John Lackey, Adam Warren fill Cubs' need for starting depth

CHICAGO -- There’s little doubt the biggest area of concern for the Chicago Cubs last season was depth within their starting rotation. They just didn’t have any. Fortunately, it didn’t come back to bite them as their rotation remained relatively healthy with their top four starters making every start in 2015. But when several pitchers -- namely Jason Hammel -- faltered down the stretch, the Cubs didn’t have anywhere else to turn. That’s not an exaggeration. The organization simply didn’t have huge trust in its Triple-A choices nor could it find much in the marketplace. At the trade deadline, the Cubs settled for Dan Haren, who admittedly was at the end of his career. He didn’t make the playoff roster and retired after the postseason.

Meanwhile, Hammel produced a 14.55 ERA in two postseason starts, helping seal the Cubs' fate in the National League Championship Series. This came after a second half ERA of 5.10 from Hammel. The team had no other options but to start a pitcher in the postseason who had struggled throughout the final three months of the season.

The Cubs also had to contend with playing nearly seven months last year with their ace, Jake Arrieta, piling up nearly 250 total innings. That could be a factor in his performance moving forward, so, for many reasons the front office set out to find more depth this winter. The team added without subtracting as John Lackey signed on and Starlin Castro was traded to the New York Yankees for righty Adam Warren. That’s two more starters than they had last season, but is Warren headed to the bullpen or could he unseat Kyle Hendricks as the No. 5 starter? That’s assuming Hammel’s job is safe. The Cubs partly blame a leg injury before the All-Star break as the beginning of his demise.

“Maybe there was a different way to handle that process of getting him (Hammel) right from the calf injury and getting him on the mound,” President Theo Epstein said after the season. “Maybe if we handled it a different way, his second half would have been different.

“He is that guy you saw in that first half when he’s 100 percent and locked in.”

For the sake of argument, let’s assume the $9 million they’re paying Hammel gives him a job to lose this spring. After all, as Epstein referenced, he had a nifty 2.86 first half ERA last year. Maybe he should have gone on the disabled list at the All-Star break due to that leg injury as Hammel’s explanation towards the end of the season rang true: It’s hard to fix things in the middle of a pennant race. It just didn’t happen for him, but he deserves a reset.

The same could apply to Hendricks. It’s not like he had a bad year and seeing a three (3.95) instead of a four at the beginning of his ERA makes his season look a little better. But Warren also put up good numbers as a starter. His 3.66 ERA was lower than Hendricks' ERA and it was achieved in the American League East. Those numbers translate even better in the National League -- just ask Lackey. He recently explained his career low 2.77 ERA achieved last year with St. Louis.

“It was my first full year in the National League,” Lackey said at the Cubs fan convention. “The AL and NL are different animals to be honest.”

But are we splitting hairs? Maybe Warren is the better choice, though he might be more valuable in the bullpen where he has really excelled. That might not suit Hendricks as well as he’s the type of pitcher to enter a game with the bases loaded and the team in need of a strikeout. Then again, he could make a fine long reliever if a starter got knocked out early. Teams usually can’t go wrong if they simply pick the best five coming out of spring, but then again it could be too close to call, in which case the job should probably go to the incumbent. During a Q&A with ESPN.com last week, Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer didn’t reveal much in terms of the back end of the rotation heading into spring training next week.

“Those things will work out,” Hoyer said. “We have a lot of guys that can start in the big leagues and I’m sure a lot of those guys will make starts for the Cubs next year.”

Also vying to start are pitchers Trevor Cahill, Travis Wood and Clayton Richard -- in fact Cahill was assured he would get a chance again at some point -- but none of those pitchers are likely to beat out both Hendricks and Warren this spring. Mark this down as the quintessential good problem to have now. Choosing between capable starters wasn’t something on Joe Maddon’s mind last year. He pitched the healthy bodies, sometimes reluctantly, as he had quick hooks for both Hammel and Hendricks by season’s end. Hoyer even left the door open for at least a turn through the rotation with six starters if it's needed.

“I think it can make sense,” Hoyer said. “I think it’s important not to rule things out. If you run into a period of the season where you’re playing 21 days in a row or something like that it can be worth it.”

That’s a question for later in the summer. The one for the spring is: Which five pitchers begin the season in the rotation? We know at least three, maybe four. Healthy competition should determine the rest.