Cubs Prioritizing Power Pitching to Improve Rotation That ‘Simply Wasn’t Good Enough’

David Ross had already indicated that the Cubs would be on the lookout for two starters this winter, so it wasn’t a surprise when Jed Hoyer confirmed those intentions during his end-of-season presser Wednesday morning. However, the transparency with which Hoyer addressed the disappointing season and his plans for the winter was a little unexpected and very refreshing.

“If you sort of look at the whole season, there’s no question that we have to acquire more pitching, better pitching this year,” Hoyer admitted. “I think that’ll be the No. 1 priority because that, said simply, was the downfall of this season was that our rotation was short and we weren’t effective enough in terms of run prevention.”

Looking at you, Jake Arrieta. And Zach Davies. And Kyle Hendricks. And…well, you get the point. There were some unrealistically optimistic takes this past spring that maybe a starting five made up exclusively of righties, all but one of whom worked in the low 90s at best, could actually compete over the course of the season. After all, each of the pitchers in question had produced good to great results at one point or another.

Thing is, and this is something I’ve lamented on these pages for the past few years, the Cubs had constructed a staff that had zero margin for error. The starters had neither the stuff to overpower opposing lineups nor the stamina to go deep into games with any sort of frequency. An elite bullpen was able to patch over the holes for a while, but that can only work for so long.

“We really need to dramatically improve our pitching,” Hoyer continued. “Our starting rotation simply wasn’t good enough this year to compete.”

Most of that rotation from the start of the season is gone and the youngsters who came on late have been guaranteed nothing for next year. There might be one spot available to the trio of Adbert Alzolay, Keegan Thompson, and Justin Steele, which wouldn’t really be a bad thing given how well they all performed in relief roles. Kyle Hendricks is the only name written in pen and Alec Mills is merely penciled in as another option.

More than just finding warm bodies to take the mound every fifth day, Hoyer is going to be on the lookout for flamethrowers. Even though that has been a focus of their revamped player evaluation and development over the last few years, the dividends of a more aggressive philosophy are far more likely to pay toward the bullpen in 2022. That means seeking out starters who throw gas.

“You need power pitching,” Hoyer said. “You need power arms to win in today’s game. You need to be able to miss bats. The makeup of our staff this year was too contact-oriented, so to speak, and that’s something that needs to change.”

You’re damn right it does, Jed. The Cubs’ 80.5% contact allowed was third-highest in baseball behind the D-backs and Orioles (80.7%), and no team gave up more contact in the zone than the 87.9% by Cubs pitchers. Again, no margin for error. Perhaps that’s because their starters averaged a mere 89.9 mph on their fastballs, making them the only rotation in baseball below 91 mph.

You have to go back to the 2016 Astros (89.4) to find the last rotation that didn’t crack 90 mph for the season, but this isn’t just a one-off issue for the Cubs. They have ranked among the two slowest-throwing rotations in baseball over the past five seasons, never once averaging 91 mph in that time. In the two seasons immediately preceding that span, however, they averaged over 91 and won a combined 200 games.

They also won the World Series, which I like to remind people because they tend to forget.

Avg FB velo by season (rank)

  • 2021 – 89.9 (30)
  • 2020 – 90.5 (30)
  • 2019 – 90.7 (29)
  • 2018 – 90.8 (29)
  • 2017 – 90.7 (30)
  • 2016 – 91.5 (21)
  • 2015 – 91.2 (24)

There’s obviously a lot more to it than simply throwing a little harder, like having a very good roster, but the fact of the matter is that one of the most glaring mistakes of the past few years has been a rotation that couldn’t carry the load. It’s as though Hoyer and Theo Epstein were playing not to lose rather than playing to win, which is what happens when you get hamstrung by budget restrictions.

The freedom to spend may grow a little this winter, if only because it has to based on how many players the Cubs have lost, though Hoyer has reiterated that it won’t be a free-for-all. I mean, it won’t be free at all because these guys need to be paid. But the team president has said more than once now that the Cubs will need to be smart about how they approach free agency.

“It’s just being opportunistic and sort of striking when you feel like when you feel like the market is right,” Hoyer explained. “We’re certainly gonna be active, but I think we need to be active in a way that we feel like we’re getting the right value for the dollars we’re spending and we’re also making sure we’re not hindering ourselves going forward with expenditures for right now.”

Reading between the lines, you can probably guess he’ll be looking for shorter-term deals on pitchers who may be coming off of down years due to injury or poor performance. Noah Syndergaard stands out as a perfect example of the type of pitcher the Cubs are targeting, though the qualifying offer could complicate that a little bit.

Another very attractive possibility is fellow (former?) Met Marcus Stroman, who will be a free agent without the QO standing in the way of his courtship. While not exactly a power pitcher, his 92-93 mph fastball and sinker would at least bring the Cubs’ average up a little bit. What’s more, he’s already said he’d have interest should Hoyer come calling.

“I’m open,” Stroman told Gordon Wittenmyer of NBC Sports Chicago. “I want to be somewhere that wants me. I want to be on a team that wants me in their rotation for good and kind of go from there.”

If Hoyer really wants to get saucy, he might check in with the Rays on the baby giraffe known as Tyler Glasnow. The lanky righty underwent Tommy John surgery in August and is likely to miss all of 2022 as a result, but he’s still under contractual control for one more year after that and his 97 mph heater certainly qualifies him as a power arm.

On a personal note, I love the fact that Glasnow has a faded tattoo of Ol’ Dirty Bastard on the bottom of his right foot and looks at a picture of Martin Shkreli to get pissed off before he pitches. I don’t think I could adore this guy more if he was my own son. Pitching for the Cubs would help his cause there, so maybe Hoyer can make it happen.

Among the more likely targets in free agency, Anthony DeSclafani and Jon Gray have mid-90’s heat and former Cubs project Kendall Graveman was running it up there at 97 mph in a relief role. Danny Duffy doesn’t really come to mind when you think of power arms, but his 94 mph average velo this year was higher than it’s been since 2016. The moral of the story is that there are a lot of possibilities for the Cubs when it comes to hard-throwing starters who won’t cost much or command long-term deals.

And before you go thinking that last part is just a matter of being cheap, which I’m not completely discounting either, consider that Hoyer wants to make sure he’s leaving a little room for an ascending crop of young pitchers. The last thing the Cubs need is to finally develop some impact pitching and then have to trade those guys away because they committed to too many veterans.

Now it’s just a matter of whether Hoyer can go out and find some legitimately interesting arms that can help his team to compete in a meaningful way over the next year or two. And make no mistake, the Cubs can get a lot better very quickly. Failing to improve in a big way when you have what should be a massive payroll surplus would be a tremendous indictment of ownership and the front office, which is something the organization can ill afford at this point.

Hoyer set the plan on Wednesday, we just need to wait and see whether he will be able to follow it.

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