There’s a chance the Cubs begin the 2020 season with Tyler Chatwood back in the rotation, per Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun Times. In the final season of the three-year, $38MM deal signed before 2018, Chatwood arguably represents the most reliable option currently on the roster. Chatwood recovered from a disappointing first season in Chicago with 76 2/3 innings of 3.76 ERA/4.28 FIP baseball while mostly serving as a long man out of the pen. In a year in which the Cubs tested out numerous young arms, Chatwood emerged as a reliable alternative for intermittent opportunities in high-leverage situations, though most of his usage came in the middle innings. He did start five games in 2019, going 1-1 with a 3.97 ERA while averaging between four and five innings per start.
Despite Chatwood’s bounceback – at this stage of his career – there’s probably not a lot of unrealized upside to unearth as a rotation arm. The Cubs will look to add arms to push Chatwood for that rotation spot in the spring. Given their financial situation and the volume of competition for the top remaining arms in free agency, it’s unlikely they’ll be players in that space.
Internally, Adbert Alzolay represents the stiffest competition for the fifth starter’s job. He’s also probably the most exciting candidate for Cubs’ fans, who would love to see a 25-year-old homegrown pitcher earn a turn every fifth day. Theo Epstein and company would surely love to get that monkey off their backs as well. The Epstein regime has somewhat famously failed to develop any homegrown pitching over their Chicago tenure. After an uneven 2019 in which he made his big league debut, Alzolay will need a strong spring to take the role outright. With only 12 1/3 innings at the big league level last season, Alzolay maintained his rookie status and remains the Cubs fifth-ranked prospect per MLB.com.
Alec Mills and Jharel Cotton are two other names to keep an eye on. Mills, 28, doesn’t have the prospect pedigree, but he’s been quietly solid when called upon the last two seasons. The former Royals farmhand is a sleeper favorite should Alzolay prove unready. He also happens to be out of options. Cotton was recently acquired from the A’s in the type of low-cost, high-risk move that has become a staple of the Epstein Cubs. Cotton went to Oakland in the mid-2016 deal that sent Josh Reddick and Rich Hill to the Dodgers. For what it’s worth, the Cubs saw enough in Cotton to add him to the 40-man roster in advance of the Rule 5 draft.
In terms of long shots, the Cubs added another former Dodgers farmhand, Brock Stewart, during the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft. Justin Steele was also added to the 40-man roster. The 24-year-old southpaw made 11 starts in Double-A with a 5.59 ERA. Steele and Stewart rank pretty far down the totem pole, but they’ll have an opportunity to impress the brass in Spring Training.
As of right now, it’s looking like a fairly open competition to take Cole Hamels recently vacated rotation slot. Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, and Jose Quintana make up the front four, and that’s unlikely to change, barring a Quintana trade. Lester and Darvish have no-trade clauses, and Hendricks ranks among the least-likely Cubs to be traded given the affordable contract that keeps him in Chicago through the 2024 season.