The Cubs could start the 2017 season in a revolutionary way
The Chicago Cubs didn’t do anything particularly special or revolutionary in the build up to their curse-breaking championship last season.
That is to say that Theo Epstein and company didn’t change the overall paradigm of managing a baseball organization in order to win the team’s first World Series in 108 years — the Cubs merely drafted well, traded better, signed strong players with the money that they had and took advantage of their opportunities on and off the field.
Again, hardly revolutionary stuff.
But in the Cubs’ effort to defend their World Series title (yeah, it’s still strange to say), the team might be turning towards something that could truly change the game.
The six-man rotation isn’t a new idea, and the Cubs, who went to one late in the 2016 season in an effort to keep starters’ arms fresh for the postseason, are hardly the first team to use one, but Chicago might be the first team to start a season with a premeditated six-man rotation.
The Cubs will enter the 2017 exhibition season with a dozen starters in camp — Epstein, the Cubs’ chief personnel man, obsesses over rotation depth — with the expectation that the team will have seven or eight starting pitchers that they can trust when the season begins.
As Epstein sees it, that’s how many you need throughout a season because of injury and roster moves. Last season, 11 Cubs pitchers started games.
The Cubs don’t necessarily want to hand the ball to their No. 10 starter — that would mean more than one thing has gone horribly wrong. But they might be interested in letting their No. 6 man get serious run.
We know the Cubs’ top four starters for the 2017 season — they’re the same as the Cubs’ 2016 playoff rotation: Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey.
And the Cubs have pegged Mike Montgomery, who was the team’s spot starter and long reliever in 2016, to be the team’s fifth starter for this upcoming year.
But it’s the Cubs’ signing of Brett Anderson — who has started all but 12 of his 127 Major League games — that could be an indication that Chicago is eyeing a six-man rotation to start this season.
The Cubs haven’t officially mentioned the possibility of a six-man rotation yet, but there have been hints, and the signs are there:
• Cubs manager Joe Maddon is a proponent of the six-man rotation, having used one at the end of the 2016 regular season and suggesting that more teams could do the same at the end of their seasons to mitigate workload.
• Epstein thinks about starting pitching staffs as eight, nine, or 10-man units. No team is better prepared to go to a deeper rotation than Chicago.
• The Cubs were hot in pursuit of starting pitcher Tyson Ross, despite having five starters already on the staff and Ross being worthy of a spot every four (or five) days.
The six-man rotation might be the future of baseball, but if the Cubs were to move to it in 2017, it would be about preserving their starters for the immediate future.
Chicago’s core four starters have all pitched more than 400 innings over the last two years, postseasons included — Arrieta and Lester have both gone over 450 innings — so cutting down overall workload and going to a system that could prevent injuries (there’s a 20 percent drop in injuries when you add an extra day of rest) is certainly of interest to the Cubs.
That heavy workload from the Cubs’ top four could easily catch up with any (or all) of Chicago’s starters this season, or worse — in the postseason.
Six-man rotations are the norm in Japan, where the rate of Tommy John surgeries among pitchers is notably lower what we see in the Major Leagues. Rangers starter Yu Darvish, who claims to have never had elbow issues in Japan but had Tommy John Surgery after three years stateside, believes that the extra rest he had in NPB kept him healthier.
“If you really want to protect players, we should add one more spot to the starting rotation,” Darvish told Japanese reporters in July 2014. (The Rangers’ ace tore the UCL in his right elbow in March 2015, prompting the Tommy John surgery.)
There are downsides to a six-man rotation, of course — it takes an arm out of the bullpen, theoretically increasing the workload on relievers, and there’s fair skepticism of a sixth starter’s credentials when it’s so hard to find a quality, reliable fifth starter — but the Cubs are in a perfect scenario to experiment with an expanded starting pitching staff.
Chicago has one of the strongest bullpens in baseball heading into the 2017 season — they don’t need to use the same few pitchers for all their high-leverage situations this year, which provides a manager flexibility to give guys days off in the ‘pen — and the Cubs have a schedule that is tailor made, with five off-days in April, to ease into a six-man go-around — the sixth starter could help provide long relief on a few occasions in the first month before being exclusively deployed as a starter in May.
And while the Cubs have three Cy Young candidate pitchers, they don’t have a pitcher like Clayton Kershaw who is a young thoroughbred who should be on the mound as often as possible. With that and the Cubs’ weak division — the Brewers and Reds are expected to be two of the worst teams in baseball this year — losing a few starts from top starters shouldn’t seriously jeopardize Chicago’s postseason chances.
Chicago can do baseball a service this year by going all-in on the six-man rotation, establishing another clear data set for other teams to study and perhaps improve upon in the future. Maybe if it works, other teams follow suit and move to the six-man rotation. Perhaps it does lower the rate of injury and this is part of the solution to baseball’s elbow injury epidemic. We’ll only know by testing it.
Meanwhile, the Cubs would be doing their best to make sure their four best starters are fresh for another deep postseason run.
That’s a win-win.
Will they be the first team to go all-in on a six-man?