Cubs starting pitchers not showing much hope for future

After all the positive developments with their young pitchers, the Cubs were probably hoping to finish the year feeling optimistic about next season's starting rotation.

Kyle Hendricks, Adbert Alzolay, Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson and Alec Mills wasn't a bad start for 2022, especially if the Cubs add a starter or two in free-agency over the winter.

But as things stand today, none of those pitchers is having a great finish to 2021. Even Hendricks, a model of consistency during his years with the Cubs, is having the worst month of his career.

Hendricks was a little better on Wednesday, but gave up a pair of home runs to Max Kepler and the Cubs lost to Minnesota 5-4 at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs scored twice in the bottom of the ninth on RBI by Ian Happ and Willson Contreras and put runners on second and third, but Trayce Thompson struck out to end the game.

Hendricks gave up 3 earned runs in 5⅔ innings Wednesday, dropping his September ERA to 7.78. Alzolay has been pretty good this month, but moved to the bullpen to cut down on his workload. Steele has a 5.12 ERA as a starter, but has had a few strong outings. Thompson is 6.08 as a starter and needed some time off to rest a sore shoulder.

Hendricks is under contract and not likely to go anywhere, but who else should open the 2022 season in the rotation?

“I think there's just so many question marks,” manager David Ross said. “We've seen some signs of greatness, right? We've seen guys like, ‘Wow, this is eye-opening. These guys are dominant, young, talented pitchers that have a bright future.' And we've seen some not-so-bright moments.”

Both Alzolay and Steele fit into that category. Especially early this season, Alzolay looked like he had a chance to be one of the league's best with the sharp movement on his slider, but he's struggled against left-handed hitters.

Steele has a unique skill set as a lefthander who can throw sweeping sliders and curveballs, but also bring the heat with a 95 mph fastball.

The jury is out on Thompson, who has looked very good at times, but has been inconsistent.

“We've also seen the back end of a long season with limited innings last year and what all plays into that,” Ross said. “I think we're all trying to figure out what's real and what's not. I think the talent level is still there and excited to move forward and see with some rest and some downtime and some specific work in the offseason what it will turn into next year.”

History has shown a great place to build a contending team is in the starting rotation. The Cubs had three aces during their 2015-17 playoff run with Hendricks, Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester. Milwaukee is running away with the NL Central using a stellar top of the rotations with Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta.

There's no shortage of free-agent pitchers on the market. The list includes most of the San Francisco Giants rotation with Kevin Gausman, Anthony DeSclafini and Alex Wood; along with several older legends like Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Zach Greinke, Wade Miley and Charlie Morton.

There are also a few 30-and-under pitchers on the market, including the White Sox' Carlos Rodon, Boston's Eduardo Rodriguez, Toronto's Robby Ray and the Mets' Marcus Stroman. Zach Davies is 29, but seems unlikely to return to the Cubs after a disappointing year. The Cubs have some starters with potential in the minor leagues, but no one who appears ready to make the jump in 2022.

Hendricks kept them in Wednesday's game, but Cubs batters struck out 18 times against starter Joe Ryan and four relievers.

Cubs catcher Robinson Chirinos left the game in the middle of a sixth-inning at-bat when he appeared to pull something on a swing.

Before the game, Ross said Jason Heyward, out since suffering a concussion on Sept. 12, wants to return before the end of the regular season, but it seems doubtful he'll recover in time.

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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Minnesota Twins' Max Kepler hits a home run off Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks during the fourth inning of a baseball game Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, in Chicago. Associated Press
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