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Cubs starting pitching is going to be better than you think

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Jed Hoyer appears to have put together a pretty good rotation.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

In the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Cubs starting pitching posted a 3.99 ERA. That ranked fifth among National League teams, a bit behind the Cardinals (3.92), but significantly ahead of the sixth-ranked Brewers (4.18).

Yes, that’s a smaller-than-normal season sample size, but that was accomplished despite Jon Lester having a sub-par year, Jose Quintana being mostly absent and eight starts going to Tyler Chatwood, Colin Rea and Tyson Miller, who compiled a combined 5.50 ERA in 37⅔ innings in those starts.

You’re saying: “Al, you left Yu Darvish’s great season out,” and no, I didn’t. Darvish had a Cy Young caliber season, but he is essentially being replaced by Zach Davies, who also had a quality season in 2020, even if not quite as good as Darvish.

But replacing starts given to the other five pitchers I mentioned above with starts going to Trevor Williams and Jake Arrieta is, in my view, a huge improvement.

Yes, it is true that neither Williams nor Arrieta has pitched well over the last couple of seasons. In both cases, injuries have had a lot to do with that. Take this, for example, about Williams:

Beyond that injury, Williams was on the worst team in baseball through that span. Since May 16, 2019 the Pirates have a 67-114 (.370) record (equivalent to 60-102 in a 162-game season). That has to wear on a pitcher. Also, the Pirates were a dysfunctional organization through at least 2019; they did replace just about everyone in management after that, but that change didn’t show up on the field in 2020.

As I wrote on Saturday, I believe Williams can return to somewhere close to his 2018 performance. That year he posted a 3.11 ERA and 4.0 bWAR. Maybe he’s not quite that good, but even close to that would be a quality No. 4 starter, which is what the Cubs are expecting him to be.

Similarly, Arrieta was injured much of 2020 (hamstring), and he had surgery to remove a bone spur from his right elbow in 2019. That limited him to 24 starts that year, and he was actually having a decent September 2020 (3.00 ERA, 1.444 WHIP) when the hammy ended his season.

Jake’s not going to be the dominant pitcher we saw in 2015-16. But I don’t see any reason why he couldn’t be the 1.9 bWAR pitcher he was in 2017 as a Cub.

The No. 5 spot in the rotation is still up for grabs, with Alec Mills, Adbert Alzolay and Shelby Miller still in the mix. But if that rotation slot is the only one a team has to worry about, they’re doing pretty well.

This rotation is better than last year’s, despite the departure of Darvish. They’ve thrown very well in what is usually a good hitter’s environment, spring games in Arizona.

And I haven’t even mentioned the always-consistent Kyle Hendricks, the likely Opening Day starter (though David Ross has not made that official yet).

Don’t discount the Cubs’ starting pitching. It’s going to surprise a lot of people.