Looking ahead at the Cubs starting rotation for 2013

Looking ahead at the Cubs starting rotation for 2013
Arodys Vizcaino

The Cubs traded two of their best pitchers at the deadline and a 3rd is out indefinitely with an injury.  The rest of this season isn't going to look too pretty and the Cubs highest ceiling SP prospects are at the lowest levels of their system right now.

So how does the Cubs rotation look going into next year?

Well, there are a lot of questions to answer.  Depending on what those answers are, it could be surprisingly good or we could be in for another long season.

After the deadline, the Cubs were left with Jeff Samardzija as their de facto ace and despite some bumps in the road, he looks like the real deal.   He has averaged 95 mph on his fastball this season and has often hit the high 90s, even late into games.  His slider has been hit or miss, but when it's been on it's been a plus pitch.  He just needs to remember not to use it so much when it' s not working for him.  His most effective pitch this season has been a split-fingered fastball which went from above average to just plain nasty this season.   Just as importantly, this year we have learned that Samardzija easily has the stamina to sustain this plus stuff for 9 innings.

The numbers back up Samardzija as well.  He's reduced his walk rate to a career low 3.32, though we did see signs that this was coming in the 2nd half of last season.  His K rate has been 8.8, not too far off from what he did in relief last year.  Although his ERA is a mediocre 4.21, his FIP and xFIP have been in the mid three's, ranking him in the top 25 of all pitchers this season -- and it seems he can still get better, particularly with more consistent command and continuing to learn the nuances of being a starting pitcher.

There are two wild cards in this equation: Matt Garza and Arodys Vizcaino.  Garza has had some bad luck with flyballs this season, a higher percentage of them (16.3%)  have left the ballpark this year than at any other point in his career.  His solid xFIP of 3.58 this year indicates he would have had another good year on the mound and it bodes well for next year's perfromance.  The stuff is there as Garza has an excellent fastball that has averaged 93-94 mph, a pitch that he pairs effectively with his slider, which is a second plus offering.

We know what Matt Garza is right now, which is a solid #2 starter. The only question is will he fill that role with the Cubs or will the Cubs use that status to cash in and collect younger pitchers?  The Cubs are at the crossroads now with Garza.  They've been unable to deal him for what they feel is fair value and now he is injured for what might be the balance of the season.  This winter they'll have to decide whether to trade him or sign him to an extension.  At 28, he's still young enough to be part of the team's rotation for the next few years should they not get an offer they like.  But he could also bring in a young, cost-controlled arm that may fit better long term.  Once again, Garza will be the name to watch when the winter meetings roll around again.

Another injured pitcher, 22 year old Arodys Vizcaino may have as good of raw stuff or better than Garza.  Vizcaino had Tommy John surgery in March but believes he'll be ready by spring training next year.  When healthy he sits at 93-95 and can hit 97 mph -- and that's not even his best pitch.  That would be his curveball, which has a sharp break and which he can command very well more often than not.  His change-up is average but it's not a problem considering his top two offerings.  ESPN's Keith Law had Vizcaino rated as the 12th prospect overall before the injury. I asked Law, given what he knows now, would he prefer Randall Delgado or Vizcaino? His answer was that he would still take Vizcaino, injury and all.  The biggest questions with Vizcaino are 1) can he stay healthy and 2) does he have the endurance to remain a starter?  If the answer to those two questions are yes, the Cubs will have another power SP on their hands.

The prospect of having 3 power pitchers at the top of the rotation, all under the age of 30, is tempting to say the least.  All 3 pitchers, however, have question marks right now and it's still very possible that the only one in the rotation come next April is Samardzija.

The other pitcher certain to be here is LHP Travis Wood, who has shown flashes but has been up and down for the most part.  Wood has worked with a 90 mph fastball, a solid slider, and a so-so change.  He doesn't have the pure stuff that Samardzija does, so he has to be more fine with his location.  When he hasn't spotted his fastball, he's been hit pretty hard this year.  In reality, Wood is probably a 4th starter at best, capable of putting together some good starts but not talented enough to get by when he's not locating.

After that, things, really get dicey...

Chris Volstad has looked better in his last two starts but considering the disaster he's been for most of the season, it's going to take a lot more evidence than two solid games before we start to feel comfortable with him.  Also somewhat encouraging is that his FIP (4.55) is almost 2 and half points lower than his ERA (6.94).  It's far too soon to say we can expect a rebound with Volstad, but I think it's still too early to give up on him. He has solid stuff, beginning with a 92-93 mph two seamer that can be nasty at times.  With Volstad it has to be about finding consistency with his command and his secondary stuff.  And then, of course, he has to pitch better under adversity and limit those big innings.

The Cubs are currently giving 24 year old LHP Brooks Raley a look.  He's been their best starter at the upper level of their minors with a 7.57/3.07 walk to strikeout ratio and a 3.62 ERA (3.76 FIP).  There should be no illusions, however, that Raley is a front-line starter.  In fact, he's much like Travis Wood in that he needs to hit his spots with an 88-91 mph FB, slider, and change.  They are also both extremely athletic pitchers who have the potential to develop excellent command, but neither has been able to do it consistently at any level this season.  The hope is that at least one of them can take that next step in terms of locating with more precision.

Other pitchers in the mix include LHPs Chris Rusin and Eric Jokisch as well as RHP Nick Struck. Rusin is a pitcher who relies on command and a plus change-up.  He was the favorite to get the call early in the season but he has since been passed by the younger Raley and could soon be caught by the 23 year old Jokisch, more or less a younger version of Rusin in that he also depends on command a a plus change.

Jokisch and Struck have been perhaps the most productive pitchers at the Cubs upper levels in terms of traditional metrics.  Jokisch is 10-6 with a 3.28 ERA between advanced A Daytona and AA Tennessee.  At first glance, Jokisch seems to have made a successful transition to AA, going 7-2 with a 3.14 ERA, but closer inspection reveals an unsustainable BABIP of .218 and a strikeout rate that has fallen from 8.61 to 4.89 since his promotion.  Jokisch likely needs more time at AA and AAA before getting serious consideration.

Struck is 13-10 with a 3.64 ERA at AA Tennessee, walking 37 and striking out 102 in 131 innings.  His peripherals are solid as well (3.89 FIP), though he has been helped somewhat by a low .275 BABIP.  Struck is a bit undersized at 5'11' but is an aggressive pitcher, which leads to the inevitable "bulldog mentality" description. In this case it's accurate.  Struck is fearless on the mound, attacking the strike zone despite average stuff across the board.  If he gets a shot next spring, I can envision manager Dale Sveum and pitching coach Chris Bosio becoming enamored with his approach.  The question with Struck is whether his stuff will be good enough to get MLB hitters out consistently as a starting pitcher.  His size could also be a factor that may ultimately land him in the bullpen, but you can't count this kid out for now.

There is, of course, the possibility that the Cubs acquire a starting pitcher from outside the organization whether it be through trade for free agency, much as they did with Wood, Volstad, and Paul Maholm this past offseason.  I see that as being likely at this point given the uncertainty with the current staff.

There are some ingredients here to work with, but much will depend on the Cubs top 3 arms.  If all are healthy and with the team on Opening Day, it could be a rotation that surprises people.  If not, it appears the Cubs will be scrambling to find the right mix throughout the season.

Filed under: Analysis, Starting rotation


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  • I hope Garza is able to pitch a few games in late Sept. This
    way teams can see if he is heathly, but only pitcher him if
    the doctor says it is ok. I hope we can still get some good
    prospects for him, I don't see him coming back in 2014.

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    A lot has to happen. I wouldn't be shocked if he were still here. It's going to depend on whether team think he's healthy and worth trading big prospects.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    If he wants more than 5 years at 75mm, the Cubs will probably trade him for whatever they can get. Big prospects or not.

  • In reply to Cubswin4harry:

    If that whatever is better than a comp pick, then yes, I'd agree with that.

  • I would definitely think the FO will have to sign some Maholm-type free agents this offseason, particularly given their stated desire to go 8 or 9 deep. This year, pitchers like Wells, Coleman, and Lopez are part of that 8/9 "deep" rotation and I'd be shocked and disappointed if any of them were around next year. So, at the very least we'll see some depth signings to fill out those 5-9 spots since it's pretty clear we don't really have anyone in the upper levels that can fill those spots effectively now.

    It'll be interesting to see what happens with Vizcaino. Does he have the stuff to be a true #1 John? Or is his ceiling being a solid #2 like Garza?

  • In reply to Pura Vida:

    Agreed on the depth issue.

    Depends on who you ask with Vizcaino. Law did write #2 but implied he could be more, but others look at durability factors and call him as low as a #3 or a closer. If you talk purely about stuff and command, then yes I think he has #1 potential.

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    In reply to Pura Vida:

    A major trade could fill out the depth issues, too. Unfortunately there are two (arguably three) guys on the big league roster that could bring the arms Theo needs there: Garza and Castro (and arguably Rizzo).

    Fun position Theo is in this off-season. It will be interesting to see how he responds.

  • I think Travis Wood will be fine. I see nothing but good things from this guy when he's on. I think the FO will add another starter (or 2) in the off-season and the rotation will be what it was this year, but a bit stronger. Right now Theo and Jed are in a good position if they want to acquire more talented starting pitchers. I see nothing but promise at the end of the rainbow.

  • In reply to lokeey:

    I like the potential for him to become more and more consistent with that command too. When he has that, he's really tough.

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    I'm almost certain the Cubs will sign at least one free agent starter during the off-season. There's a lot of interesting names out there. I don't expect the Cubs to go for Greinke or some other high profile pitcher. Something reasonable like when they signed Paul Maholm. I would love the Cubs to go for Colby Lewis but he'll probably be too much for them. Maybe the Cubs get a guy like Anibal Sánchez, Francisco Liriano, or Kevin Correia.

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    In reply to Danny Guerra:

    If Anibal Sanchez is reasonably priced, I'd love the Cubs to make a run. Really, there isn't a guy you mentioned that wouldn't be nice for the right price. We could even make a reality show about Liriano: "Flip this pitcher."

  • Nice piece

    Vizcaino is the biggest wild card for me, if he can come back as a starter that really does give the cubs a potentially powerful top 3 and despite wood's struggles i like him moving forward as well. If all 4 pitched to their potential that could really start to be something.

    Call me crazy but i still think Volstad has the potential to be a usable #5, he is young and has decent stuff, just needs to get better from the stretch, the rest of the year i think goes a long way to discovering that as the staff has had a lot of time with him now

    If vizcaino comes back in the pen and the 5 spot turns into a black hole, thats cool, just cruise to another top 5 pick and start looking at adding in 2014/15

    How likely is it vizcaino comes back as a starter you think? 50/50?

  • In reply to Andrew13:


    Agreed that Vizcaino is a big key for 2013 but I think it's more likely he makes his first big contribution in 2014.

    As for Volstad, his stuff is MLB quality and maybe with the Cubs looking toward development for the rest of the season, he gets one more shot and makes the best of it. I'd have to say it's make or break for him from now until October.

  • what are chris volstads potential if he could reach all of it because ive heard be could be a number 3 but others say he is a 4 at best

  • In reply to kingpro98:

    I'd say at this point I'd settle for a #4.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    Not that he hasn't spent an entire season looking good before coming unglued -- but he's looked decent the last two starts.

  • What about guys like Rosscup and Ty'Relle? Any chance they're in the mix next year?

  • In reply to SVAZCUB:

    Probably not. Harris may get a look in the spring but hes more of a middle reliever type.

  • Any word on whether the Cubs will shut Samardzija down at the start of September? He's already at his career high in IP. No reason to risk overloading him in a busted season. Let him start 5-6 more games and then its Casey Coleman time in September. Fans aren't exactly coming out to see the Shark anyway.

  • In reply to Eddie:

    I think the fact that he's older and physically mature mitigates that need somewhat but I do agree, would like to see them slow him down or shut him down altogether since it's pretty meaningless from here on out.

  • John, you discussed the possibility of the Cubs looking for Maholm type deals. I think there's a number of Sp's who could fit that mold depending how the market plays out.

    Anibal Sanchez
    Brandon McCarthy
    Sean Marcum
    Edwin Jackson
    Colby Lewis
    Kyle Lohse
    Erik Bedard
    Joe Blanton
    Scott Baker

    Some of the guys on top might get more than two years, but might still make sense. Could you see the Cubs adding one or two of these guys?

  • In reply to CubsML:

    I can see them taking a chance on flyers like Baker or Lewis,but I don't know if they'll spend for someone like Sanchez.

  • john when will we find out the two PTBNL for baker and how good will they be?

  • In reply to kingpro98:

    They said by Oct. 31st...and I don't expect them to be anything to get really excited about.

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    What about Gemano as a no. 5 next year? He has been much more effective that Volstad.

    Any way you see Cabrera or Castillo getting stretched out in camp next year with an opportunity to start?

  • In reply to Steve Kermath:

    Stuff is really pedestrian. Can't imagine he can keep fooling MLB hitters long term. He's already been hit pretty hard today.

  • I think Garza gets traded for good prospects in the offseason. Jed Hoyer saying he'll be with us next season seems like posturing. It'll increase the chance of it happening if he gets a couple of starts in before the end of the season and the FO comes down from selling him as an ace to selling him as a #2, which seems likely now.

  • In reply to Carne Harris:

    I'm guessing that any team that would give us a good return for him would want to see him back healthy and in top form for a reasonable amount of time before the deal--otherwise we're not going to get what he's worth. Which means he may be with us next year, and either get extended or go at the deadline in 2013.

  • In reply to SVAZCUB:

    I think two great starts at the end of the year does that for us. Conditional on a full physical and all that. I'm just not a fan of extending him unless we can get him cheap. But if we could get a Greinke type haul at the 2013 trade deadline though, I'd be all for that.

  • I would have to believe that the Cubs would bring in one if not two starting pitchers via trade or free agency. Either in a deal similar to the Zambrano for Volstad deal (possibly a waiver deal with Soriano), and maybe a signing of an innings eater type like Maholm, if there's someone like him who is undervalued.

    Obviously, a guy like Vizcaino wouldn't be ready for the rotation before next fall because he probably needs not only to recover, but also some AAA time if he's still a starter. Also, the AA guys like Jokisch and Struck probably won't be ready until late in the year (if then).

    So, what we're really looking at to start the year is:
    Garza (if healthy)

    and then two of Germano, Volstad, Coleman, Raley, Rusin, De La Cruz, etc.

    Ideally, you don't bring up Raley or Rusin unless they force your hand, and the other guys are injury fill ins or long relivers.

    I would think that this FO will bring in two guys who are solid enough to be penciled in as rotation starters, plus a couple more guys who could be considered depth with upside.

  • In reply to SVAZCUB:

    I agree.

  • Personally, there's no way I see Vizcaino as a rotation member in 2013. Sure, he may be physically healed from Tommy John surgery, but it takes a while for a pitcher to get back to where they were - just look at how bad Robert Whitenack's doing after being so impressive last season.

    I see Vizcaino having some struggles in the high minors in 2013, being what we hope he will to start 2014 as Iowa's ace, being recalled around June or so, and then being shut down in late August/early September as to be cautious with his pitch count.

    Right now, I'd have to say the 2013 rotation looks something like Garza/Samardzija/Wood/Joe Saunders (expecting him to be flipped like Maholm)/Volstad, with Germano back as the spot starter/long reliever.

  • I am curious John, what role you think Lendy Castillo might play in this picture, if not this next season, 2014?

  • I'd like to see Frankie De La Cruz get a real shot as well, where he can get a prolonged look. He throws a nice curve and slider and a cut fastball, I think. He's been a highly ranked prospect in the past, but never has pitched much for some reason. I think his time may be coming up.

  • Ok. I've been wanting feedback on this for a while so please respond. We always talk about cost control and financial issues but these guys are not like us, making middle class wages, this FO can spend SO much money. Someone needs to explain to me how it is good to run a streamlined economic ship. If that was the goal, great, but these little savings here and there baffle me. Look at Mark Cuban. You CAN buy a title and does fiscal responsibility really apply to the ultimate goal????

  • In reply to Mitterwald:

    The more you save at the margins and create value, the more room you have to spend. The Cubs don't have a limitless budget, so if they can get a SS who would normally make 10-15M a year and pay him 500K, then that's money they can reallocate elsewhere.

    All teams want to save money where they can, the Cubs are lucky enough that they can use that saved money to buy other parts -- but it only makes sense to do so when they're close to winning.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    That's why I think they may trade Castro, not because they're close to winning, but the pieces they get may put them significantly closer to winning. Swapping Baez for Castro essentially and get a bunch of other prospects, hopefully pitchers. Baez should be up by at least 2015, which is what they are aiming for.

    Unless something else happens first.

  • In reply to SFToby:

    I'm really tired of hearing people want to trade Castro. Are you guys crazy? You don't trade a cost controlled SS who is 22 years old. There is not a team in the league who wouldn't want Castro. There is no way to get fair value for him. I love Baez and am super excited for him but lets not forget that this is his first year of pro ball. Lets wait a year or so before we annoint him our SS of the future and kick Castro to the curb.

    I understand the glamour that comes from having highly ranked prospects. But look at the track record of these highly ranked prospects, it's not good. Most of these prospects aren't going to figure it out and become more than average MLB Players. Baseball is littered with the skeletons of top prospects that couldn't cut it. IMO I think prospects are overrated right now. Yes u get the cost control and the "potential" but you never know what ur going to end up with. I would rather keep our known MLB players (who can play into our LT plans) instead of rolling the dice on prospects turning into impact players. I would love to see the cubs extend Garza (5 years for ~80 million) and sign Castro long term. We are a big market team and have the money to take care of our players.

    I love this site and love the interaction between all the readers. I enjoy the banter that is always going on.

  • I know fiscal restraint applies to every other business but does it lead to results in sports?

  • In reply to Mitterwald:

    Fiscal restraint has never applied to the entertainment industry, which sports essentially is part of.

  • Good info here, John, as usual.

    My take on Garza will always be (as long as he's not seriously injured) is sign the guy! Please! Why trade a 28-year old pitcher who is as good as he is? We know he's a winner, his history reeks of it. He has great stuff, and plays with passion. He is one of the foundations the Cubs can build around.

    The Cubs have done a lot of dumb things over the years that I've been following them, but the one "common denominator of dumb" (should be an official Cubs phrase) is that they get rid of good to excellent pitchers who go on to greatly help other teams. Let's call it the "Burt Hooton" effect.

    Ken Holtzman, Hooton, Eckersley, Greg Maddux, Dontrelle Willis, Lilly, even guys like Rick Reuschel, Fergie, & Bruce Sutter were dumped too early by our Cubbie FOs.
    Wasn't that Hernandez guy the AL MVP or Cy Young for the Tigers also a Cub pitcher at one time, too?

    It seems every Cubs FO over the last 40 years (God I'm old) has made a bone-headed move in this area, I think. Trading Garza just smacks of the same type of rash behavior.

    Pay the guy. Please! We need more like him, not less...

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