The Cubs aren't going to have the most glamorous rotation in the National League, but it doesn't necessarily mean they won't have the arms to compete game in and game out. In fact, they have 7 starting pitchers who've already shown various degrees of success in the majors.
The team went after the rotation from two directions. One was to bring in some flyers who have shown better peripherals than results, with the idea being that you surround them with the best defense possible and try to at least match those solid FIP/xFIPs, perhaps even outperform them if the Cubs defense comes up big this year. The other was to get that one reliable veteran who could replace Ryan Dempster, if not in 2012 performance, then at least in terms of innings and durabiity.
In no particular order here is the Cubs expected "7-man" rotation and a quick look at how they may project for next season. We'll only look at things the pitcher can control (FIP, xFIP, walks, strikeouts) and how they project ERA for 2013. Wins are too unpredictable and a factor of how good the team is and how much run support the pitcher receives when he's on the mound. All statistics projections via Bill James and ZiPS.
2011 FIP/xFIP: 3.45/3.61 (missed most of 2012)
2013 Projected ERA: 3.86 (James), 3.91 (ZiPS)
Baker probably won't be fully healthy until May but when he is ready, the Cubs can expect a pretty good pitcher who controls the strike zone about as well as Paul Maholm did last season. In fact, if anything, Baker has shown better control throughout his career, though we must make some allowance for a pitcher coming off of Tommy John surgery. It may take some time for his command to come back, but as a veteran control pitcher, I wouldn't expect that to be long, if there's any wait at all.
Baker projects to a 3.86 ERA in 2013 with 7.34 strikeouts and 2.20 walks per 9 IP, in some ways better than what Maholm did last year. The Cubs would be thrilled if he performed as well as the lefty did last season for 4 months last season.
2012 FIP/xFIP: 4.17/3.59
2013 Projected ERA: 3.68 (James), 3.68 (ZiPS)
Garza projects to have the best ERA of all the Cubs pitchers at 3.68. You'll notice there's a rather large dispariy between Garza's FIP and xFIP. That is due to a huge uptick in the amount of flyballs that left the yard (16.3%) well above his previous career high and nearly double his previous career rate. With that rate dropping back down to something closer to his norm, we can expect his FIP to drop and with it his ERA for 2013.
Garza is a power pitcher who has tinkered with his approach and it has led to some of his best pitched games the past two seasons. His command/control continues to improve (sub 3 walks/9 IP rate the past 3 seasons). He's also emerging into a leader, albeit an unorthodox one, channeling his passion for the game into support for this teammates while keeping his cool on the mound.
We'd be remiss to discuss Garza without bringing up the fact that he is on the last year of his contract and has yet to sign an extension. Part of that is probably both sides wanting to make sure he's healthy, but if the Cubs hang on to Garza for 2013 and even beyond, he'd be a big boost for the rotation as the Cubs scratch their way to contention over the next few years. If not, a trade looms sometime between now and the deadline.
2012 FIP/xFIP: .55/3.38
2013 Projected ERA: 3.78 (James), 3.62 (ZiPS)
Samardzija went from middle relief man in early 2011 to the Cubs best starter by the end of the 2012 season. He projects for another solid season as James projects him for a solid 3.78 ERA though he also predicts a decrease in his strikeout rate. Samardzija is a tough guy to project. He is two years removed from being a reliever struggling to stay afloat in the big leagues and has only really had a half season of being a consistently good starter.
The Cubs are confident Samardzija will continue to improve and surpass projections. They consider him the only pitcher among their core players right now and the reason is a fastball that can reach 98 mph late in games and a split-finger that is his primary out pitch. As he developed consistency with his slider, Samardzija looked dominant at times late last season, though the first two pitches along are good enough for him to win ball games even when the slider isn't there. While he turns 28 next week, Samardzija has low mileage on his lightening bolt of an arm, and as long as he maintains his improvements in his command, there is every reason to expect he'll continue to pitch at a high level for the next several years.
2012 FIP/xFIP: 3.85/3.79
2013 Projected ERA: 3.98 (James), 3.91 (ZiPS)
The Cubs were comfortable giving Jackson 4 years because of his age and track record and he figures to offer stability in the middle of the rotation. He hasn't quite reached the potential teams once thought he had as a Dodgers and Rays prospect, but Jackson has shown considerable improvement the past few years with his command and approach on the mound. The Cubs think there's a chance he can still get better, but even if he doesn't, he still gives the team a solid mid-rotation starter. Jackson throws hard. leading with a mid 90s fastball and a mid to high 80s slider. He is able to sustain it in games, at times reaching the high 90s late in games last season, but he did lose a tick overall as compared to previous seasons. Whether that was a blip or the start of a new trend remains to be seen.
Jackson figures to stick around for awhile as the Cubs lack upper level pitching prospects and he and Samardzija are the two SPs the Cubs have under control over the next few years. At the very least, you can expect Jackson to put up an ERA in the 3.60-4.00 and put up wins (and losses) around the double digit range, which should help replace the loss of Ryan Dempster.
2012 FIP/xFIP: 4.84/4.62
2013 Projected ERA: 3.90 (James), 4.53 (ZiPS)
Wood is the only LHP in the top 7 and as a pitcher out of options, he will have a spot on the team, likely battling with Scott Feldman and Carlos Villanueva for 2 of the last 3 spots to open the season with the odd man out moving to the bullpen. Wood was the worst pitcher in terms of FIP last season yet James projects to improve on next season with a sub 4 ERA, about a half strikeout more per 9 innings (up to 7.3) and slight decrease in walks. ZiPS is less optimistic.
Wood showed flashes last year, incuding a 2.27 ERA in June and 3.05 overall in the first half before struggling in July (7.36 ERA) and finishing with a 5.07 ERA in the 2nd half. The Cubs need better consistency out of Wood this year if he hopes to retain his slot as the only lefty in the rotation, especially when Scott Baker returns from the DL.
2012 FIP/xFIP: 3.81/3.87
2013 Projected ERA: 4.19 (James), 4.31 (ZiPS)
Feldman put up a 5.48 ERA as a starter while posting a 1.98 ERA in relief (13.2 IP), so he could go either way. The peripherals for Feldman look very good and removing him from a notorious hitters AL ballpark and into the NL could prove to be a big boost for the former Ranger. He is similar to Brandon McCarthy in terms of stuff, approach. and fielding independent numbers, so the Cubs are hoping they can find themselves a bargain.
On the mound, Feldman is going to throw strikes and showed some ability to miss bats last season, striking out 7 batters per 9 IP. I'd consider he and Wood the early favorites to land a starting spot out of spring training.
2012 FIP/xFIP: 4.71/4.09
2013 Projected ERA: 4.01 (James), 3.98 (ZiPS)
Villanueva filled in ably as a starter in the tough AL East last year. Like Feldman, he was better as a reliever (3.24 ERA) than a starter (4.50 ERA), but the Cubs likely lured him with the promise of an opportunity to start. Stamina has been an issue with Villanueva and he finished the year with an ERA of 8.10 ERA in September after a solid 3.41 mark in August. We'll likely see him split time between the rotation and bullpen as the Cubs attempt to mix and match to cover injuries and trades.
Villanueva's biggest strides the past two years have been in terms of control. Although he doesn't have overpowering stuff, he can miss bats (8.76 per 9 IP) last year, mostly on the strength of his plus slider.
Barring a trade, by May the Cubs should have a strong rotation led by Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, and Scott Baker which really stacks up well in the NL Central as long as everyone is healthy. The Cubs will have the benefit of letting the other 3 pitchers compete during the season for that 5th spot with the others moving to the bullpen and ready to start if needed.
If the Cubs are going to compete this season, it's going to be on the backs of their pitching staff and while they may not have an ace in that bunch, they'll be able to run out a good pitcher on any given day, even if they aren't 100% healthy.
The upper level pitching prospects
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