The extension of 2018 acquisition Cole Hamels and return of the injured Yu Darvish should place Chicago’s starting rotation among NL’s best.
The Cubs have had what most would say (and rightly so) a pretty humdrum off season. Outside of retaining Cole Hamels (by exercising a contract option), the Cubs’ other “big” moves have been the additions of utility man Daniel Descalso and relief pitcher Brad Brach.
Kind of boring, right?
At face value, it appears that way. Chicago has some excitement on the horizon, though, with the impending return of Yu Darvish. The signing of Darvish prior to 2018—a season which saw him quickly flame out, succumbing to injury—may finally pay off in 2019.
Last year, the Cubbies had just three starters top 100 innings. Hamels, of course, was added later in the year and spun 76 ⅓ innings over 12 starts, totaling 190 ⅔ between his time with Texas and Chicago. Darvish, however, managed just eight starts and 40 innings before his season prematurely ended.
In 2018, ranking by fWAR, the Cubs had the 11th best starting rotation in the National League, only topping the Reds within the Central. While Hamels only managed a combined 2.0 fWAR for two teams, 1.5 of that came after moving from Texas to Chicago, a move that seemingly gave a boost to a lackluster (at least by Hamels’ standards) season.
Darvish only managed to pitch enough to earn a 0.2 fWAR, well below his usual value. In his prior 5 seasons, Darvish was a 3.8 fWAR pitcher on average. Hamels, by the way, has an average of 3.7 fWAR over his 13 year career.
What does that mean for Chicago? If we add the difference both of these pitchers’ averages to their totals from 2018—and the rest of the rotation pitches roughly the same—we can jump the rotation’s combined 8.9 fWAR up to 14.7 (the two would combine for an additional 5.8 fWAR). Judging the Cubs against 2018 NL results, that would place them in a tie for the fifth best rotation—and the best rotation in the Central, just edging out the Cardinals.
How realistic is this possibility? As I mentioned, Hamels was rejuvenated after a move to Chicago. If we project his rate of productivity with the Cubs out over a normal Cole Hamels season—meaning he tosses roughly 190 innings—he would have pitched to a 3.7 fWAR.
Darvish is a different case, coming off serious injury, but even pitching hurt, he managed to strike out batters at a rate of 11.03 K/9, right on pace with his career average. Word out of camp is positive. Not only does Darvish feel great, he’s throwing his fastball at 97 mph this spring. According to Fangraphs, his career average has been 94.1 mph with the four-seam fastball.
Some might think the additional speed won’t hold up, and it might not. While an increase of almost 3 MPH doesn’t seem sustainable, Darvish does seem likely to at least maintain his past velocity.
If the rotation stays healthy this year, Cubs fans shouldn’t fret the uneventful off-season. With the payoff from the Darvish signing looming large, in addition to a full year from Hamels, there is a lot to like about Chicago’s chances—even against a much improved NL Central—in 2019.
Bob Ellis is a lifelong Royals fan. He has written in the past for Kings of Kauffman and Statliners. Follow him on Twitter @BobEllisKC