Assessing the Cubs Fifth Starter
Self-imposed budget constraints are forcing the Cubs to look internally to address the #5 starter. Unless drastic roster moves are made, the choice appears between Tyler Chatwood and Adbert Alzolay.
The Winter Meetings are set to begin Monday in San Diego, yet any hope the Cubs maintain sincere interest in free agent signings this week has been doused with an ugly reality check. Per the indefatigable Ken Rosenthal, the Cubs won’t be spending money on even low-tier free agents until they shed more salary. This report, of course, comes alongside the knowledge the team’s payroll is already significantly lower than 2019. Combined, this is an ugly look, but instead of being forced to eat crow, the Ricketts want the fan base to shrug and accept the unacceptable. Good luck with that.
Certainly, moves could still be made in spite of the financial constraints. The Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras rumors might very well come to a head this week, which could clear salary while finding an everyday center fielder, a young, controllable starting pitcher, or both. Speculation will remain — hell, even grow — this upcoming week, but until there’s resolution to names like Anthony Rendon or Josh Donaldson, and until we hear actual activity in pursuit of Contreras, blockbuster trades remain as uncertain as they are mysterious.
So rather than get too pessimistic about payroll constraints or obsessing over potential trades that have absolutely no traction, why not examine what’s undoubtedly being discussed frequently inside the front office? Of the several question marks that surround this team, perhaps most prominent of which is, who becomes the number five starter? At first blush, there are two names that stand out above all others. Let’s take a look at both.
There’s no use in going back in time and lamenting this signing. Sure, the three year, $38 million dollar commitment was a bit reckless in hindsight, and his 2018 season was both horrific and short. Setting aside that reality, however, Chatwood had a sturdy 2019 campaign in which he was rejuvenated as a reliever, both in long form out of the ‘pen and as an emergency starter. While one would hardly point to this as the makings of a $13 million dollar position, his 3.76 ERA as a utility pitcher (five starts, 33 relief appearances, 76.2 innings pitched) maintained value.
Advanced metrics improved drastically for Chatwood from 2018 to 2019. His strikeout percentage increased six points, he cut his walk rate in half, and he was able to induce batters to chase pitches out of the zone more while increasing his swinging strike percentage. Part of this is likely a result of his increased velocity (up nearly three miles per hour), and a tweak in his pitch usage (less cutter, more fastball) as he transitioned to the ‘pen.
These numbers are encouraging and portend Chatwood is trending in the right direction. But we must also take stock of the reality these positive developments happened only after he lost his spot in the rotation. Further, while his metrics did improve, they were still lacking. Consider that in 2019 his strikeout percentage (23.0) was precisely league average, and both his swinging strike rate (9.0) and O-Swing rate (28.0) were decidedly below league average (11.0 and 32.0 were league average, respectively). And while Chatwood increased his first-strike percentage to 54.0 percent from 2018’s 50.0 percent, he lagged well behind the league average (61.0) in an area that’s integral to long-term success for starters.
In short, there’s reason for optimism regarding Chatwood as he enters the last year of his contract, and at age 29, we may have yet to see him at his best. His infamously elite spin rate has yet to transition into huge success as a Cub, but if 2019 is any indication, he has discovered a nice little niche in the bullpen. Shaking up his role for the third straight year — out of necessity, faith, or both — is a risky proposition, unless he shows up in Spring Training absolutely dominant and forces the front office’s hand.
One could even argue that Chatwood should be given more high leverage situations out of the ‘pen in 2020, rather than shifting back into the rotation. While this is an understandable notion, I think he’s best suited as the long-man and emergency starter, particularly if the Cubs discover some back end stability from the likes of Craig Kimbrel, Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan, and (perhaps?!) Brandon Morrow.
It feels as though Alzolay has been a Cubs prospect since the Larry Himes era. Signed as an international free agent back in 2012, his prospect stock has been a slow burn until the past few seasons, with the Cubs faithful desperately hoping he’ll finally be the first starting pitcher this front office develops from the beginning. In minor league purgatory for quite some time due to his age (now 24) and unfortunate injuries, Adbert finally made his debut in 2019 to mixed results.
His debut, piggy-backing Chatwood no less, was a thing of beauty. Four dominant, scoreless innings were slightly soured by a solo home run to lead off the ninth, but the outing was both encouraging and displayed his feel for pitching at the highest level. His first start was a solid 4.2 inning effort against Atlanta that ended prematurely given his sudden loss of control, although he worked around those four walks to yield just one earned run.
All told, Alzolay threw just 12.1 innings in four appearances (two starts) in 2019. His unsightly 7.30 ERA was entirely comprised of his atrocious outing against Pittsburgh, yielding seven earned runs in just 2.2 innings. It’s hard to glean much from such a small sample size, but the good certainly outweighed the bad, and that’s encouraging.
What we did see is a healthy three pitch mix, each proving effective at the major league level. His fastball sat around 94 mph, which he threw the vast majority of the time (57.3 percent) while mixing in a change (20.9 percent) and curve (21.8) at relatively equal rates. Plus, his curveball is absolutely filthy:
To say that Alzolay should be handed the fifth spot in the rotation is premature, but he has the prospect pedigree, the mental makeup, and the pure stuff to make an argument for the inside-track to the role.
The Ideal is not Reality
I don’t think anyone would argue the Cubs are best suited to let the final rotation spot play out in competition between Chatwood and Alzolay. The former hasn’t proven capable while the latter’s track record is minimal, but in the current climate of limiting payroll and being creative, these are the Cubs best options given the current roster.
This could all change in the blink of an eye should the Cubs make a blockbuster trade or create the payroll flexibility to sign a free agent starter. But as things stand, neither seem likely and given the reality of the roster, it’s time the Cubs give a long look at Adbert Alzolay in the rotation.
Feature Photo Credit: Chris Sweda, Chicago Tribune
(All stats courtesy of Fangraphs)