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The Cubs’ last five 20-game winners have now all had a second stint with the team

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It’s a curiosity, to be sure. Let’s look into it.

Rick Reuschel during his 20-game win season with the Cubs in 1977
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

BCB reader holy mackeral posted this very interesting note in the comments in the article noting the return of Jake Arrieta to the Cubs:

Jenkins, Reuschel, Maddux, Lieber and Arrieta

The 5 most recent Cubs 20 game winners. All 5 left the team and later returned.

Bill Hands was the last 20 game winner NOT to have a 2nd tour of duty.

That’s fascinating, I think. So let’s look at the four pitchers who previously had two separate stints with the Cubs, their 20-game seasons for the Cubs, and how they did after they left and when they returned.

Fergie Jenkins

Years as a Cub: 1966-73, 1982-83

20-game winning seasons as a Cub: 1967-72 (also 1974 for the Rangers)

How he did in his second stint: Fergie had an excellent season for the Cubs in 1982 at age 39. He made 34 starts, threw 217⅓ innings and struck out 134. He won 14 games for a team that won only 73, in an era when individual pitcher wins still mattered. The season was worth 3.7 bWAR, tops among Cubs pitchers and 12th among all NL pitchers that year.

Fergie faded in 1983, winding up in the bullpen. He was released during 1984 spring training.

Rick Reuschel

Years as a Cub: 1972-81, 1983-84

20-game winning seasons as a Cub: 1977

How he did in his second stint: Reuschel was traded to the Yankees in 1981 and then wound up having rotator cuff surgery. He missed the entire 1982 season. The Cubs re-signed him in 1983 and he had two not-great seasons for the team in 1983 and 1984. He was left off the NLCS roster in 1984 and the Pirates signed him as a free agent.

It was a big mistake for the Cubs to let him go after ‘84. Reuschel had a 6.2 bWAR season for Pittsburgh in ‘85, third-best among NL pitchers. He won 19 games with a 3.12 ERA for the Giants in 1988 and in 1989 was 17-8 with a 2.94 ERA for San Francisco, finishing eighth in Cy Young voting — at age 40.

He’d have looked awfully good in the Cubs rotation in the late 1980s.

Greg Maddux

Years as a Cub: 1986-92, 2004-06

20-game winning seasons as a Cub: 1992

How he did in his second stint: The Cubs brought Maddux back as a free agent at age 38 in 2004 and he had a good, though not great season, going 16-11 with a 4.02 ERA. It was a solid year worth 3.2 bWAR. He wasn’t quite as good in 2005, though he led the NL in walks/nine innings (1.4) and he won Gold Gloves in both seasons.

Maddux was traded to the Dodgers at the deadline in 2006 for Cesar Izturis. In his final game for the Cubs, July 29, 2006 against the Cardinals, he left to one of the loudest ovations I’d heard to that date at Wrigley Field.

Jon Lieber

Years as a Cub: 2000-02, 2008

20-game winning seasons as a Cub: 2001

How he did in his second stint: Lieber left the Cubs after 2002. He’d finished that year on the disabled list, and the Yankees signed him to a two-year deal despite knowing he’d miss the entire 2003 season after Tommy John surgery.

Lieber had a pretty good year for the Yankees in 2004 and another for the Phillies in 2005. By the time he returned to the Cubs as a free agent in 2008 at age 38, he was pretty much done, although his 26 appearances (one start) resulted in a season of positive bWAR (0.4). He was left off the 2008 postseason roster.

Overall, though, the Cubs got the best years of Lieber’s career. He produced 13 bWAR over the four years he spent in a Cubs uniform, a bit more than half of his 25.5 bWAR.

Takeaways

Of the four listed here who returned, all except Reuschel were 38 or older at the time of their second stint. Reuschel was 34 when the Cubs brought him back, and as noted, had they kept him around the team’s late 1980s history is likely quite different.

Future Hall of Famers Jenkins and Maddux were able to produce good seasons at that age; Lieber, a good pitcher but not HoF talent, didn’t.

As for Arrieta? He turns 35 in about three weeks. By all accounts he’s healthy — the injury that shut down his 2020 season was not arm-related — and while he’s certainly no longer the pitcher who dominated from late 2014 through 2016 as a Cub, I don’t see any reason why he couldn’t put up a year similar to his 2017 season on the North Side (14-10, 3.53 ERA, 1.218 WHIP, 1.9 bWAR), or maybe just a bit better. For one thing, he’ll have a better defense behind him than he did in Philadelphia.

Welcome back, Jake. This was a good signing for the Cubs at a reasonable price, and other successful Cubs pitchers have returned and done well with the team.