It's easy to forget that through early July last season, the Cubs actually had a pretty good rotation. Ryan Dempster had a great first half, Samardzija was a surprise to many, Matt Garza had some bad luck with flyballs but was pitching well otherwise, and Paul Maholm proved to be one of the best low cost signings on the FA market last year.
What they didn't have was depth -- or a reliable bullpen. The Cubs plan to build an 8 or 9 man rotation went up in smoke when Chris Volstad and Travis Wood got off to bad starts. Then Randy Wells and Rodrigo Lopez were terribly ineffective when called on. When the rotation was further decimated with the trades of Dempster and Maholm, coupled with the untimely injury to Matt Garza, the Cubs wound up turning to rookies Chris Rusin and Brooks Raley along with waiver wire pick ups like Justin Germano and Jason Berken.
This year the Cubs are deep with established MLB starters. Incumbents Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija lead the staff, joined by newcomer Edwin Jackson. After that, the Cubs have Travis Wood, Scott Baker, Scott Feldman, and Carlos Villanueva. That's 7 experienced arms that you can count on to give you some quality starts. At least more so than the group they ran out there late last season.
Behind them you have Chris Rusin and Brooks Raley, who can buy time until pitchers like Arodys Vizcaino and Alberto Cabrera are ready. Nick Struck and Barrett Loux are also candidates to get a shot if needed.
So while the rotation may or may not actually be better than it was for the first 3 1/2 months last season, it has a chance to be similarly effective. More to the point, it will be deeper, younger, and more flexible.
And that isn't even getting to the bullpen, which will benefit from a deeper rotation. It will likely receive the odd man out between Wood, Villanueva, and Feldman early on, then possibly a second arm from that list once Baker comes back.
At this point they will start the year with Carlos Marmol as the closer with Kyuji Fujikawa as the set-up man. Sean Camp and James Russell will provide an effective righty/lefty 7th inning tandem, while Michael Bowden and the odd man out of the rotation also figures to be in that mix.
Hard-throwing Rule 5 pick Hector Rondon is the favorite for the last spot, though he will get some competition from waiver wire pick-up Sandy Rosario, free agent Cory Wade, and last year's spring training phenom, Rafael Dolis. In the minors, the Cubs will have depth with Lendy Castillo, Jeff Beliveau (if he clears waivers), Carlos Guttierez, Blake Parker, plus Jaye Chapman and Zach Putname if they decide to return. It's also possible that if Arodys Vizcaino and Alberto Cabrera arrive in Chicago next year, they could do it as bullpen help. Chang-Yong Lim may also be ready to contribute by the end of the year.
Here's the way the pitching staff shapes up so far...
- Matt Garza, RHP
- Jeff Samardzija, RHP
- Edwin Jackson, RHP
- Travis Wood, LHP...or
- Scott Feldman, RHP...or
- Carlos Villanueva R
- Scott Baker (DL)
- Brooks Raley, LHP
- Chris Rusin, LHP
- Arodys Vizcaino, RHP
- Alberto Cabrera, RHP
- Barrett Loux, RHP
- Nick Struck, RHP
- CL: Carlos Marmol, RHP
- Kyuji Fujikawa, RHP
- Shawn Camp, RHP
- James Russell, LHP
- Scott Feldman/Carlos Villanueva, RHPs; Wood LHP
- Michael Bowden, RHP
- Hector Rondon, Cory Wade, Sandy Rosario, RHPs
There's some depth here and while it may get a little dicey after the 7th spot in the rotation, the thought is that if the Cubs lose 3 starters either through injury or trade (or ineffectiveness), it likely means they aren't contending anyway.
It's not just me who's feeling a bit optimistic...
Jonah Keri of Grantland tweets (though I have no idea why he has Villanueva 3rd or Samardzija)
Garza-Jackson-Villanueva-Samardzija-Feldman, with Wood and Baker lurking? That's...not bad at all, actually.
Villanueva's the wild card. I could see a random 4-win season.
And by 4 wins, he means WAR, of course. Not that he'll win 4 games in his won-loss record.
If everyone does stay healthy and effective, than it could mean that the Cubs may be better than we thought. And whether they contend or not, it will give the Cubs plenty of trade options down the stretch.
Dave Cameron of Fangraphs tweets,
It's almost like they're setting it up to trade Garza around the time that Baker returns...
He also wrote this article on the signing and the Cubs performance overall this offseason, in which he said,
But we should note that Edwin Jackson makes them better, and this price for Edwin Jackson is still completely reasonable based on his established performance level. That the Cubs aren’t yet obvious contenders shouldn’t cause us to tell them to stop trying to improve. By bringing in Jackson and Carlos Villanueva today, while already adding Scott Baker and Scott Feldman, the Cubs have now acquired four interesting starting pitchers this winter. They’ve rebuilt their entire rotation, essentially, and have set themselves up to be able to trade Matt Garza — after he proves he’s healthy, anyway — without it creating a huge problem for their Major League team. They did the same drastic overhaul of their rotation that the Twins and Royals went after this winter, just they did it without giving up useful Major League outfielders or top outfield prospects in the process.
Looks like the plan is starting to kick into gear.
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