As the new season dawns, the baseball punditry finds itself a bit in a panic. The demand for baseball content keeps ramping up, but there’s very little groundbreaking analysis for any of the industry’s too-many talking heads to offer up. Rare are the seasons that leave this small a margin for reasonable disagreement. Of the six divisions, there is an overwhelming favorite to win three, and a clear (though not consensus) choice in two more.
The Wild Card system creates more uncertainty, but not necessarily more suspense or more intrigue. We’re starving for a juicy debate, and after waiting all offseason for real games to begin we’re starting to see some people invent one. So let me answer the question I suddenly hear people (to name a few, and these are some of my very favorite baseball minds, but they’re just missing this one: Joe Sheehan, Bernie Miklasz, Doug Thorburn, and Buster Olney) asking way too often.
Q: Is the Cubs’ lack of pitching depth the weakness that could make them vulnerable in October, or even leave them on the outside of the playoffs, looking in?
It should be that simple. I’m not sure why the question is being raised, exactly, other than that people want to have some force other than catastrophically bad luck to which to ascribe it if the Cubs do fall short in 2017. That desperate desire to explain extraordinary variance, a compulsion so complete that we begin weaving our web of comforting rationalizations before there’s any evidence of need for it, is unhealthy and unproductive.
To any clear-eyed baseball observer, it should be obvious that the Cubs are the best team in the NL Central, and very likely the best in the National League. To any fan who has lived through more than a year or two of baseball, it should be obvious that extremely unlikely confluences of underperformance and injury can derail even teams this good. No further pre-explanation should be needed. The Cubs are very, very likely to win the division, and as likely as either the Dodgers or the Nationals to win the pennant, and as likely as the Dodgers or the Nationals or the Indians or the Red Sox to win the World Series. If they fail to do any of those things, it will be because baseball can be cruel, and because the best team does not always win, even over the long season, and especially in a short series.
As for the specific notion that the thinness or injury risk in this starting rotation could act as an extra hurdle for the team to clear en route to a repeat, though, I have specific rejoinders, too. They are:
1. Every team’s weakness, insofar as it is not their bullpen, is their starting pitching depth.
No one is hiding a second rotation full of competent big-league arms at Triple-A. Not even the Dodgers, who come about as close as any team has come since the dawn of the Wild Card era. “If Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta go down, this team could be in trouble,” I heard one national columnist say out loud a few weeks ago. That’s a tautology. No team in baseball could simply cruise onward without missing a beat if its two best starting pitchers landed on the disabled list.
It is perfectly reasonable to assert—though I personally wouldn’t leap to agreement—that Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo are a better pair or replacement starters than are Mike Montgomery and Eddie Butler. Nonetheless, if Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom blew out their elbows, the Mets would be in tremendous trouble (and Lugo himself is already injured). Ditto the Dodgers, if they lost Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill, or the Red Sox, if they lost David Price and Chris Sale. No good team can go on undamaged in such a state.
Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s no elasticity where the magnitude of such damage is concerned. Two things help determine how much a team can weather a loss like the hypothetical one described above: the quality of the replacements available, and the strength of the rest of the team. The Cubs’ replacement arms might not be baseball’s best, but they’re not worse than the average club’s sixth or seventh starters, and the non-rotation elements of this team are the best in baseball, bar none.
2. The risk of catastrophic injury to the Cubs’ rotation is grossly overstated.
From where, other than a cursory reading of their ages and recent innings totals, comes the idea that the Cubs are due for even an average amount of pitching attrition—let alone more than that? The Cubs’ rotation has been one of the healthiest in baseball over the last two seasons, which its newfound critics have perversely used as evidence against them this spring.
I get the thinking behind that, I think. I see two explanations for it. One is that, because we generally assume pitching injuries to be random and impossible to prevent, we figure any team with consecutive seasons of good health is due to feel the leveling force of the baseball universe in Year 3. The other, better one, is that because we also generally believe (with better evidence, in this case) that more pitching begets increased injury risk, we end up assuming that a team whose hurlers have made consecutive deep runs into October (and beyond!) now has a tough needle to thread to keep those guys healthy as their odometers spin ever higher.
In fact, Russell A. Carleton has found that the best predictor of pitching injury in one season is an injury the season before. Now, the Cubs do have one injury-prone starter in their Opening Day rotation this year (Brett Anderson, whose arrival bumped Montgomery somewhat unexpectedly back into relief), but for the most part, this is a group that has proven their ability to stay healthy. It’s one of the chief traits for which the Cubs paid Lester so well.
It’s the natural result of everything about Kyle Hendricks (who is a great athlete and an exceptional repeater of his delivery; does not throw hard; rarely works high pitch counts; and often gets an extra day between starts). It’s been true of Arrieta virtually his whole professional career, particularly since he was allowed to switch back to his natural delivery, and especially since he devoted himself so impressively to physical fitness. To keep the odometers on all of these guys low, the Cubs switched to a six-man rotation for the final month last season, and shelved John Lackey just to rest him.
Age and innings are cited as major risk factors for this whole group, but the only guy whose age actually counts as a strike against him is Lackey, and as carefully as the team has handled their three durable aces over the last three years, there’s little reason to be concerned about raw innings totals. None of this means that the Cubs will stay healthy all year. It’s just that the Cardinals, Pirates, Nationals, Dodgers, Giants … you get the point. Virtually every other team in baseball has roughly the same (or an even greater) chance of feeling that sting. To talk about what might happen if bad fortune befell only the Cubs, without acknowledging that there’s no reason to expect that, is intellectually dishonest.
3. The defense isn’t going anywhere.
This one has baffled me most of all. Several Cubs pitching skeptics seem to think that the team’s extraordinarily low BABIP from last season in unrepeatable, unsustainable, and responsible for artificial inflation of the starters’ reputations. I don’t share that view. For one thing, as Statcast’s hit probability and Baseball Prospectus' new tunneling data have demonstrated, the Cubs' pitchers are doing plenty to help their defense help them. For another, the 2017 Cubs are by no means a necessarily worse defensive team than the all-time elite unit they had in 2016.
This team will probably use Javier Baez even more, especially at second base, where he’s off the charts as a defender. Albert Almora will be the primary replacement for Dexter Fowler in center field, and is a huge upgrade there—more than enough to offset whatever downgrade the team must accept in left field. (Even that dropoff will be fairly small: Kyle Schwarber isn’t that bad. Also, the team played Willson Contreras, Chris Coghlan, and Jorge Soler in that spot enough last season to make it their lone weakness as often as not.)
We also have both subjective and objective information to suggest that the Cubs are the best team in the league at positioning their defenders, as well as game-planning against individual hitters. It just doesn’t stand to reason that this team is going to turn into a defensive pumpkin, like the 2001-2002 Mariners.
4. Their depth is underrated.
The Cubs made a number of changes with Butler, whom they acquired late in the offseason from the Rockies. They got him pitching from a higher arm angle and closer to the first-base side of the rubber, giving more room for the excellent natural arm-side movement on his four-seam fastball and changeup to work. Simultaneously, and not by coincidence, they helped him transition from the mid-to-high-80s slider he threw in Colorado to a cutter that sat 91-92 during spring training. That pitch works better out of his new slot, and from his adjusted place on the rubber, giving hitters less opportunity to read the pitch out of the hand and forcing more bad swings.
Butler already threw in the mid-90s. By making those changes, and by letting him do what had come more naturally to him in his delivery before the Rockies changed him, they think they’ve helped him address the small things that held him back from making good on his former top prospect pedigree. They also hope the guy starts fewer than five times for them all year. Montgomery got the final out of the World Series last year, but begins the season back in the bullpen, waiting for a shot. The team also likes Alec Mills, whom they scooped out of the Kansas City system, and they have Rob Zastryzny and Ryan Williams on hand for emergencies. Trevor Clifton has emerged as a legit starting prospect, and will open the season at Double-A.
None of that is even the most important way in which the Cubs’ depth works against the risk of pitching implosion. Rather, their security blankets are Eloy Jimenez, Ian Happ, Jeimer Candelario, and their cadre of promising arms in A-ball. Those players, the cornerstones of a farm system still teeming with talent, will make it really easy for the team to land a frontline starter at the deadline if the need arises. Without imperiling the long-term health of this juggernaut at all, the Cubs could turn Jimenez and some complementary pieces into Chris Archer or Julio Teheran. That Theo Epstein hasn’t done that kind of deal yet is not evidence of his unwillingness or inability to make such a deal. It’s just a result of good luck that has kept him from feeling the need to put his foot to the floor.
I’m not at all sure that the public understands how good these Cubs are. Consider the 1960s Orioles. That team blossomed, congealed, and thrived for a long time in the midst of a very competitive league. Parity was the order of the decade (the National League seemed to have five good teams every year, back when there were only eight or 10 total teams per league, and the Orioles had to hold off strong Detroit and Boston and Minnesota teams themselves), but Baltimore still dominated the landscape. They did it in a way we would mark as difficult to sustain, these days: with pitching, defense, and the three-run homer. It was a model that relied on the exceptional depth of the roster, and on the brilliant deployment thereof by Earl Weaver, to succeed. It succeeded to the tune of four pennants, two World Series titles, and an average of 97 wins per season from 1964-1971. If you think about the Cubs as the heirs to that crown, they make more sense, and you’ll understand them better.