Chicago Cubs need to strike while Darvish, Hendricks are peaking

Fixing the Cubs' flaws will be difficult, but maintaining the strength won't require any effort.

Starting pitching was unquestionably the team's highlight in 2020. Cubs starters led the majors in fewest walks per nine innings (2.3), ranked second behind Cleveland in quality starts (30) and were fourth in the National League in starters' ERA (3.77).

Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks are in the argument for the best 1-2 punch in a starting rotation, and both those players are under contract for at least three more years.

That fact should be weigh on every decision made by team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer this winter. Does it make sense to maybe take a step back and attempt to trade positions players for prospects when Hendricks and Darvish are at their peak?

Darvish had easily his best major-league season, though of course it was only a third the length of a regular season. There's no way of knowing if he could have held on to his 2.01 ERA for a full 162 games.

But Darvish clearly settled into a comfort zone. He talked about making the decision midway through 2019 to slow down his pace and put full focus on his wide array of pitches. The results were impressive, beginning with a 2.76 ERA in the second half of 2019. His walks are rare and few pitchers can make the ball break in both directions the way Darvish can.

Hendricks has been remarkably consistent since he first reached the majors in 2014. He made a nice jump in ERA, dropping from 3.46 and 3.44 in the previous two seasons to 2.88 in 2020. Hendricks also hit an career low in walks per nine innings.

Unlike Darvish, Hendricks tends to keep things simple. He starts with good placement with the fastball and keeps hitters off balance with his changeup. He talked about developing a curveball and adding it to the mix at times this season.

Darvish is 34 and Hendricks will turn 31 in December, so ideally the Cubs would like to take advantage of their twin aces while they can.

Two other slots in the 2021 rotation appear set with Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay. Mills, 28, hit some lulls this season but was literally unhittable when at his best, as the surprising no-hitter against Milwaukee on Sept. 13 demonstrated.

Mills is something of a Hendricks clone. They have some different approaches, but neither throws particularly hard by today's standards. So the Cubs are hoping Hendricks will be a good role model.

Alzolay seemed to make the most of his time at the South Bend alternate site. He worked on perfecting his pitches and by the end of the season was getting impressive horizontal movement. If he can do that while keeping his arm healthy, there is star potential.

The Cubs will need to add a few more starters. Veteran Jon Lester has a team option, while Tyler Chatwood and Jose Quintana are free agents. The Cubs can either pay Lester $24 million for 2021, which is very unlikely, or buy him out for $10 million. There seems to be interest from both sides on staying in town, so that $10 million buyout could turn into a reasonable 2021 salary.

The market probably will determine the fate of Chatwood and Quintana.

Chatwood has had good moments, but he was injured most of this season. Quintana had been one of the most consistently reliable starters in the majors, with eight straight seasons of at least 30 starts until a sliced thumb and hurried rehab spoiled this season.

Two younger pitchers got starts this season, Tyson Miller and Brailyn Marquez. Neither appears ready to join the rotation right now, but their presence could affect decisions this winter if management thinks they are on track to join the rotation relatively soon.

• Twitter: @McGrawDHBulls

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Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks delivers during the first inning of the team's baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
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