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Starts and fits: Cubs’ vaunted, rebuilt rotation coming up short in early going

Quintana failed to get out of the third inning Saturday.

Blame it on the weather. Blame it on the constantly fluctuating schedule. Call it skewed because of the small sample size, but three weeks into the season — half of which has been played so far in tough hitting conditions — the Cubs are still waiting for that next-phase championship pitching rotation to show up.

Rebuilt with the trade last summer for Jose Quintana and $164 million worth of free agents in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood, the Cubs’ starting five has collectively been as cold as the weather that caused another postponement Wednesday.

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“I think we knew that it was going to be hard early to get length out of our starters,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “That said, they’ve been even probably shorter than we were hoping for.”

Three full turns through the rotation, the starters have averaged five innings a start, produced a collective 5.31 ERA, and three remain winless, including Chatwood, who is 0-3 after a seven-walk performance Wednesday in which he failed to finish the fifth and needed 97 pitches to get that far.

“I don’t think you can really evaluate much so far,” Hoyer said. “There’s been no rhythm to the season yet. Games have been played in terrible conditions for the most part.”

In fact, Darvish pitched Friday in the coldest conditions of his major-league career, with a game-time temperature of 42 degrees. He also didn’t allow a run until unraveling in the fifth after a balk. And his opposing starter, Anibal Sanchez, pitched six scoreless innings on a hitting-resistant day so cold that even the home manager spent most of the game blowing into his cupped hands for warmth.

Manager Joe Maddon called the conditions the next day at Wrigley the worst he had experienced as a big-league coach or manager, and his starter, Quintana, couldn’t get out of the third. But Braves starter Sean Newcomb pitched into the sixth and allowed only two earned runs.

Even Tuesday night as Chatwood struggled with walks (despite seven strikeouts), Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright didn’t allow an earned run in five innings.

Maybe that also says at least something about the Cubs’ struggles at the plate. But it is hard to deny that it says anything good so far about a rotation Maddon touted as possibly the best he has had with the Cubs.

In five of the last 15 starts, starters haven’t been able to complete five innings, and that included Jon Lester on Opening Day in Miami, and Darvish two days later in the same place.

“There’s no doubt early in the season you don’t get a lot of length from the starters, and it taxes the bullpen,” Hoyer said. “We’ve probably been fortunate to have these days off with the rainouts to rest those guys. But obviously, to be effective and stay healthy long-term, we’re going to have to get longer starts. I think that’s pretty obvious.”

The starting pitching is off to such a slow start that reliever Eddie Butler has more innings pitched than both Lester and Quintana and a better ERA (2.45) than any of the five.

For now, the bullpen has been the Cubs’ biggest strength this side of Kris Bryant’s hitting and Javy Baez’s slugging. Even after Pedro Strop’s rough eighth inning Tuesday, the pen ranks among the majors’ best with a 2.37 ERA.

But how long that continues once the weather permits daily baseball again could depend a lot on how deep the rotation starts pitching into games going forward.

“It’s going to happen. I’m fully confident it’s going to happen,” Maddon said. “There’s a lot to look forward to. That’s the way I look at it. There’s a lot to look forward to with the starters because they’re really good. And as things settle in, they’re going to really start piling up the innings.

“I mean that. I’m not just saying that. I believe that sincerely.”