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How last winter’s free-agent busts led to unusual rotation depth for Cubs in ’19

Cubs manager Joe Maddon spent much of February and March talking about a starting rotation that looked as strong as any he’s had since arriving in Chicago.

Then the season started, and $164 million of misspent optimism disappeared in Tyler Chatwood’s historic pile of walks and Yu Darvish’s poor performances and injuries.

By May, the Cubs were plugging holes with sixth man Mike Montgomery, a July trade for Cole Hamels and the occasional Luke Farrells, Duane Underwoods and Alec Millses from the farm system.

But what if last winter’s failed gambles with the rotation turn into even stronger reason for optimism this winter?

After his strong performance since a trade to the Cubs in July, the Cubs expect to bring back Cole Hamels, who has a $20 million contract option for 2019.

The Cubs, it seems, are banking on it.

“We’re set up to have some depth in the starting staff next year,” team president Theo Epstein said Tuesday, a day after a season of injury pressure and inconsistency ended suddenly in a 13-inning loss to the Rockies in the wild-card game at Wrigley Field. “We’re not looking to get rid of starting pitchers. We’re looking to have as much depth as possible so we can withstand multiple injuries.”

That’s why the Cubs are expected to exercise Hamels’ $20  million option for 2019, despite having Darvish under contract for five more years, Chatwood for two and everybody else who made more than two starts under club control next year.

“He’s absolutely someone we’d love to have part of the mix going forward,” Epstein said of Hamels, who went 4-3 with a 2.36 ERA in 12 starts down the stretch — plus two scoreless innings of relief Tuesday. “Cole was such a breath of fresh air for us. He made an unbelievable impression. For a guy who’s only been here a couple of months, he’s as universally respected in that room as anyone I’ve seen. He’s a pro’s pro and contributed tremendously on the field and off the field, with a great engaged, accountable, possible presence in that clubhouse, who really cares about his teammates and helped make them better by example and by discussion, too.”

So Hamels, plus all the incumbents from this year’s opening roster. And that doesn’t even count left-hander Drew Smyly, who signed a back-loaded two-year deal last December while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, with an eye toward a spot in the 2019 rotation.

So that’s Hamels, Smyly, Darvish, Montgomery and Chatwood.

And Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana.

Assuming they’re all back when next season starts — which assumes no takers for Chatwood — the Cubs will have by far their most expensive rotation in franchise history and, maybe, their deepest.

It certainly figures to simplify the priority list for this winter as they look to strengthen the bullpen and fix the lineup.

And they might have rotation depth that nobody in the National League this side of the Dodgers has been able to approximate in recent years.

That’s necessary if they plan to keep their competitive window open. There are question marks involving, in increasing order, Lester (age, workload), Hamels (age, workload), Smyly (first year back from Tommy John), Chatwood (if he’s on the roster) and Darvish.

Darvish, the four-time All-Star who went on the disabled list in May with a triceps strain, had two failed rehab attempts before his season finally was shut down because of a bone bruise diagnosed in September. Another visit to his longtime friend/orthopedist in Texas then resulted in an arthroscopic “clean-out” surgery on his already surgically repaired elbow.

“We’re really, really excited to have a healthy, impactful Yu Darvish,” Epstein said. “But we also have to build a lot of depth and backup plans, because if we go down the same road that we went down this year and it costs us the season, that’s on me. That’s on us.”

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Epstein recalled the questions that persisted throughout the summer: Could the Cubs expect Darvish to come back, and at what ability, to help the team win in October?

“Well, we hoped he could come back, but in the end he wasn’t able to, and that’s part of the reason we got Cole Hamels,” Epstein said. “And our starting rotation ended up being a strength. We have to take the same approach this winter.

“I fully expect [Darvish] to be healthy and go do his thing and punch out a lot of guys and be part of a really great starting staff next year, but if for whatever reason, with any of our guys, it doesn’t happen, we can’t let one injury sink our season.”



The Cubs could have as many as eight experienced big-league starters heading into next season, accounting for roughly $100 million of the payroll (Opening Day ages listed):

LHP Jon Lester, 35

  • 2018: 18-6, 3.32 ERA, 32 GS
  • 2019 Salary: $22.5 million
  • All-Star selections: 5
  • Comment: Workhorse starter has 11-year streak of making at least 31 starts and is 9-7 with a 2.51 ERA in 26 career postseason games (22 starts).

LHP Cole Hamels, 35

  • 2018: 9-12, 3.78, 32 GS
  • (4-3, 2.36, 12 GS for Cubs)
  • 2019 salary: $20 million*
  • All-Star selections: 4
  • Comment: Stabilized the Cubs’ rotation after being acquired in a July trade from Texas and could be the key to the rotation’s depth next April.

RHP Yu Darvish, 32

  • 2018: 1-3, 4.95 ERA, 8 GS
  • 2019 salary: $20 million
  • All-Star selections: 4
  • Comment: Season-ending injury saga that began in May has Cubs looking at Year 2 of a six-year megadeal with cautious optimism – and with plenty of backup options.

RHP Kyle Hendricks, 29

  • 2018: 14-11, 3.44 ERA, 33 GS
  • 2019 salary: 2nd year arbitration ($4.175 million in ’18)
  • All-Star selections: 0
  • Comment: Is the Cubs’ best pitcher down the stretch this year on the brink of competing for a first All-Star appearance?

LHP Jose Quintana, 30

  • 2018: 13-11, 4.03 ERA, 32 GS
  • 2019 salary: $10.5 million*
  • All-Star selections: 1
  • Comment: Teammates love him almost as much as the Brewers hate him, and only Lester matches him for durability the last six years.

RHP Tyler Chatwood, 29

  • 2018: 4-6, 5.30 ERA, 24 G (20 GS)
  • 2019 salary: $12.5 million
  • All-Star selections: 0
  • Comment: His 8.2 rate of walks per nine innings set a dubious Cubs record by more than a full walk over Sad Sam Jones in 1955 (6.89). Could be a late-spring trade candidate with decent early performance.

LHP Mike Montgomery, 29

  • 2018: 5-6, 3.99, 38 G (19 GS)
  • 2019 salary: 1st year arbitration ($611,250 in 2018)
  • All-Star selections: 0
  • Comment: He said last winter he should be given the chance to start, then proved it after replacing Darvish with a 3.69 ERA in 19 starts.

LHP Drew Smyly, 29

  • 2018: DNP (Tommy John rehab)
  • 2019 salary: $7 million
  • All-Star selections: 0
  • Comment: Smyly said he was ready to pitch in relief down the stretch, but the Cubs played it safe after his lengthy rehab and shut him down. In a best-case scenario, he provides 150 good rotation innings next year.

*-Club contract option