By Nick Shepkowski–
(CBS) — Barring what would be a historic collapse, the Cubs are going to win the National League Central and have home-field throughout the NL playoffs. One of the gifts that winning the division so easily brings is that it provides for extra rest for the entire roster in September and notably allows a team to set up its playoff rotation.
So, on a roster that features the big league’s current ERA leader, a different pitcher currently tied for the MLB lead in quality starts, last year’s Cy Young winner and a proven playoff veteran who specifically came here for the jewelry, how exactly do you best set this rotation up?
The safest assumption to make is probably that Jason Hammel will be sent to the bullpen. While he’s been much better as a whole in the second half than most anticipated, over the course of the year his fielding independent pitching is more than an earned run higher than his season ERA. What that likely means? More of the ol’ regression to the mean that we’ve seen over his last couple starts. Based off of that, I feel pretty safe you can count on Hammel going to the bullpen and nobody really thinking twice about it.
So in what order do the other four starters go? Here’s how I’d approach it.
Game 1 of the NLDS
For me, the ball goes in the hand of Jon Lester. I know that his best stuff isn’t as dominant as Jake Arrieta’s best if they’re both on, but outside of July, Lester really has been as “on” as any pitcher in the NL all season. He’s gotten the ball 26 times and registered a quality start in 21 of those. Of the five he didn’t, three came in July when he may have been fatigued after that long stretch of consecutive days the Cubs played. My simple suggestion is to have Lester skip a start or two in September or perhaps just get an extra day off between starts a few times and have him ready for Game 1.
Game 2 of NLDS
The Game 2 ball goes to Kyle Hendricks. Some will probably argue that he deserves the ball in Game 1 based off of a year that has put him in the Cy Young discussion. Others will still probably argue he doesn’t throw hard enough to start before Game 4 of a series. To me, as is much in life, the answer is somewhere in the middle, but Hendricks having an ERA nearly two whole runs better and a significantly better WHIP at Wrigley Field than on the road makes me want to make sure he gets a home start.
Game 3 of NLDS
Finally, we get to Arrieta, the reigning Cy Young Award winner, a player who’s pitching WAR is in the top 10 in the NL this year, per Fangraphs. In my mind — and those of many — when he’s on, he’s as unhittable as anyone in the game. I also trust Arrieta’s game to travel on the road better than that of Hendricks, and when you factor in that this Game 3 will most likely be played against the wild-card team featuring an ace like Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner, I’d like to fight that fire with some fire of my own. It should also be noted that Arrieta has slightly better numbers on the road this season, though he’s been strong in any location.
Game 4 of NLDS
The last time John Lackey started Game 4 of a playoff series, it ended badly for him. You probably know I’m talking about he and his Cardinals being eliminated in Game 4 of the NLDS last year when he started on short rest. Everything Cubs manager Joe Maddon and company have said and all reports have indicated that Lackey will be ready to go by mid-September. If Lackey’s disabled list stint scares you though, just ask yourself this question: Who do you trust more? Lackey and his issue or Hammel? It seems pretty simple to me.
Game 5 of NLDS
It’s any and all hands on deck, obviously, if the series goes the distance. Lackey would be the only pitcher likely not available in this situation, but if it got to this, I’d start Lester on full rest instead of Hendricks or Arrieta on short rest. It’d come with a short leash, as everyone is available that night, but a having a couple of Cy Young candidates coming out of the bullpen wouldn’t exactly be a bad problem to have.