How Joe Maddon Could Set Up His Playoff Rotation

Back when it was first announced that the Cubs would be flip-flopping Jon Lester and Mike Montgomery in order to set Lester up to be the NLDS Game 1 starter, I theorized on the breakdown of the rotation. It’s possible for Joe Maddon to stick with what I had put forth at the time, but my thoughts were predicated on Mike Montgomery getting only one more start. With Maddon now saying the lefty swingman will likely stick around for one more turn, I think it’s time to change things around.

There’s also the matter of my scenario slotting Jake Arrieta as the number two starter with Kyle Hendricks going in Game 3. That’s flawed on a couple different levels, the first of which is Arrieta’s performance of late. In his last 13 starts, Arrieta has a 4.32 ERA (4.65 FIP) and has allowed 4 or more earned runs on six occasions. His best performances in that stretch, a pair 8-inning outings in which he allowed no runs on three and two hits to the A’s and Padres, respectively, came on the road.

Hendricks, on the other hand, lowered his league-leading ERA with a near no-hitter in St. Louis in which he allowed only a single run in 8 innings. Even on the strength of that gem, however, Hendricks has been far better at Wrigley than he has been on the road. Not that a 2.90 ERA and .199/.272/.366 slash line allowed as a visiting starter are bad, they just don’t come close to the 1.21 ERA and .195/.244/.268 line he’s accrued at the Friendly Confines. Arrieta has also pitched better at Wrigley, though there’s not nearly the disparity in his splits.

If you’ve not divined my direction from the inferences already, I’m saying Hendricks needs to follow Lester immediately in the playoff rotation. Not only does Hendricks tend to perform better at Wrigley, but Arrieta has also proven that he can do pretty big things on the road. Both of his no-hitters came as a visitor and that dominant Wild Card start last season took place in Pittsburgh. This might be wishful thinking, but that fact that he’s kind of got something to prove might actually drive him a little.

Now that we’ve established that, how does Maddon go about lining his pitchers up in preparation for the postseason? Given that the Cubs will not have to play in the Wild Card game this season, the five-day break really eliminates the necessity to set things in order prior to the NLDS itself. Below is a look at how the Cubs’ rotation could look if things remain status quo, with potential table-setting changes in parentheses.

  • 9/15 – Montgomery
  • 9/16 – Lackey
  • 9/17 – Arrieta
  • 9/18 – Hendricks
  • 9/19 – Hammel
  • 9/20 – Lester
  • 9/21 – Montgomery
  • 9/23 – Lackey (Hendricks)
  • 9/24 – Arrieta
  • 9/25 – Hendricks (Lackey)
  • 9/26 – Lester
  • 9/27 – Hammel
  • 9/28 – Lackey (Hendricks)
  • 9/29 – Arrieta
  • 9/30 – Hendricks (Lackey)
  • 10/1 – Lester
  • 10/2 – Hammel

Really nothing earth-shattering there, as you’ll see the only changes would be flipping Lester with Hammel on that second time through. That’s made possible by the off-day on the 22nd and will likely be done to give Lester an extra day off between his last regular season start and the NLDS. It had been reported earlier that his final start would take place either on the 30th or the 1st, and Montgomery making that additional start means that the latter is most likely at this point.

You’ll notice that I also illustrated a potential swap of Hendricks and Lackey, which I’m thinking is not all that likely. It would set the rotation in playoff order, with Hammel obviously removed, but it would also mean that Hendricks would be pitching on nine days of rest instead of seven. Not a huge difference, but there’s a fine line between rest and rust.

I could also see Maddon going with a bullpen game to close the season in Cincy in what is likely to be an entirely meaningless game for all but the blue-clad fans who will no-doubt be swarming the Queen City that weekend. You’ve also got the possibility of Hammel being in the bullpen, if he’s even on the postseason roster at all. I tend to think he shouldn’t be, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic.

My thoughts on Arrieta have certainly changed since writing a couple weeks back that he still could/should be the Game 1 starter. That opinion was fueled more by his potential, but the reality is that Lester and Hendricks are simply better pitchers right now. Besides, Arrieta’s potential to be great again is still there and I do believe the intensity of a road start in the playoffs will be good for him. And, as I’ve said before, it’s hard to go wrong with the trio of starters the Cubs will throw out there, no matter what order they’re in.

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