Tyler Chatwood’s Forgettable Effort Further Muddies Cubs’ Rotation Quandary

Tuesday’s ugly loss in Detroit was one of those throwaway games, the kind you just crumple up and throw in the trash. The only problem for David Ross and the Cubs is that their wastebasket is already getting a little full as they prepare to close out the first half of the season. Adding to the disappointment of the lopsided outcome was that it provided little clarity in terms of the rotation, which should ostensibly be at full strength now.

Not that anyone expected either Tyler Chatwood or José Quintana to be anything more than reasonable facsimiles of themselves, but the blurry ditto-machine duplicates on display in Detroit looked and smelled off. Chatwood started the game and recorded more walks than outs while allowing hits to three of the first four Tigers he faced. After walking three of the first four batters to open the next inning, he was done.

Quintana was much sharper in his first action since slicing his thumb open on a broken wine glass just before summer camp, which isn’t really saying much given the low bar set by the starter. The initial plan was to have the lefty serve in a piggyback role, but Ross had to modify that in order to give Quintana a clean inning. So after Duane Underwood Jr. used a pair of strikeouts as fragrant sawdust to cover Chatwood’s vomit, Q took over.

He actually looked great early on, cruising through the Detroit lineup with relative ease and retiring nine of the first 10 batters he faced on a total of 45 pitches. The next 10 pitches, however, were costly. That he was in there at all past three innings of work was more than a little questionable, but Ross needed length after Chatwood’s early exit and Quintana no doubt said he felt good.

A single, double, and four-pitch walk said otherwise and brought Casey Sadler into the game. Another walk loaded the bases and the decision to hold Cameron Maybin on a short fly to right paid off when Jonathan Schoop teed off on a thigh-high sinker for a grand slam that put the game out of reach. To be fair to Sadler, the game was out of reach when the Tigers plated their second run against Chatwood, but 7-0 feels a lot more formidable than 2-0.

Back to the bigger problem here, which is that the Cubs don’t yet have a definitive fifth starter at this point and it’s not because there are too many good choices. Even accounting for bad luck and rust, Chatwood has allowed 10 earned runs on 14 hits and five walks over a total of 3.2 innings in his last two starts. Quintana was being brought along at South Bend with the intent of pitching out the bullpen, so his action Tuesday night pushed the envelope a bit.

Having Thursday and Monday off gives plenty of buffer for the primary starters, though some of that will be consumed by Saturday’s doubleheader in Cincinnati. As we saw from the series against St. Louis, during which the Cubs won both halves of their twin bills that were started by call-ups from South Bend, their depth can get them through occasional tight spots. So what do they do this weekend?

Chatwood should be out of the question for Saturday because the rest of the rotation is all fine and he could probably use the extra rest. Quintana could again serve in a piggyback role in the second game if he’s able to bounce back on three days’ rest to take an inning or two. Then again, he shouldn’t need to if Ross opts to stick with the standard rotation due to the off-days.

Kyle Hendricks can take the mound Friday on extra rest, same for Yu Darvish in either of Saturday’s games. Alec Mills can take the other half of the doubleheader on regular rest, setting up the two-headed monster of Chatwood and Quintana for Sunday’s finale. Or, and this might me even better, Ross could give that latter pair a softer landing by using a spot starter Saturday and Mills Sunday. Then Chatwood would get the hapless Pirates next Tuesday.

I actually like the latter option the best, particularly given how well Adbert Alzolay pitched against the Cardinals. He gives the Cubs at least as good a chance to win in Cincy as Chatwood, probably better, and the additional rest for the staff as a whole means having more fresh relievers in case there’s another implosion. What’s more, Pittsburgh’s overall crappiness helps to mitigate that potential.

My last thought here is that Chatwood’s next start should determine his spot in the rotation, at least for the time being. The same may go for Alzolay, who should probably be on the staff in some capacity no matter what. So while Tuesday didn’t bring us any additional clarity when it comes to the rotation, perhaps this weekend will. Or maybe all the questionable characters will pitch lights-out and create a whole new set of problems.

Yeah, I like that possibility a lot better.

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