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Cubs unveil what Jake Arrieta says might be MLB’s best rotation

MESA, Ariz. — Cubs manager Joe Maddon unveiled his full rotation for the start of the season, and he might be making more history after it goes through one turn.

After left-hander Jon Lester and right-hander Jake Arrieta start the first two games in St. Louis, Maddon has right-hander John Lackey scheduled to pitch the third game, lefty Brett Anderson starting the series opener in Milwaukee and right-hander Kyle Hendricks starting the fifth game.

Yes, you read that right: The major-league ERA leader last year is opening as the fifth starter.

Part of that is to split up the two lefties, Maddon said. It also might be a sign of the quality of what Arrieta suggested could be the best rotation in baseball.

Kyle Hendricks

At least it looks historic.

A quick glance through major-league history suggests Hendricks might be the first league ERA leader to open the next season as his team’s fifth starter.

The Athletics’ Steve Ontiveros led the American League in ERA in 1994 and started the team’s fourth game in ’95. The Giants’ Scott Garrelts led the National League in ’89 and opened as the team’s fourth starter the next year.

The Braves’ Buzz Capra led both leagues in 1974 and started the team’s fourth game the next year (he also pitched the final inning of the opener in relief).

“Everybody’s always concerned about picking the order regarding what you perceive to be best to least-best,” said Maddon, who explained that he wanted Lackey, the ex-Cardinal, pitching in more of a comfort zone in St. Louis and then wanted to break up his lefties.

“Kyle could be a lot of people’s No. 2s, or even a 1 in a certain situation right now, too. He’s definitely better than a No. 5 starter. It just happens that we’re going to slot him in the 5-hole coming out of camp. But it’s not a pecking order regarding ability by any means.”

The easy-going Hendricks had no problem with the decision.

“Obviously, Kyle could be a 1 or 2 just about anywhere — not that he’s not here,” Arrieta said. “It’s just that we’ve got several of those, which is a good problem to have.”

Problem, as in the best five-deep rotation in baseball?

“On paper and what we’ve actually done on the field, it’s tough not to say that,” said Arrieta, who was part of a rotation in 2016 that had the majors’ best ERA. “People can rank them. But time will tell. Once we get out there, the first four or five times through the rotation, I think you could probably put a stamp on it then, a little bit more than now.”

The rotation decisions also mean that Anderson officially gets the last available job over the more versatile lefty Mike Montgomery.

“We had a nice conversation with Montgomery,” Maddon said. “He totally understood, and he’s got a great attitude about all of this. I could see him starting, pitching in long relief, short relief. He could do a variety of different things for us. It’s nice when you have guys that can do that and then are willing to do that.”

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Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com