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.