No matter which way you cut the proverbial pie, Chicago Cubs broadcaster Len Kasper perhaps said it best: the position the Cubs currently find themselves in is “enviable.” They’re situated 5 1/2 games ahead of the San Francisco Giants for the second wild card, even finding themselves in striking distance of the wild card-leading Pittsburgh Pirates (and miracle-run distance of the division leading St. Louis Cardinals).
Yep, life is good for the young Cubs. After all, as Sports Illustrated would have us believe, “Wrigleyville is Winnerville.”
But as September creeps up on the horizon, and the 36 remaining games start to feel like an eternity, the back end of Cubs starting rotation is showing some alarming colors. Namely, whatever color you might associate with mediocrity. I don’t know. Blue?
Most teams have the same questions, so it’s no reason to go running for the hills, but as the Cubs prepare for their stretch run –where 5 1/2 games has the ability to vanish quicker than a Jake Arrieta curveball– the concern over the performance of Kyle Hendricks and Dan Haren has to be mounting –perhaps even compounded by an inconsistent Jason Hammel.
Haren is the easier of the two to diagnose. It appears the short answer is that the guy just doesn’t have much left in the tank. We can say all we want about the lighthearted Twitter handle (@ithrow88), and the more-than-respectable career, but as for now, for the 2015 Chicago Cubs playoff race, he’s a pitcher who has started five games, having pitched six innings once, and given up at least three runs every time out. You aren’t looking for “elite” from your fifth starter, but you are looking for more than that.
Don’t think I’m suggesting Haren isn’t competitive –he is. He’s just not very good, and it’s been that way for quite a bit longer than his five starts with the Cubs. While he has a collective 2015 ERA of 3.84, his FIP is an increasingly gross 4.90, and he hasn’t pitched to an ERA under four since 2011. In a lot of ways, he’s just an aging veteran. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Except that his style of pitching –extreme fly ball– is a death sentence at Wrigley Field: a death sentence that has been carrying itself with him wherever he pitches. His 29 home runs given up start to tell the story, and his 29% ground ball rate –the lowest of his career– add a layer to that story. In a playoff race, that story could have a devastating ending.
Hendricks is more of a mystery. After his stellar 2014 (7-2, 2.46), everyone had to be expecting, if not that, then at least better than the 6-6, 4.11 ERA he’s pitched to in 2015. He talks mechanical adjustments, and Cubs fans keep hoping he’s a start away from that pinpoint control he looked to be developing last season. Big picture, he still may.
But for 2015, it’s almost September. The problem with Hendricks is that he’s harder to remove from the rotation than someone like Haren. When the Cubs traded for Haren on deadline day, it was clearly a rental. If Haren blew up (which he kind of has), the Cubs weren’t out much. Hendricks, conversely, could be a middle rotation piece for the next decade if he figures out what he’s missing.
Assuming no deals are made before August 31, the Cubs in-house options are limited, which compounds the problem, or at least makes it feel seasonally permanent. Tsuyoshi Wada would be a logical option to slide back into the fifth spot, but he’s been shelled across August in Triple-A to a 6.48 ERA.
Given that lack of options, Hendricks more than likely remains in the rotation. Haren is another case.
The Cubs are left either with the aging veteran, or allowing a young arm to grab a couple of spot starts once the rosters expand. For a playoff run, the veteran experience is the preferred method, but if the Cubs opt against it, it’s wouldn’t be the first time they went against the status quo.
Brian Davis is the lead Chicago Cubs writer at Chi City Sports. His work has appeared on Yahoo Sports, Yahoo TV, The Music Brewery, and Indie Music Reviewer, and is the author of one published book (A Link to the Past: Stories of Growing Up Gamer). Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjdavis87, or check out his other writings at www.briandaviswriting.com