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Chat-what? Oft-maligned Tyler Chatwood could be key to Cubs’ pitching plans in 2020

After losing his starting job to historic control problems last season, the $38 million right-hander has bounced back in a reduced role so far in 2019.

Arizona Diamondbacks v Chicago Cubs
Tyler Chatwood during his scoreless six-inning spot start against the Diamondbacks in April.
Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

DENVER — Right-hander Tyler Chatwood was one of the biggest reasons the Cubs had almost nothing left in the payroll budget to make roster additions last winter.

But could the oft-maligned Chatwood become a big reason they have financial flexibility next winter — and not because of any potential trade value?

Or despite what anybody might think about his performance in the Cubs’ 10-3 loss Tuesday to the Rockies, in which he took over with the team trailing 6-1 with two runners on in the sixth inning, gave up a three-run home run to Charlie Blackmon and finished the game?

Chatwood has solved enough of his control problems from 2018 and performed well enough in a reduced role this season that he might be a viable part of the starting-rotation mix in 2020.

‘‘He’s putting himself in position to be considered for all that stuff,’’ manager Joe Maddon said. ‘‘I have no idea what [front-office executives] Theo [Epstein] and Jed [Hoyer] are going to be thinking about this winter. But from watching [Chatwood], absolutely. He’s on the verge of becoming a starter again, given an opportunity.’’

That vision of Chatwood lasted 20 walk-prone starts last season until the Cubs traded for left-hander Cole Hamels and sent their $38 million free agent to the bullpen. Because neither Chatwood nor $126 million right-hander Yu Darvish were considered reliable entering this season, the Cubs were compelled to spend $20 million to exercise Hamels’ 2019 option.

But Hamels’ commitment falls off the books after this season. And if the Cubs’ recent signing of closer Craig Kimbrel to a three-year, $43 million deal says anything about the front office’s thinking, it’s that the blueprints for the 2020 pitching staff already are being drawn up.

Four starters will be back: left-hander Jon Lester, right-hander Kyle Hendricks, left-hander Jose Quintana and Darvish. Top starting-pitching prospect Adbert Alzolay — fresh off a Pacific Coast League pitcher of the week performance — might be ready to compete for a rotation spot next spring (with an innings limit in mind).

But the key to having enough depth in Hamels’ absence without adding a starter figures to be whether Chatwood can be trusted again to start, along with left-hander Mike Montgomery’s return.

‘‘I haven’t even thought that far ahead,’’ said Chatwood, who has a 3.60 ERA and has allowed a combined one run in his three outings of four or more innings. ‘‘I just want to win this year. If I’m getting opportunities to help us win games, that’s what I want to do — and to be the best at it that I can. I want to feel what [the Cubs] felt in 2016.’’

Before signing his three-year deal with the Cubs, Chatwood spent six seasons at hitter-friendly Coors Field, where the Cubs opened a seven-game road trip Monday. He said his struggles last season, which included a franchise-record 8.2 walks per nine innings, fueled his efforts to find the mechanical fix that has helped him quiet his delivery and keep him on a straighter line to the plate.

‘‘It made me go back to my roots,’’ he said. ‘‘This might be the best stuff I’ve ever had.’’

His walk rate is down, his strikeout rate is up and nine of his last 16 appearances have been scoreless, including his only save chance and a six-inning spot start.

The mental toughness Chatwood developed while pitching in Denver isn’t lost on Maddon.

‘‘If you can pitch well here, you can pitch anywhere,’’ Maddon said.

Chatwood saw it.

‘‘I saw quite a few guys come in and out of here,’’ he said. ‘‘If you buy into it, that it’s going to eat you up, then I think you get eaten up by it. You hear tales and stuff, but I think I was just trying to attack hitters.’’

Chatwood downplayed how much being able to deal with Coors Field’s conditions had played into his ability to bounce back like he has so far this season.

‘‘I feel good,’’ he said.