The Cubs just named Ryan Dempster as their Opening Day Starter, wresting it away from Carlos Zambrano's 6 year grip on the honor. But is Dempster really a number one starter? Do the Cubs even have a number one starter? The answer to both questions at this point is "no", but for the Cubs to be successful this year, someone needs to emerge as the Cubs ace. Ryan Dempster has received the nod for now, but that is just a formality. Opening Day starters don't always end the season at the top. A lot can change from February to September. The race to claim the role as the Cubs top starter has only just begun and, in the spirit of the mayoral elections, let's look at the three main candidates and the promise they hold for the 2011 campaign.
The Main Candidates
- Ryan Dempster
- Carlos Zambrano
- Matt Garza
Dempster is the choice for now. Of all the candidates, he has been the most consistent pitcher, posting an xFIP of under 4 each of the last three seasons. No matter how the Cubs have played around him, Dempster has been pretty steady. The only question with Dempster is, "Are those numbers good enough to compete against the division's best?" When you look around the division and see the likes of Wainwright, Greinke, and a healthy Volquez ready to take that role for the Cubs main competitors, you have to wonder if Dempster's steady but unspectacular performance will be enough.
Zambrano, on the other hand, has been as unsteady in every way as you can imagine. The Cubs were able to tolerate this better when he could dominate hitters with a mid 90s fastball and a nasty slider, but his stuff has fallen off a bit. Encouragingly, Zambrano took some steps toward learning how to pitch and finished strong last year. After a horrendous start to the year that saw him banished to the bullpen and suspended, big Z ended the season with an 8-0 record in his last 10 starts. He once again outpitched his mediocre xFIP (4.42) and finished with an 11-6 record and a 3.33 ERA. The question with Carlos, though, is, "Can he hold it together and keep his composure?" If he is going to be the staff's leader, he's going to have to act like it. If he can, you can't count him out. He's a fierce competitor who always seems to find a way to win.
Garza is the new kid on the block. He has the best stuff of the current candidates, sporting a mid 90s fastball, a low 80s slider that breaks so sharply it sometimes looks like a hard curve, and a mid 70s curveball that gives him a third above average pitch. He is more well-liked by scouts who value a pitcher's stuff than statistical analysts who point to his average xFIP. Like Zambrano,though, Garza frequently outpitches his xFIP. Also like Big Z, he's a fierce competitor who sometimes has trouble reigning his emotions and commanding his pitches on the mound. When he does, he can be unhittable with his top of the rotation stuff, as last year's no-hitter against the Detroit Tigers will attest.
The Darkhorse Candidate
- Andres Cashner
Every once in awhile, an untested candidate finds his groove, catches momentum, and blows away the field. The Cubs darkhorse this year is Andrew Cashner. He has two pitches that scouts consider #1 starter quality. He has a fastball that can hit the high 90s and the nastiest slider this side of Carlos Marmol. What Cashner needs to do to take that great leap forward is to refine his changeup and command his pitches. If he can do this, he gives the Cubs a legitimate ace this season. It's probably too much to ask of him, as he isn't even a guarantee to make the rotation, but he's the one guy that can change the outlook of the entire Cubs staff.
Ryan Dempster may be the choice for now, but the Cubs have a few candidates who can oust him from his spot at the top. I'm glad to see Dempster get the Opening Day honor, he absolutely deserves it. However, for the Cubs to contend against some of the tougher staffs in the NL Central, they will need someone to truly emerge as a bona fide ace sometime during the season.