
And yet the Cubs still have a big hole in their starting rotation. Sorry, Mike Montgomery, you haven’t shown that you can fill it. You’re a solid fill-in when one of the top five inevitably goes down. But you didn’t earn a spot in the rotation. Not when you post a 4.15 ERA as a starter in 69.1 innings pitched in 2017 compared to a 2.49 ERA as a reliever in 61.1 innings. To me, that spells relief.
Is it just me or has the Cubs’ offseason been a yawner? Quick, off the top of your head, can you name one of their offseason acquisitions? Not me. I had to look them up. The big three – and I use the term “big” loosely – are Tyler Chatwood, Brandon Morrow and Steven Cishek. I don’t know much about any of them other than that the Cubs couldn’t hit a lick off Morrow in the NLCS. But then they couldn’t really hit anyone in that series.
What I’m saying is that the Cubs need to do something to rejuvenate Wrigleyville Nation – and they need to do it now. We’ve waited long enough. We’ve waited while their main two divisional competitors – the Cardinals and the Brewers – improved their lineups mightily. Enough to be taken as serious challengers.
St. Louis added young leftfield phenom Marcell Ozuna, obtained in a trade from Miami. The two-time MLB All-Star (2016, 2017), won both his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Award in 2017, belting 37 homers with 134 RBI and .312 BA. MLB Network ranks him as the best leftfielder in the MLB.
After an 86-win 2017 season, the Brewers are poised to challenge the Cubs for the divisional crown again in 2018. Milwaukee not only bolstered its starting rotation by signing talented free agent Jhoulys Chacin (two-year, $15.5 million) but came up with two late-offseason blockbuster deals to strengthen an already deep outfield, obtaining Christian Yelich in a trade with Miami and signing free-agent outfielder Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80 million contract.
Before the Yelich and Cain acquisitions, MLB Power Rankings had the Brewers at No. 13, trailing the Cards at No. 9 and the Cubs at No. 5. It’s hard to see how the Brewers don’t climb past the Cards with those two deals and inch closer to the Cubs.
The Cubs might still be favorites to take their third straight National League Central crown. But clearly the Cards and the Brewers aren’t going to go down without a fight.
Which brings us back to the Cubs’ puzzling offseason. One must wonder why it has been so quiet. With the loss of closer Wade Davis to free agency, the Cubs went to work to strengthen the bullpen.
Davis is no small loss. Many would consider him the team’s MVP in 2017. The team’s lone All-Star last season set a franchise record in converting 32-consecutive save opportunities.
Enter Morrow and Cishek, who look to battle it out to fill the vacant closer role. Both have their upsides and downsides.
Of Morrow, Cubbies Crib’s Alexander Patt sees “tons of potential upside.” While acknowledging that it “is always risky going after a veteran over 30 that had a career year,” Patt writes that “if Morrow can do what he did last year and the 18 games he pitched in 2016 (1.69 ERA) then that would be huge for the Cubs.”
The Sporting News’ Jared Wyllys, on the other hand, questioned whether slotting Morrow into the closer role is a good gamble, noting that the former Dodger set-up man “has not shown with consistency that he can be a shutdown closer.”
In side-arming right-hander Cishek, Jake Misener of Cubbies Crib writes that the Cubs found “a perfect addition to the [bullpen] crew.”
While the Cubs’ bullpen looks to have greater depth in 2018, it still does not rank among the MLB’s elite, at least according to Sporting News, whose list of the top five bullpens doesn’t include the Cubs. The lack of a lights-out closer along the lines of say, well, Wade Davis, is why.
Which brings me back to the starting rotation. Chatwood is a solid addition. But as SB Nation notes, he’s “no [Jake] Arrieta.” He’s a bit of an unknown commodity, a pitcher who was awful pitching for the Colorado Rockies last season when his team played at its home ballpark, Coors Field. At home in 2017, Chatwood pitched 70.1 innings and had a 6.01 ERA, a 1.678 WHIP, and a .355 BABIP. But in away games, he went 77.1 innings with a far more attractive 3.49 ERA, a 1.228 WHIP, and a .218 BABIP.
Those road warrior numbers were enough to sell the Cubs on him. So maybe he’s at least closer to Arrieta when you get him away from the toughest pitcher’s park in baseball.
But let’s face it, realistically, Chatwood is an upgrade over John Lackey but a downgrade over Arrieta. Plugging in Montgomery into that mix, and the Cubs’ rotation appears weaker now than it was at the end of 2017. According to Anthony Catrovince’s analysis for Sports on Earth, the Cubs’ current rotation doesn’t make MLB’s top seven.
So why are we still waiting for the Cubs to make that move to at least match the offseason improvements of their divisional rivals, the Cards and the Brewers? Yu Darvish, Arrieta and Alex Cobb are all still available. The Cubs need to sign one of them before another hungry team gobbles them up. They need to do it now. Because that clock is ticking.
Randy Richardson is the co-author, along with fellow Wrigleyville Nation contributor Becky Sarwate, of Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team and Their Stories of Pain, Loyalty, Hope and (Finally) Joy, due from Eckhartz Press this spring.