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2021 Cubs final season grades: Pitchers

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This ain’t gonna be pretty. And yet, there is some hope for 2022.

A common 2021 sight, pitching coach Tommy Hottovy in a mound conference
Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

I had so much to say about the 2021 Cubs that I had to split my usual end-of-season grades article into two parts this year.

Yesterday, you read about Cubs hitters. Today, the pitching staff. As noted above, some of this is pretty darn ugly.

Kyle Hendricks: D+

Kyle had the worst year of his career.

But weirdly, he had three distinct seasons within his 2021 campaign:

First seven starts: 6.23 ERA, 1.673 WHIP, 11 HR in 34⅔ innings
Next 16 starts: 2.79 ERA, 1.160 WHIP, 11 HR in 100 innings
Last nine starts: 7.96 ERA, 1.511 WHIP, 9 HR in 46⅔ innings

Now you tell me how that happened. That’s half a season’s worth of starts at perfectly normal Kyle level, and half a season as a DFA candidate.

I don’t get it, and I don’t think anyone does. He didn’t seem to be having any physical issues; it’s more about command and locating, I think.

Kyle’s a smart guy. I’m sure he can figure it out over the winter.

Zach Davies: F

Oh, I am so done with this guy. Apart from Edwin Jackson’s 2014 season, Davies’ 2021 might be the worst year ever from a Cubs starter. Among other things, he led the National League in walks (75) and over his last 18 starts: 7.25 ERA, 1.711 WHIP, 21 HR in 80⅔ innings. I mean... most non-veteran guys would have been DFA long before the end of that stretch.

He averaged 4⅔ innings per start for the season, and that includes eight (out of 32) in which he threw at least six innings. Years from now, people will look at the combined no-hitter the Cubs threw against the Dodgers June 24 and say, “THAT guy was part of that game?”

Move your wife and kids to Baltimore, Zach.

Alec Mills: D+

Every time Millsy had a really good outing (like this one August 28 against a really good-hitting White Sox team), I thought, “Now he’s turned the corner!” And then... he’d go out and throw well for four or five innings and run out of gas in the fifth or sixth.

Overall as a starter this year: 4.80 ERA, 1.379 WHIP in 20 starts covering 99⅓ innings (so he didn’t even average five innings per start). Those numbers were a lot better before an awful September (7.36 ERA, 1.500 WHIP, 8 HR in 29⅓ innings in six starts).

I still think he can be a capable MLB fifth starter.

Adbert Alzolay: C

Like Mills, every now and again you’d see Adbert have a really good outing (this one July 3 against the Reds, for example) and think he’d finally turned that corner, but... no. Then he missed some time with a hamstring strain and came back in September as... a shutdown relief pitcher: Eight appearances, 1.60 ERA, 0.931 WHIP, 21 strikeouts and only two walks in 19⅓ innings.

I dunno — maybe try him as a closer?

Justin Steele: C-

That last start, seven strong shutout innings in Pittsburgh, raised his grade in my eyes. That’s the sort of thing we saw from Steele early this year in relief, and gave a hint that maybe, just maybe, he could succeed as a starter.

Like Keegan Thompson below, though, he might better serve the team in relief.

Keegan Thompson: D+

26 relief appearances: 37 innings, 2.43 ERA, 1.297 WHIP
Six starts: 16⅓ innings, 5.51 ERA, 1.898 WHIP

Small sample sizes both, but given that, how would YOU use him? Relief seems a more likely place for him to succeed.

Adrian Sampson: B-

I am very, very intrigued by Sampson, despite his age (he turns 30 tomorrow, happy birthday!). He’s a little too susceptible to the home run, though most of them have come with the bases empty. If he can get his sinker working, he can get a lot of ground ball outs.

He should definitely be in the mix for the 2022 rotation.

I’ll ruin the surprise by telling you this is one of only two pitcher grades that I gave out above a C. Keep reading for the other one!

Codi Heuer: C-

Heuer had a good year for the White Sox in 2020, then a couple of lousy outings skewed his numbers to “bad” for 2021. After the trade from the Sox he was very good — for a while:

First 17 Cubs outings: 0.90 ERA, 0.800 WHIP, .164 opponents BA
Last 8 Cubs outings: 8.31 ERA, 1.962 WHIP, eight walks and four Ks in 8⅔ innings

Then he didn’t pitch at all in the Cardinals series the final weekend, even in situations where it seemed it would be his turn. Perhaps an undiagnosed injury?

Heuer definitely has talent and will be in the mix next year, potentially as a top setup guy.

Rowan Wick: C-

Like Heuer, Wick seemed to run out of gas late, though he redeemed himself in the aforementioned Cardinals series.

Coming off a serious injury last year, Wick’s comeback was pretty good. He could be next year’s closer — or a setup man if the Cubs find someone better to close.

Adam Morgan: C-

First seven outings: 8.31 ERA, 2.308 WHIP, 10.55 (!) FIP
Next 15 outings: 0.77 ERA, 0.857 WHIP, 18 strikeouts in 11x innings
Last 12 outings: 6.75 ERA, 1.500 WHIP

Now, relievers can be fungible, but which one of those is the real Adam Morgan?

As a lefthander, he’ll certainly get a shot at the 2022 bullpen.

Manuel Rodriguez: Incomplete

He’s got a really good fastball — averaging 97, and can touch 100:

Statcast

But, he often doesn’t have command or control: 12 walks in 17⅔ innings and three home runs, including a walkoff to the Nationals in just his second MLB game August 1.

That said, he hasn’t really pitched much since 2019 (20 games in the minor leagues this year, 20 MLB games). Maybe the Cubs send him to the Arizona Fall League for more experience, although an argument can be made for shutting him down until spring, too. He’s got an outstanding arm.

(Also, I am not sure whether he prefers “Manuel” or “Manny.” I have heard both used.)

Trevor Megill: D-

He throws hard (average fastball nearly 97) and his walk rate (three per nine innings) and K rate (11.4 per nine innings) are both good. And yet... the results aren’t (8.37 ERA and seven of 11 inherited runners scored. I mean... could he figure it out? Maybe. Relievers sometimes do. The fastball makes him worth another look next spring.

Tommy Nance: D-

He was a great story for a few weeks, with an 0.64 ERA and 0.786 WHIP through his first 14 appearances and 14 strikeouts in 14 innings.

Next seven outings: 10.80 ERA, 1.500 WHIP, three HR in 10 innings, a trip back to Iowa.

September was even worse: seven appearances, 13.50 ERA, 1.950 WHIP in 6⅔ innings.

I suspect he’ll be non-tendered, but the fact that he made it to MLB at all after being an undrafted signee out of indy ball is worth noting.

Michael Rucker: F

I honestly don’t see anything here that would lead me to believe he would be a useful reliever for the 2022 Cubs.

Scott Effross: B-

Effross is a really, really intriguing pitcher. He was just another guy until he worked out that sidearm/submarine motion this year and he’s been very effective with it. He didn’t walk a batter after being promoted to the Cubs until the 51st man he faced, which is really good, and that was his only walk among 58 batters faced.

There are very few pitchers who use a motion like that in MLB right now. If Effross can learn to command his pitches — remember, that motion is relatively new for him — he could be successful, as most batters have not seen that sort of thing. He’ll definitely have a chance to make the 2022 Opening Day roster.

If you did not already know, Effross and Kyle Schwarber were Indiana University teammates for a couple years.

Lastly, I have a sort of “six degrees of separation” connection to Effross. His mom and a good college friend of mine were high school classmates. I’d very much like to see him succeed for the Cubs.

Rex Brothers: F

See ya.

Jason Adam: Incomplete

I give Adam great credit from coming back from a horrifying ankle injury suffered during BP one night at Iowa — they had to rush him to emergency surgery — and returning to pitch in 2021.

His bad overall numbers (5.91 ERA, 1.500 WHIP) are skewed by one awful outing he had April 25 vs. the Brewers (five batters faced, all reached base, all scored). His other 11 appearances this year were pretty good — he threw three scoreless innings, striking out six, after his return to MLB last week — and he was a serviceable middle reliever for the Blue Jays in 2019 and the Cubs in 2020. He’s 30 and likely is around next spring.

Cory Abbott: D

Abbott had six mediocre-to-bad relief appearances for the Cubs in June and July (8.02 ERA), then put together a pretty good start in the season’s final weekend against the Cardinals. He’ll be among those the Cubs will consider for the 2022 rotation.

Joe Biagini: Incomplete

His one MLB outing was pretty impressive, three shutout innings vs. the Cardinals. He was probably miscast as a starter at Triple-A Iowa (before this year he had not started a game since 2018), and had some success as a Toronto reliever. He’s 31 and “the next Ryan Tepera” is a possible description. The Cubs could do worse for the 2022 bullpen.

Jake Arrieta, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Andrew Chafin, Taylor Gushue, P.J. Higgins, Jake Jewell, Craig Kimbrel, José Lobatón, Dillon Maples, Jake Marisnick, Ryan Meisinger, Shelby Miller, Joc Pederson, Anthony Rizzo, Andrew Romine, Kyle Ryan, Eric Sogard, Kohl Stewart, Robert Stock, Pedro Strop (yes, THIS year!), Ryan Tepera, Ildemaro Vargas, Trevor Williams, Dan Winkler, Tony Wolters and Brandon Workman also played for the Cubs in 2021.

Hopefully, there will be better things to come in 2022!