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Old $chool: Cubs banking big on traditional approach with aging starting staff

Because of Tyler Chatwood's unreliability and Yu Darvish's health issues, the Cubs were forced to pick up Cole Hamels' $20 million option. At 11 days older than Jon Lester, he's the oldest pitcher in the Cubs' rotation. (John Antonoff photo)

MESA, Ariz. — In an age of four-inning playoff starts and three-inning bullpen stars, the Cubs are keeping it old-school with their pitching approach in their efforts to return to late October this season.

Emphasis on old. And school with a capital $.

As other teams try new concepts such as the ‘‘opener’’ and 200-inning pitchers near extinction, the Cubs once again will lean on an increasingly veteran group of starters to provide what they hope are big workloads in what they think is their best chance to win.

For better or for worse.

‘‘I’ve never had a rotation like that on a team I’ve been on,’’ said new Cubs reliever Brad Brach, an eight-year veteran of the Padres, Orioles and Braves. ‘‘It’s so exciting to know that you have three to five guys where every single night you expect them to go six, seven innings minimum.’’

Not everybody apparently expects so much out of a group that boasts 14 combined All-Star selections and $80.4 million in combined salary — third in the majors behind the Red Sox ($89 million) and Nationals ($86.8 million).

‘‘I like our guys,’’ manager Joe Maddon said. ‘‘We’ve got a great group.’’

At least one analytics outfit likes them a lot, too — if it was 2014.

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The annual PECOTA projections published by Baseball Prospectus has the Cubs finishing last in the National League Central with 79 victories. Part of the rationale is the aging front of the Cubs’ starting five.

‘‘Shoot, computers aren’t always right,’’ said Cole Hamels, the oldest pitcher on the starting staff at 35 — 11 days older than fellow left-hander Jon Lester. ‘‘The best thing about baseball and sports in general is the human element. You can look at what Tom Brady’s been able to accomplish and Drew Brees [in the NFL].

‘‘Jon and myself and a few of us that are obviously older, I don’t think we’ve ever thought of ourselves as average to begin with because, if we were, we’d have never been in this position. So I think we’ve always been the guys that have bucked the trend.’’

At a time in baseball when the concept of the ‘‘opener’’ quickly is gaining acceptance alongside ‘‘closer’’ and ‘‘starter,’’ the Cubs are starting to look like throwbacks.

Lester groused last season about the decline in 200-inning pitchers, and his workload has been managed so meticulously that he barely reached the 180 mark the last two seasons after pitching 200 in eight of the previous nine.

He also went 18-6 with a 3.32 ERA and earned his fifth All-Star selection in 2018.

‘‘One of the things I’m most proud of him for is his ability to evolve,’’ general manager Jed Hoyer of Lester, who is about to open the fifth year of a six-year, $155 million contract. ‘‘When you sign a pitcher like that to a six-year deal, you’re hoping that they do evolve.’’

<em>Lester (John Antonoff photo)</em>
Lester (John Antonoff photo)

When Lester hears Hoyer and Maddon talk like that, ‘‘It sucks because it means you’re getting old,’’ he said.

Exactly. But he came to terms with that years ago, when he went from a two-pitch power pitcher to a four-pitch command guy who has become an expert in using the Cubs’ advanced game-planning system.

‘‘It’s the evolution of the game,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m not going to be able to throw 95 anymore. The quicker you can deal with that, the better.”

The Cubs are banking on it — as in more than one-third of their big-league payroll dedicated to the five pitchers at the front of a rotation they expect will help them reach their goals this season.

Even if their average age is 32.4, with only 29-year-old Kyle Hendricks younger than 30. No matter what PECOTA says.

‘‘We have a veteran staff, and I think with that comes some trust that these guys know what they’re doing,’’ Hoyer said.