In consecutive days, pieces of the Cubs rotation from the last few years have signed elsewhere. We are looking at a revamp of the starting rotation, as Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, and Tyler Chatwood have all gone on to other teams. Today, I'll examine if this is a good or bad thing, and if the deals they got were worth the Cubs pursuing.
The three contracts in question:
Jon Lester: signed a 1 year, $2m deal with the Washington Nationals, also getting $3 in deferred money and a mutual option for 2022
Jose Quintana: signed a 1 year, $8m deal with the Anaheim Angels
Tyler Chatwood: signed a 1 year, $3m deal with the Toronto Blue Jays,
There's been a lot of hand wringing over Jon Lester's deal. A lot of writers have called his situation an insult to Jon, that the Cubs couldn't find $3m somewhere to bring him back. Honestly, I think the Cubs were ready to move on from Lester. Obviously not in terms of personality, but in terms of age and performance. Best case, he might be able to eat some innings as a fifth starter. But he was starting to wind down in both 2019 and more so in 2020. It would have been poetic justice to bring him back for a year and let him ride off into the sunset, but that might have been at the expense of trying to figure out a different starting pitcher for whatever the next competitive window is.
With Jon Lester's age, he's lost some bite off his pitches. As a crafty veteran, he knew how to get by without his best stuff. But there were times where he just didn't have it and could not find a way through. While he's maintained a solid walk rate, his HR/9 were ticking up. In 2019, he led the league in hits allowed, with 205. His h/9 rates of 10.7 in '19 then 9.4 in '20 were not particularly inspiring. His FIP has been over 4 for the last 4 years, and was over 5 last year.
The real key are his game logs. In years past, he'd get blown up about once a month. I'm considering a blowup to be a start where 5 or more runs would come in. Sometimes allowed, sometimes due to a fielding error. At times, he could bounce back from a bad inning and eat up a few innings, and other times he'd be yanked early. In 2020, that was happening way too often. Here's a list of how many times Lester got blown up in a start for the last few years:
2016: 4 (31 starts)
2017: 6 (31 starts)
2018: 3 (31 starts)
2019: 8 (31 starts)
2020: 5 (12 starts)
Jon Lester was getting blown up 41% of the time in 2020. If he pitched a full 31 starts, that would have been 13 likely losses. 13 times where your starter gave up 5 runs. Even going back to 2019, it was 25%, and if you combine the last two years, it's still 33%. I don't think it's a stretch to say that best case for Jon Lester, he's getting shelled in a start 33% of the time. Bring that kind of pitcher back just isn't a recipe for success.
Just to put it in perspective, take a look at Edwin Jackson's two years in the Cubs rotation, from 2013-2014. He blew up 8 times each year, 16 overall. In 58 overall starts, that means 27.5% of the time he was getting shelled. By that metric, Jon Lester has been worse.
Q signed a fair deal with the Angels. Spottrac had his market value listed at $7.5m, so it is decidedly a fair deal. I am slightly surprised he couldn't get a multiyear deal. He had a down 2019, then an almost non-existent 2020, so a smaller deal isn't exactly surprising. It's a shame for him, because as a 32 year old, this might have been his best chance at a big deal. Signing a 1 year contract gives him a chance to bounce back and try the market again next year, but give his age, I think the odds are against him.
Quintana largely did not live up to the hype when brought over in the infamous Eloy trade. The Cubs were hoping to get a top of the rotation starter, who could be an anchor in the 2nd or 3rd spots. Quintana was good after coming over in 2017, then pretty much took steps backwards each year. His ERA+ by year was 118, 103, 93, and 102; for an overall 101 with the Cubs. He was basically league average in that department. As a consistent 3-5 WAR pitcher for the Sox, He never touched 2 as a Cub.
I'm fine with moving on with him. It just didn't work out as well as we all would have hoped. I am ready to move on to something else, even if it means giving up a guy who wasn't terrible. The Cubs can do better, even if there's not a surefire plan in place at the moment.
Chatwood's time with the Cubs was largely disappointing. He signed a big deal essentially based off spin rates, but then struggled with his control mightily. After pitching himself out of the rotation in 2018, he had a good year out of the pen in 2019. A return to the rotation in 2020 brought some mixed results and injury. I think his future is probably in the bullpen, although I'm sure he'll get some kind of chance to start at some point for the Jays in 2021.
At this point, I've seen enough from Chatwood. I wish no ill upon him and hope he finds success. But at this point, I was growing tired of his inconsistency in a Cub uniform. You just never knew if he'd be decent or terrible on any given day, and it's tough to build a staff around that kind of inconsistency. Let's see who's next.
I'm going to make an edgy prediction: Mills and Azolay will be more valuable than Lester and Chatwood in 2021. Possibly Quintana as well.
Overall: I have no problem with the Cubs moving on from this trio of Lester, Quintana and Chatwood. Considering their past performance and the money they signed for, I don't see any of the three as being a missed opportunity. There's always a chance that they could figure it out and put together a strong 2021 campaign. On paper, these 'non-moves' for the Cubs are good ones. It's time to turn the page from the past, and figure out who's going to be a part of the next Cubs core. Will it be Mills and Alzolay? Will some of the guys from the minors take the step forward? Those are questions I'd rather see answered, instead of "does Jon Lester have a little more gas in the tank?"