USA Today Ranks Cubs’ Starting Rotation Fifth for 2017

The Cubs were ranked what?! First the PECOTA projections and now this.

Ma, bring me my mad-online pants, it’s time for me to overreact to something I don’t agree with. You know the ones, they’re all thin in the seat. Oh wait, on second thought…never mind, just leave them in the dresser next to my mansplaining sweater and that new well-actually pullover. But I still want that mac ‘n cheese. Like, now.

As you might have guessed already, I’m not really upset about this ranking, though there were quite a few twisted undies when last year’s list had the Cubs at the top. That ended up being a pretty accurate spot for them, what with Cy Young-worthy performances from Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks and a season from Jake Arrieta that was considered sub-par only because of how good he’s been over the last few years.

Round that out with Jason Hammel and John Lackey at the back end, then add heaping helpings of extraordinarily good health to come up with an elite rotation. So why the drop? For The Win’s Ted Berg, author of the piece, puts it thusly:

The Cubs’ rotation ranked first on this list last year and spent most of the season proving me right, then — and maybe you’ve heard about this — went on to win the World Series. So why’d they fall to No. 5? Maybe it’s all part of a conspiracy to make people angry and drum up pageviews, or maybe all the teams at the top of this list are extremely close in terms of talent and this site is skeptical the Cubs can maintain such an extraordinarily low batting average on balls in play for a second straight season. They’ll certainly be good, as Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks make a tremendous front three, but the loss of Jason Hammel to free agency hurts them more than it might seem: They’ll try to replace Hammel’s 166 2/3 sturdy innings with some combination of oft-injured castoffs and converted relievers.

When you get to the upper tier of the league, it’s necessary to split some hairs, which is what Berg is explaining here. And though I think the staff’s minuscule BABIP is more a function of a symbiotic relationship with the defense — which should be no less spectacular this season — supporting it, there are certainly other causes for concern in terms of regression.

Lester’s not getting any younger and, while he should still be able to shoulder 200 innings or so, we’re likely to see the start of a decline in his numbers. In fact, most of his peripheral metrics were slightly worse in 2016 than they were in his first season with the Cubs. Funny what a change in perception will do for you. To be fair, Lester was a more consistent pitcher this past season and wasn’t hampered by the same slow start he experienced in 2015.

Cubs fans have been high on Hendricks from the start, but his revelatory 2016 exceeded even the loftiest expectations. Can he maintain anything close to that going forward, or will he settle into slightly more pedestrian production? Will Arrieta return to more consistent mechanics in this, his contract year? What about Mike Montgomery‘s return to the rotation, a role in which he’s struggled heretofore?

The only thing on which I think we can all reasonably agree is that Lackey will be steady, if far from spectacular. That’s the hope anyway. There’s been some chatter about the loss of Hammel, including from Berg, but I’m not seeing that as having serious impact.

What it really comes down to is that there are several very good rotations in baseball and the Cubs are one of them. Exactly where they’re ranked is really of no consequence at this point, though the whys of the projection do merit further discussion as the spring wears on. Between health, usage, and general performance, there’s plenty of room for regression in the Cubs’ rotation. And they could just as easily perform better than expected.

Before I leave you, a few brief notes on the rest of the field:

  • The Reds (27), Brewers (25), and Pirates (15) don’t stack up too well
  • Lots of factors could affect the Cardinals, who were at 9 on this list
  • The Red Sox, Nats, Indians, and Mets came in ahead of the Cubs
  • Accidentally left this blank when I first published, went back to ninja edit

Where do you fall on this one, Dear Reader, are the Cubs ranked appropriately at No. 5? Should be higher? Lower? Be sure to show your work.

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