Starting pitching must be top priority for Cubs to ensure quick rebuild

If there has been one primary area of need throughout the Cubs’ 2021 season, it has been their lack of quality starting pitching. Even before their mass sell-off at the trade deadline, starting pitching was the Cubs’ biggest hole.

After the trade deadline, president Jed Hoyer said the Cubs would sit down and formulate a plan about how to get back on track. Whatever that plan is, starting pitching will have to be a top priority.

No team is going to be able to compete allowing six runs per game. Too many times this season, manager David Ross has had to turn to his bullpen to cover 10, 12 and even 15 outs in a game. No team can sustain that over a season, and the Cubs have been no exception.

Entering the Cubs’ game Tuesday against the Reds, their starters had a combined 5.12 ERA this season, which ranked 26th in the majors.

Even in the early going, Hoyer and Ross spoke about how the Cubs needed more length from their starters and about how taxing the bullpen would hurt them in the long run. That’s exactly what happened.

But after seeing how things have worked out this season and with the Cubs having money to spend during the offseason, it’s hard to believe they are going to make that mistake again.

The first thing the Cubs must do to help fix their issues would be to acquire another front-line starter, and there will be no shortage of starting pitching on the free-agent market this winter. The Cubs will have options, with pitchers such as Robbie Ray, Marcus Stroman, Carlos Rodon, Noah Syndergaard and Jon Gray available.

The Cubs saw what it was like to have a solid duo leading the staff in 2019-20, with right-handers Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks at the top of their rotation. But trading Darvish last offseason left them with a large hole they’ve been unable to fill.

For a large portion of this season, it was Hendricks or bust in the rotation. He did his best to carry the staff on his back. But he hasn’t looked nearly as sharp as the season winds down.

Hendricks has been a staple in the rotation since 2014, and giving him a running mate at the top would give the Cubs a solid foundation to work with as they embark on building their next playoff roster.

But once the Cubs figure out the front of their rotation, the next step will be figuring out the back of it.

Right-hander Alec Mills is often left out of the Cubs’ rotation mix, but he shouldn’t be. Aside from Hendricks, Mills has been the Cubs’ most consistent starter this season. He isn’t flashy and might not have the electric stuff that has taken over the game, but he has proved he can start in the big leagues. It should play in his favor next season.

Finally, the Cubs will have to decide which of their young arms will stick in the rotation. Right-hander Adbert Alzolay has shown lots of promise, but he had some struggles in his first season in the rotation before the Cubs moved him to the bullpen to monitor his workload better.

Left-hander Justin Steele has shown some growth during his first stint in the rotation and has put together back-to-back solid outings. Right-hander Keegan Thompson struggled with his command in his first opportunity in the rotation before landing on the 10-day injured list with inflammation in his right shoulder.

All signs point to Alzolay being in the rotation next season, but Steele and Thompson will continue to audition as 2021 closes and likely will do the same during spring training.

If the Cubs want to turn things around quickly, getting their pitching back on track is the fastest way to do it. But it’s contingent on ownership being willing to spend the money necessary to do so. If it isn’t, the idea of this being a quick rebuild is merely a pipe dream.

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