For those of you familiar with thoroughbred horse racing, the moment comes several times each race day. A bugler, either seen or unseen, plays the Call To Post and everywhere the pace quickens.
Gamblers scurry to place last minute bets. The horses complete their laps in the paddock. The riders are outfitted in their silks, and then take to the track and walk their mounts past the stands around to the starting gate. One by one, the horses are placed in their chutes, awaiting the moment (or the nanosecond) when the last horse is inside and the gates burst open…
…and then all hell breaks loose.
That’s what every Opening Day feels like for me. The crowd is in place, dressed in their finery, eagerly awaiting the start. The horses are in the gate. There is tension and anticipation in the air as the riders go over their mental checklists one last time. Because after this moment – this one last moment of solace and quiet reflection – it will be a mad dash to a distant finish line.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the 2019 Major League Baseball season opener!
From a Cubs perspective, this season is likely — and simply — going to come down to our horses. Our starting pitching will have to be the strength of this team. The bats may or may not be back. (Don’t worry, they will.) The defense will again be solid. The bullpen is in flux. But the season is going to depend on the success of the five starting pitchers. We have question marks in this crew, but this starting five could be the best in baseball this year if all goes well. We also have depth in Montgomery and Chatwood, allowing for long relief, a spot start, or use of a six-man rotation when needed. For today, we’re going to look at the starting five.
Some random notes before we begin…
- Four of our five starters have taken the mound for their teams on Opening Day. The only one who hasn’t is Hendricks, and that will likely not be true within a year or two.
- Three of our five starters have come from or spent time in the Texas Rangers system.
- Thanks to Kyle Hendricks’ recent extension, we can say that 12 games of Ryan Dempster in Texas could be worth 11 years of Kyle Hendricks on Chicago’s North Side. Well done, Mr. Epstein!
JON LESTER (LHP)
Leads our group out of the gates this year. This is Jon’s 14th season in the Major Leagues, and his fourth Opening day start with the Cubs. His leadership, his tenacity, and his pride will all be on display when he takes the mound in Arlington later today. Fun facts: Lester has made exactly 32 starts each year with the Cubs since signing with the club in 2015, with only this season and the next remaining on his current contract. He could go down as one of the Cubs’ best free-agent acquisitions of all time. Lester posted excellent numbers in 2018, but tailed off slightly at the end. He still finished with a 3.32 ERA over 181.2 innings. He is the lead horse of this staff, and he will [sports cliché alert] not only talk the talk, he will walk the walk. Look for Lester to be solid again this season, despite this being his age 35 season. His numbers show only small concerns. His 2019 Spring Training ERA is over 10, and is worthy of concern. Likely, Jon is working on certain pitches and not worried about Spring Training results. His K/9 rate was down from his career average in 2018, and his walks (BB/9) and homeruns surrendered (HR/9) were elevated as well. Lester is very dependent on a generous strike zone, so some of this can be due to umpires being stingy. He should be ready to lead this team into the season and make his 32 starts. Will time catch up to him this season? The smart money says No.
COLE HAMELS (LHP)
Begins the season as our number two starting pitcher, though he is more of a 1-B if we want to be more accurate. Frankly, he has been a stud his entire career, and the Cubs were interested in his services from his last contract negotiation. That’s why picking up his 2019 option wasn’t too tough a decision for Theo & Co. Cole is also entering his 14th season and steps into a role as a venerable elder and leader on the team. He is pitching in the National League once again, and that should help his ERA. For his career, he had struck out 2415 batters over 2553.0 innings, almost a man an inning. If he keeps that rate up, we can look forward to good things. Expect Hamels and Lester to keep the young’uns in line, leading by word and by example. Hamels’ 2018 numbers are elevated compared to his career numbers, but that was split between 2 teams. Last season was a Tale of Two Seasons, and his numbers with the Cubs were outstanding. Cubs brass and Cubs fans are both hoping that he can continue his outstanding stretch and contribute this season.
YU DARVISH (RHP)
Is likely the biggest X-factor on the pitching staff, and that’s only because you have to consider his injury-plagued 2018. Based on the quotes and the numbers, Darvish could very well be a candidate for comeback player of the year, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. His career numbers are great. Eye popping, in fact. Especially his K/9 rate of 11.04 and 1070 career strikeouts. But there’s a caveat or two with Yu… For starters, he has missed large chunks of recent seasons due to injury. Second, while he is entering his 8th MLB season, he pitched in Japan for seven seasons. He may only be 32 right now, but there‘s a lot of mileage of those tires. On the plus side, Yu Darvish has a pedigree as an ace. He has been an Opening Day starter, and has an array of pitches that very few have been able to harness. The Cubs brass saw something special in Darvish, enough to offer him a $126 million contract. It seems very possible that this is the year that Darvish shows why it was smart money.
KYLE HENDRICKS (RHP)
Could very well be the ace on several staffs, but appears as our fourth starter because of how the talent on the club shakes out. That’s likely OK with him, for what it’s worth. Kyle is sporting a brand new contract extension, so his demeanor should be pure elation (or “my-dog-just-died” since you never can tell with Kyle). 2018 saw him pitch 199.0 innings, the most in his career and the most on the staff. He also gave up fewer walks, but that came with a higher ERA, higher HR/9 rate, and higher AVG against. His Spring Training ERA is noticeably higher than his career average, but it should just be Spring Training tinkering. Hendricks led the 2018 staff in innings pitched, as well as starts, WHIP, BB/9, and HR/9. The Ryan Dempster trade from 2012 has certainly worked out well for the Chicago Cubs.
JOSÉ QUINTANA (LHP)
Enters the 2019 season as the Cubs’ fifth starter, which arguably makes him the best fifth starter in the National League. He is entering his 8th season in MLB, and has 2 more seasons remaining on his current contract. He dazzled in his earliest appearances as a Cub, but has a higher ERA, higher HR/9, and higher BB/9 since coming over from the White Sox. He has a good mix of pitches and had a strong Spring Training, giving up only 10 hits in 15.0 innings. All told, Quintana’s arsenal, as well as his place in the rotation, could be very good for the Cubs. He should get tons of run support, and his arm should keep the team competing in plenty of games this year. I know I said this in two previous off-seasons, but this time I mean it: expect big things from José this year!
There are so many factors that go into a 162-game season that it is near impossible to predict the outcome. The Cubs are facing battles on a lot of fronts this year: There is a conflict regarding Joe Maddon’s contract. The NL Central is much improved, on paper anyway. The Cubs are older and getting more expensive. It’s been suggested that their Championship Window is already closing. And for good measure, Tom Ricketts has declared poverty.
But this team stands ready to take on all comers, including PECOTA which picked them to finish last in the NL Central this year. This team stands ready to silence the critics.
There should be no question in the minds of Cubs fans that the 2019 Cubs will compete. This team will certainly be in the mix at the end. They should be in the post-season, preferably as NL Central champs. A deep run is also very possible, and with good health and the occasional lucky break, this team could take the World Series.
The best chance for that to happen lies in our starting pitching. It’s time to find out if we have the horses.
Happy Opening Day, everybody!
Featured Image: PlayMA.com