MESA, Ariz. – Jake Arrieta, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward might get most of the attention and star treatment around the Cubs this year.
But the four guys who could be the difference in getting the Cubs from where they left off last year to their first World Series in 71 years are Adam Warren, Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill and Clayton Richard.
“It is unique,” manager Joe Maddon said as pitchers and catchers reported for spring training Friday. “You can’t go into any other camp and see this group of pitchers linked like we have right now.”
Cahill, a right-hander, and Richard, a lefty, were added last season, joining Wood in a group of former starters working as long-relief combinations to lock down early and middle innings of games as the Cubs surged to a 45-18 finish.
The unusual makeup of the bullpen allowed the Cubs to overcome a shortage of innings from starters after the first two spots in the rotation – with one or more from that group accounting for at least a full trip through the opponents’ order seven times down the stretch, often paired in a right-left tandem.
Largely because of that, 11 of those 45 wins over the final two months were in games in which the starter went five innings or less – five in games of 4 1/3 innings or less.
In fact, the three combined to pitch the first 6 2/3 innings of a home victory over the Cardinals in September on a day the Cubs needed a sixth starter.
As team president Theo Epstein said of his pitching staff while spending most of his winter resources on hitting, “There’s a lot of different ways to do this.”
The Diamondbacks and Red Sox committed megadeals to Zack Greinke and David Price. That’s one way.
Meanwhile, the Cubs spent big on Heyward, modestly on a No. 3 starter in John Lackey, re-signed Trevor Cahill to a one-year free agent deal and traded Starlin Castro to the Yankees for Warren – a right-hander who pitched well in 17 starts last year but even better out of the bullpen.
“It’s going to be a pretty unique situation where we might have our sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth starters all in our big-league bullpen,” Epstein said.
All four will get a chance to start games this spring, especially early in the spring schedule, but are likely to open the season as relievers, barring injuries.
By doubling down on last year’s late-season model for eating quality innings, the Cubs have a built-in reservoir to tap liberally to shorten starters they might want to protect (for instance, Jake Arrieta, off a career-high workload) or to employ quick hooks with a struggling back-end starter.
If the Royals the last two years offered a new way of looking at how championships can be built as much on the backs of powerful bullpens as front-loaded rotations, the Cubs might be pushing the next phase of that evolution.
If nothing else, the setup, on paper, provides better potential starting depth than last year (see: Tsuyoshi Wada) as the Cubs brace for the likelihood they won’t be able to repeat their 2015 fortune of avoiding the disabled list with all five opening starters.
“You know going into the year that however you dream up those 1,400 innings, or whatever it’s going to be, it’s not going to come out exactly how you anticipate,” Epstein said. “I think we’re going to have a lot of adjustments over the course of the season, but I believe pretty strongly in this pitching staff and our pitching infrastructure.”