We all know that the first three slots in the Chicago Cubs 2016 rotation are solid, but what about the 4th & 5th spots? Despite having a terrific off-season so far, the Cubs find themselves in the exact same position as last year—having three starters and not knowing who the 4th and 5th candidates are going to be.
They do have some depth, however, and this is important because the Cubs staff was healthy in 2015, with four guys making 30+ starts, something that may not happen again this season.
Going into the 2015 season, the Cubs thought they had three dominant starters. They were right on one of them for sure—in fact, Jake Arrieta was better than anyone could have even imagined—while Jon Lester was solid but Jason Hammel really didn't work out in the end. After a good first half, Hammel took a nosedive right out of the rotation, although you will see his name listed among the candidates.
Once again, like last year with Hammel, the Cubs added a guy who they believe will fill that third slot in 37 year-old John Lackey, who is coming off of a fine season with the Cardinals. So that means the Cubs will have Arrieta, who will regress somewhat this season—I mean, he almost has to, right?—as their ace, Lester as a solid No. 2, and Lackey for a terrific one-two-three punch.
But who is the Cubs fourth and fifth starters? We don't know yet, but we do know that they have added critical rotation depth. What this means is that there is a better pool from which to draw from and their ability to survive injuries would seem likely to be improved.
Barring a trade, here are the candidates to take the remaining slots in the Cubs rotation for next year.
Warren was acquired from the Yankees in the Starlin Castro trade. Warren is the classic, old fashioned swing man, capable of starting or relieving. He was actually better as a relief pitcher in 2015, although he was pretty good overall. The 28 year-old right-hander was a fourth round pick back in 2009, and his pitching was worth 2.2 WAR in 2015 (per FanGraphs).
FIP and xFIP did not like Warren quite as much as his ERA would indicate, but all were under 4.00. His ERA was 3.29 over 131.1 innings pitched, while his FIP was 3.59 and xFIP was at 3.96. Warren was 7-7, in 43 games, 17 as a starter.
Warren struck out 7.13 K/9 last season, which was down from his past two seasons. But his walk rate was also down, at 2.67 BB/9. Warren tossed 96 innings as a starter, with an ERA of 3.66, while his 35.1 innings of relief work was good for an ERA of 2.29. Batters hit .243 off him as a starter, .208 as a reliever.
One potential slight area of concern might be that he was much better pitching at Yankee stadium than on the road. In a close number of IP, Warren had just a 2.00 ERA at home, but 4.48 on the road. Unlike Hammel, he was better in the second half of the season last year.
Here's a familiar name. Hendricks, as Cubs fans already know, needs to be very effective with his pitch selection and control to be successful, since he lacks a true "out" pitch like a dominating fastball. He is also prone to inconsistency but isn't bad as a fifth starter.
Hendricks, who just turned 26, was 8-7 with a 3.95 ERA for Chicago last season but unlike Warren, advanced metrics actually liked him more. His FIP (3.36) and xFIP (3.25) would seem to indicate someone who pitched in some bad luck last year. What he lacks in pure "stuff" he makes up for in guile and intelligence.
Hendricks started 32 games and pitched 180 innings, so he averaged just over 5.5 innings per start, which puts more burden on the bullpen. That said, he would be a fine selection as a fifth starter, but I just don't want to see him starting a playoff game.
Cahill saw his career get revitalized pitching in relief for the Cubs in 2015, but he will go into the spring with a chance to get stretched out as a possible starting canddiate. He lost his spot in the Diamondbacks rotation in 2014, bounced around in the Braves and Dodgers system for awhile, then ended 2015 with the Cubs, where he pitched to a 2.12 ERA in the second half of the season. Batters hit just .140 off of Cahill.
Still, he has to be considered a fringy type rotation piece at best, with a tendency to throw a lot of groundballs. Sample size or something else, he did struggle with men on base last season. Right-handed batters actually hit better off Cahill than lefties did.
The problem is that there just isn't a lot of recent data to go on with Cahill. He pitched much better in relief in 2015, but didn't pitch a lot of major league innings either way. In 12.1 IP as a starter, he had an unsightly 8.03 ERA and in 31 IP in relief, he pitched to a 4.35 ERA.
We do know that he had a big velocity jump and pitched well during the stretch run and in the playoffs for the Cubs, so he deserves a chance to come back and show what he can do.
He did have success as a starter in 2013 (4.10 ERA in 142.2 IP) and especially in 2012, where he threw 200 innings as a starter and had a 3.78 ERA with Arizona. He signed a one year, 4.25M contract with the Cubs, but I'd rather see him in relief, although an emergency spot start or two wouldn't bother me much.
I'm going to include Wood here, although the Cubs seem to prefer him as a reliever these days. Wood turns 29 in February, and he is coming off of a season where he pitched just over 100 innings in relief, ending with an ERA of 3.84. He struck out a lot of hitters, 118 of them to be precise, but his fastball might take a dip in velocity if he reverts to starting again.
He also had a tendency to give up the long ball, something that could be a bigger problem as a starter. The Cubs need a solid lefty reliever, so again, this is anotehr guy I'd prefer to see pitching in relief.
2014 was not kind to Wood, who pitched to a 5.03 ERA mostly as a starter, giving up 190 hits in 173.2 IP. The year before, however, he was very good as a starter, tossing 200 innings with a 3.11 ERA.
Last year, as previously mentioned, Wood pitched in relief but his FIP was much better (3.40) than his ERA, so there is hope that he could be effective in either role in 2016.
Interestingly, both lefties and righties each hit .227 vs Wood last season, though right-handed batters slugged better off of Wood. If he does spot-start next season, the Cubs might want to consider pitching him at Wrigley. Wood had a 2.73 ERA at home while his road ERA ballooned to 5.06.
It was a tale of two halves for Hammel, who may have hid some injuries along the way, but lost the confidence of manager Joe Maddon by the end of the season. Hammel came into last season as the clear No. 3, but by the end of the year the Cubs were considering almost anyone other than he to come in an pitch.
Hammel signed a two-year, 20M contract prior to the 2015 season, so he is set to make 9M in 2016, money usually reserved for a starter or a closer. With that in mind, I don't believe the cubs will simply hand him a job just because of salary.
The 33 year-old righty was 10-7 last year, with a 3.74 ERA. In 170.2 IP, Hammel had a K/9 of 9.07 and a BB/9 of 2.11, and FIP and xFIP liked him even better. Lefties hit only .234 against him, while righties hit .241. All decent numbers.
However, if you examine his splits, you see that second half ERA of 5.10 and you want the real Jason Hammel to please step forward. Is he the guy who pitched to a fine 2.86 ERA over 103.2 IP in the first half of the season, or the one who tossed 67 innings of batting practice in the second half?
He gave up more homers in fewer innings and batters hit 75 points better. Opposing batters slugged .515 off Hammel's pitching in the second half of the season (vs. just .361 in the first half).
Yet he continued to strike out hitters at about the same rate, so if his arm was hurting, it didn't seem to affect that part of his game. Whatever it was, the Cubs will need to see more of the first half guy if he is going to earn a spot in the rotation which, given his salary and the better relief options that Warren and Wood present, would be ideal for the Cubs going forward.
Richard, like Cahill, was another pitcher who rebuilt his value with the Cubs. The 32 year-old southpaw would add another lefty to the rotation. In 42.1 IP with the Cubs major league team in 2015 (he also pitched for Iowa, as well as in the Pirates AA and AAA farm clubs), he had a 3.83 ERA, and advanced metrics liked him a little better than that.
He has a good fastball yet doesn't strike out a ton of guys, at 4.68 K/9 last season. He has had previous success as a starter, however. He twice won 14 games for the Padres while pitching more than 200 innings, although that was in 2010 and 2012.
Richard appeared in 23 games for the Cubs, three as a starter. As you might imagine, right-handed batters hit much better against Richard, though they didn't kill him, and he pitched better on the road than at Wrigley. In 18 IP as a starter, Richard did quite well, allowing only six runs while walking two and striking out eight.
As a reliever, Richard had a 4,44 ERA, allowing 30 hits in just 24,1 IP. Hitters had a .239 average off of him in the three games he started, but they hit .294 against him in relief.
The Cubs have been active on the waiver wire, and it's not beyond the realm of possibility that one or more of those guys could end up in the competition as well. Edgar Olmos is a lefty they lost, then re-acquired. He will turn 26 in April. and is a former third round pick of the Marlins. He has just two starts in the majors, both with Seattle.
Meanwhile, Dallas Beeler is a 26 year-old Cubs farmhand (41st round pick in 2010) who started three games for Chicago last season, with poor results. Carl (don't call me CJ) Edwards could get a look as well. Edwards, 24, is a wafer-thin dude who has only appeared in 4.2 innings in the majors thus far, but has been known to be a fairly good prospect at various points.
Another name that you may hear, although he's a long shot, is Eric Jokisch, a 26 year-old lefty who has started just one game in his career, a four inning effort vs Milwaukee. Although you will still see his name listed in the ESPN roster, Tsuyoshi Wada is once again pitching for Japan, so he is not a candidate.