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Kyle Hendricks has been a big success for the Cubs, but what comes next for Cubs pitching?

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The Cubs will soon have to begin developing their own starting pitching.

Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

As I assess the Cubs pitching future, my opinions will be far different from the opinions of the traditional Cubs fans’ opinions. I see two main reasons for that. I see current Cubs players as short-term answers. They fill needs, likely, until their contracts lapse. Perhaps they sign extensions. Perhaps not. Beyond those players, the options I consider are, generally, the ones already under contract. Many consider “the next” to be Jacob deGrom, or whoever. I see deGrom as another team’s option, until that changes. To mind my assessment, a look at Kyle Hendricks is in order.

Assessing a current player as a “point in history” in a game as emotionally charged as baseball is thorny. Hendricks has had many wonderful outings in his Cubs history. Among the, Game Six in the National League Championship Series in 2016, and Game Seven of the World Series shortly thereafter. Assessing Hendricks as a time-period, a compendium, a value of seasons, is a bit cold. Which is where this starts.

Looking a Hendricks WAR values, he has certainly been beyond expectation for the second piece in a trade for a parting contract in Ryan Dempster. Dempster had a season-and-a-half left, and was barely above replacement level for his remaining appearances.

Hendricks sits currently at the 15.3 bWAR mark for his MLB career, all with the Cubs. Some might say that his value curve is a bit inverted, so far. He peaked, so far, in 2016, along with his team. The Cubs figure to be able to retain his rights for two more entire seasons after this one. At that point, the Cubs figure to need quite a bit more pitching.

Will it be available internally? While nobody is sure, that question is why I’m writing this piece. If the Cubs can internally replace some of their pitching, preferably with a degree of depth, the Cubs ought to be able to contend well into the future. If the starting pitching runs into an abutment after Hendricks and Jon Lester leave, then a rebuild will be necessary. It wouldn’t be just optional.

***

The traditional assessment of pitching development is of shooting stars. Who is that one guy that will be an ace? “Who’s the 6-5 guy that throws three pitches for strikes, with a fastball in the upper-nineties?”

The Cubs don’t have that. Those types of players are usually early selections, or accidents. A bit like Hendricks was an accident. Nobody was expecting a 5-plus wins above season from Hendricks when he was added from the Rangers system. He was a high-80s/very low-90s throwing repertoire guy. Which is what most people still think he is.

Perhaps, the league is catching up with Hendricks. Perhaps, the innings are adding up on him. Perhaps he will, or he is, bouncing out of his rough patch. However, anyone who was assuming he would be around eight-to-fifteen years “because reasons” might be wildly inaccurate.

The finances of baseball matter more than they used to. The Cubs are a well-oiled money-making machine. However, the rules are different than they were 10, 30, or 60 years ago. Teams end up losing talent because the players choose free agency. Free agency is more expensive than before, and the Collective Bargaining Agreement has disincentives for teams spending “over certain limits” on player talent. Kick and scream, like when your mom insisted eight-year-old you were going to wear a sweater, but that’s how the game is becoming.

You can wish that weren’t the case. You can wish the Cubs had been better when the penalties weren’t in place. You could wish that an 8-to-17 player nucleus would stay uninterrupted for a decade, now. However, that is very unlikely now. Teams need to develop their own, both hitting and pitching. Or pay the price for not doing so.

Eventually, the Cubs have to develop their own pitching. Depending on your viewpoint, they’re either doing that, or they aren’t. The players in question aren’t in Chicago yet. They’re in Iowa, Tennessee, or Myrtle Beach. And, no. They aren’t ready to take the National League Central by storm, yet.

Duane Underwood Jr., you’ve seen, however briefly. He’s been a bit up-and-down, In a hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, his ERA has been an acceptable 4.33. He figures to get a look to extend the bullpen. “Underwood has a legit MLB arm, and is developing as a pitcher, not just a thrower,” chimed in I-Cubs announcer Alex Cohen. “He’s gotten in really good condition, and could turn heads as a call-up in September.”

Alec Mills was memorable against Cincinnati recently, and has earned another rotation shot Wednesday. Mills and Underwood will both be eligible to ride the Iowa-to-Chicago shuttle in 2019. Mills has less alleged top-side than Underwood.

Jen-Ho Tseng, Adbert Alzolay, and Oscar De La Cruz (serving a suspension until late April) are also 40-man roster options. Tseng has had a “horrible inning” spell in Iowa. Bad innings turn into five runs, not three. If that continues, his extra roster option seasons might not matter.

***

To the point anyone is needed in 2019, it would be one of those five, or Trevor Clifton. Clifton was named a Southern League mid-season All-Star in 2017. Shortly after he was named an All-Star, June happened, and his year went horrific. Left available in the Rule 5 Draft, nobody bit.

Clifton returned to the Cubs pipeline for 2018, and was much improved. It took him 12 starts and a sub-3.00 ERA to get the call-up to Triple-A Iowa. His first try there has shown a 4.20 ERA through 13 appearances and 11 starts. From Cohen, “His curve and change are legitimate. He’s not afraid to throw inside, despite being the youngest player on the team at 23.”

If spring training were breaking next week, an Iowa rotation of Tseng, Underwood, Clifton, Mills, and Alzolay would be as deep as any I-Cubs rotation in 20 years. That leaves out Luke Farrell, who figures to be back as well.

If that were all, the future would be knife’s edge. After all, the above names have quite a few limits on their success, and I’m the first to admit it. If a team is banking on Farrell to be a long-term answer, that gets awfully dicey. He could be useful, or designated for assignment in early September.

To assess the future, seven more names need to be scrutinized. The next seven add more depth in the rotation than I’m ever aware of the Cubs having. Roll the calendar as far back as you want. The Cubs have more upside (Mark Prior/Kerry Wood/Carlos Zambrano), but they haven’t had more depth.

The best “depth” that I remember the Cubs having in a rotation was in 2013 in Daytona. Down the stretch, Pierce Johnson, Corey Black, Carl Edwards Jr., and Ivan Pineyro were the best rotation I’d been aware of. That rotation was four deep. There wasn’t a fifth. And, that was Advanced-A Ball. Injuries and ineffectiveness later turned that into Edwards, an appearance out of the bullpen from Johnson, and surrender value for him.

***

A truism, whether it’s true or not, is that Double-A is the men’s league. If a pitcher can pitch in Double-A Ball, they’re very close to being good enough to pitch in MLB. Pineyro and Black struggled mightily with the Tennessee Smokies. Edwards became a reliever. Johnson survived, to struggle in Triple-A. Double-A tends to answer questions.

The Cubs pitching depth in their system is keyed in Tennessee. Not only have Matt Swarmer, Thomas Hatch, Michael Rucker, Duncan Robinson, and Keegan Thompson pitched well over the last month, they’re all in their first try at the level. None are Rule 5-eligible in December. As such, the Cubs have no need to rush any of them.

In addition, Justin Steele is being force-fed into the mix. The lefty who is a year removed from Tommy John surgery is throwing 95 with a repertoire. He is Rule 5-eligible, and is looking to join Clifton on the 40 Man roster this off-season.

In 65 Double-A innings, Swarmer has a WHIP of 1.07, and has walked 11 hitters. Thompson is in Double-A despite being drafted last season. In 122 innings, Rucker has a WHIP of 1.13, and 111 strikeouts. With the Triple-A rotation ready for next year, as needed, these players will need to force their way into Des Moines, Usually, pitchers have been opted-into the I-Cubs rotation by “not being too terrible in Tennessee.”

Myrtle Beach has struggled some this season. However, the season would have been a disaster without their pitching, which has been second in ERA and third in WHIP. Tyson Miler, Alex Lange, and Bryan Hudson have eclipsed the 100-inning mark this season in the Carolina League, and Cory Abbott has a sub-3.00 ERA in over 50 innings. And, as noted, no apparent vacancies exist in the Southern League. Training camp in 2019 will be competitive across the levels.

***

I’m not going to tell you which of these arms will get it done at the major league level. For many of you, that’s what is desired. However, baseball projecting of pitching is more weather forecasting than Fangraphs or The 538 nailing a pennant race or political battle. Of course, the Dodgers and Nationals were expected to roll to a division crown like a hot knife through butter.

The Cubs have ten valid options to claim MLB rotation spots over the next few years. In the process of writing this, Robinson was summoned to Triple-A. He tossed six scoreless innings in his Pacific Coast League debut. That the Cubs have multiple options is a historical Cubs oddity. It’s entirely possible that three of the above are household names in three or four seasons. It could be more. It could be less. Within those margins are where the Cubs future success looms. Adding free agent pitchers is expensive. Expecting anyone to be a lockdown starter for four years is often folly. If that happens, fans should be ecstatic, not grow more entitled.

The Cubs rotation depth should mature about the time it appears it will be needed. If that’s the case, the contention that the Cubs can’t develop pitching will be long-gone. If they don’t develop their own pitching, the competitive window will have gone away. In short, it boils to what’s after Kyle Hendricks. And who’s after them, after that. Pitching is too expensive to buy in the open market. Too expensive, and too unreliable. Here’s to internal development.