With Jose Quintana leaving, 4 of the 5 pitchers who entered last spring in the Chicago Cubs rotation are now gone

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Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune
·4 min read
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Three pitchers who entered last spring as the Nos. 3-4-5 starters in the Chicago Cubs rotation signed one-year deals with new teams over the last few days.

Jon Lester left for the Washington Nationals, Tyler Chatwood signed with the Toronto Blue Jays and Jose Quintana reunited with former Cubs manager Joe Maddon with the Los Angeles Angels on Tuesday on a one-year, $8 million deal.

Only Lester ended 2020 in the Cubs rotation — Quintana underwent surgery on his left thumb before the restart and Chatwood made only five starts before going down with a season-ending right forearm injury.

Even with budget constraints, there’s little doubt the Cubs could have afforded to sign any or all of the three to one-year deals. But there was never any talk that Quintana or Chatwood would return, and though team President Jed Hoyer never shut the door on re-signing Lester, most knew that was not a priority.

With those departures and the December trade of ace Yu Darvish to the San Diego Padres, the 2021 Cubs rotation consists of Kyle Hendricks, Zach Davies, Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay. The fifth spot remains open for a likely spring training battle. Tyson Miller might get a shot, and Shelby Miller, signed to a minor-league deal, could be in the mix.

Several free-agent starters are still available, and prices are expected to drop significantly the closer we get to the purported Feb. 17 reporting date for pitchers and catchers. But the Cubs payroll has been reduced to an estimated $144 million, and further downsizing is expected.

Of the departed free-agent starters, only the Lester signing brought any real anguish from Cubs fans, who appear to be thinking with their hearts instead of their heads. Lester, 37, clearly is not the pitcher he was three or four years ago, and though he can still get by with his wits, his career is on the downswing.

Lester’s legacy in Chicago is secure. He was not only the best free-agent signing of the Theo Epstein era, but buying beer for Cubs fans after the 2020 season was the greatest parting gift of any player in team history.

We’ll miss hearing his old-school takes on the state of the game, and his clubhouse presence can’t be underestimated. But it was time for a new chapter in his career with a team that should give him an opportunity at a fourth ring. Like the rest of the 2016 Cubs, Lester always will receive a warm welcome whenever he returns to Wrigley Field.

Chatwood’s Cubs career was less than stellar. He fell out of the rotation in his first season after signing a three-year, $38 million deal in December 2017 and was nicknamed “Chatwalk” by fans for his control issues. After a bounce-back season in a relief role in 2019, he earned a chance to start again in 2020 and was brilliant in his first two games, allowing one earned run on six hits over 12⅔ innings with 19 strikeouts and only four walks.

But just as it appeared Chatwood had figured things out, he was shelled in his next start and had two more short outings before heading to the injured list.

Quintana, through no fault of his own, will be remembered for his price tag. The Cubs gave up two top prospects — slugger Eloy Jimenez and starter Dylan Cease — to acquire Quintana from the Chicago White Sox in July 2017.

It was a bold and unexpected move, but the defending champions had struggled during the first half, and Epstein knew re-signing soon-to-be free agent Jake Arrieta was unlikely because of the excessive contract demands expected from agent Scott Boras.

Quintana went 33-23 with a 4.24 ERA in four seasons on the North Side and was healthy until accidentally cutting his thumb last summer. The ascension of Jimenez with the Sox made it a deal the Cubs might regret for years, but Quintana still was more effective — and affordable — than Arrieta, who went 22-23 with a 4.36 ERA after signing a three-year, $75 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Unfortunately, the Cubs received four low-level prospects from the Padres for Darvish while giving up two top prospects (plus two others) for Quintana, and that’s what many fans will remember while waiting for the incoming prospects to develop.

Starting pitching aside, Hoyer has a lot of work to do with the rest of the roster if spring training starts on time in four weeks, as MLB insists it will.

The projected starting outfield is Ian Happ in left, Nico Hoerner in center and Jason Heyward in right, with waiver claim Phillip Ervin the fourth outfielder. David Bote would be the projected starter at second with Hoerner in the outfield.

Willson Contreras and prospect Miguel Amaya are the top catchers, though Hoyer has said Amaya isn’t ready yet and that he’ll have to find a backup to Contreras, assuming the popular catcher is not dealt.

The Cubs’ Cactus League opener is scheduled for Feb. 27 in Mesa, Ariz., where they’ll play the Los Angeles Dodgers at Sloan Park.

Ready or not, the game is still on.