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  • Has the Chicago Cubs' Starting Rotation Finally Achieved Real Stability?

    Matt Trueblood

    All year, the Cubs have played Whack-a-Mole with their starting rotation. If they want to make a charge in the NL Central, they have to finally break that pattern. Saturday night was a start--no pun intended.

    Image courtesy of © Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

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    After a solid big-league debut by Jordan Wicks, the Cubs have their first semblance of stability in the starting rotation since at least mid-July. In truth, it's the first time they've had some level of comfort in all five spots all year. Even now, of course, Jameson Taillon is wobbly, and there are questions about how well Justin Steele can bear up under his accumulating workload, and there are sure to be some non-performance workload constraints on both Wicks and Javier Assad down the stretch. Still, at least they have five starters who give them a robust chance to win.

    It's a good thing Wicks was so impressive in his first start with the parent club, because Michael Fulmer landed on the injured list with a forearm strain Saturday, too. The Cubs have already dodged one forearm strain bullet this year, with Steele missing the minimum amount of time when he had the same problem in June. Fulmer is older than Steele, though, and his elbow has a longer history of tsuris. At the very least, he won't be back until mid-September, and there's a decent chance he won't pitch for the Cubs again. That takes a huge bite out of David Ross's bullpen depth, and puts more pressure on the starters.

    Fulmer has also been a favored option to work multiple innings or go early in bullpen games this year. Without him, some interesting but very nervous-making names become potentially vital cogs in the machine in the near future. The Cubs are nine games into a stretch of 13 days without a break, and after their one day off this coming Thursday, they immediately play a doubleheader to kick off 14 more games in 13 days. They are, then, one-third of the way through a murderous gauntlet of a schedule stretch, and it's the softest third. After Sunday, they'll play direct rivals for playoff position for the balance of this period, with the exception of a trip to Coors Field.

    For the next week, the day off and the substitution in the rotation they've just made work out perfectly. The probably starters figure to be:

    Game Date Opponent Starter
    Sun., Aug. 27 @ PIT Assad
    Mon., Aug. 28 MIL Taillon
    Tue., Aug. 29 MIL Steele
    Wed., Aug. 30 MIL Hendricks
    Fri., Sep. 1 @ CIN Assad
    Fri., Sep. 1 @ CIN Wicks
    Sat., Sep. 2 @ CIN Taillon
    Sun., Sep. 3 @ CIN


    After that, though, it gets sticky. The following Tuesday, at home against the Giants, none of these five will be available to start on regular rest--and, for various reasons, starting any of them on short rest is out of the question. Thus, we're sure to see one of a few guys not currently in the rotation take that start. Alternatively, someone else could take the non-Assad start Friday, with Wicks skipped, but either way, they will need a sixth starter no later than September 5.

    That guy could, shockingly, be Shane Greene, who starts again for Iowa Sunday. He's stretched out as far as any of these emergency options would need to be, since Ross is unlikely to ask any of them for more than a few innings, anyway. It could be Keegan Thompson or Michael Rucker, as the longest in a relay of relievers. It could also be Caleb Kilian, who had another encouraging start (six innings, seven strikeouts, no walks, one run) Friday night. None of these are inspiring options, but each is theoretically palatable. That's good, because it's probably not the last time the team will call upon them. Whichever of those pitchers makes the September 5 start, they'll be auditioning for another start later in the month--probably in Colorado, as the club tries to save the best starters for the toughest opponents and still give extra rest here and there for (especially) Steele and Wicks.

    This is far from an imposing postseason rotation. It's a deeper group than it has seemed to be since Drew Smyly started his long and ugly slide in late May, though. That they'll have to make up for an ever-thinning bullpen, one in which multiple pitchers are trying to weather the rigors of a full season of relief work in MLB for the first time, is daunting, but they can survive and overcome that. Wicks had a thrilling debut, and it allows fans to dream on this team making a playoff push in which they're not obligated to score six runs three times every five days in order to win. That, alone, has tremendous value.

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    10 minutes ago, Hairyducked Idiot said:

    I mean, not really, no 

    Yeah, I mean I think you can have some level of comfort in what you're getting from Steele/Taillon/Hendricks (though that level is not quite what you might hope for, especially for Taillon), but Assad is walking a FIP tightrope, and while I'm encouraged by Wicks' start I'm hesitant to apply that to any future trips through the rotation where he's not facing a bottom offense on twice as much rest as he would get normally.

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    I'm not ready to say we have stability in all 5 positions yet.  For one, Wicks has had 1 start and is going to be limited to a 4-5 inning starter at most it seems like for a variety of reasons.  He has the stuff and the pedigree to be a mainstay but need to see more than 1 start. 

    Assad has been a revelation but also has a FIP 3 runs higher than his ERA as a starter (note: its possible that FIP is not very reliable in small sample sizes).  The stuff looks good on paper but a small part of me is bracing for regression.  But unless he completely flops for 3-4 starts in a row, he's pretty locked into this rotation at this point so in that respect there is some stability 1-4 at least.  Hopefully Wicks can make us feel comfortable about the 5th spot too after 1-2 more starts.

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    There's not a single part of this rotation I have a ton of faith in come the playoffs.

    Steele is great, but he has already thrown 19 more innings this year than he has in any season before with likely another 6-7 starts to go before the playoffs. So you're talking somewhere between 50-60 innings more than a previous high before the playoffs. 

    Hendricks has solid, but he's not the guy anymore that you feel supremely confident is going to go out and give you 7IP 1/2 ER. His K/9 is about as low as you'll see in baseball, making his margin for error razor thin

    Assad has been absolutely fantastic, but the peripherals are another story. They have him pinned for some major regression. His peripherals are so bad that despite throwing 79 innings of 2.96 ERA baseball, he's still at .4 fWAR. I mean there are guys who are FIP beaters, but not to this extent.

    Taillon is obviously not as terrible as he was the first half of the year, but even if we just focus on his performance since July 1st we're looking at a guy with a 4.26 ERA, 4.01 FIP 4.38 xFIP and 7.42 K/9. That's a solid back half of the rotation arm and that's about it.

    Stroman likely doesn't pitch again this year

    Wesneski is dominant against righties with a .193/.258/.311 line, unfortunately he makes every left he faces the equivalent of Ohtani. Lefties have posted a .312/.368/672 line.

    It would be great if Wicks could be the savior, but he's not really that kind of pitcher. He's a guy who is likely to be a solid mid rotation arm and it's not reasonable to expect him to come up and be a heavy contributor in a playoff race immediately.

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