This is a guest post from Cubs "Den-izen", Greg Shriver. Greg has more than 25 years of experience as a journalist, many of them spent covering sports. He is currently the assistant managing editor at The Winchester (Va.) Star, a daily newspaper outside of Washington, D.C., but is looking forward to the opportunity to return to writing about his favorite sport.
Prior to moving to Winchester with his wife Janice and cat Addison (yes, named after the street) in 2008, Greg spent the better part of a decade as a senior sports copy editor at The Des Moines Register, where he was also involved in numerous baseball projects such as coverage of the Chicago Cubs' Class AAA affiliate. His baseball work for the paper included interviews and stories on Hall of Famers such as former Cubs stars Ernie Banks, Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, Bruce Sutter and Dennis Eckersley. He also produced a weekly baseball page, did spring training diaries on major leaguers native to Iowa and wrote an Iowa Cubs blog.
Without further adieu, here is Greg's post...
A look ahead at the Cubs pitching staff
By Gregory Shriver
Depending on how you want to look at it, it’s either a really frustrating or really exciting time to be a Chicago Cubs fan.
In a way, it kind of mirrors what is happening with Wrigley Field. The old is being stripped away (or likely will be) and something new is taking its place.
But is it a clunker or a ride that will make people sit up and take notice? And what is the fastest route to the World Series?
It would seem to me that it’s all about pitching, pitching, pitching. And despite it being an area of the organization that seemed barren a couple years ago, by the time pitchers and catchers report to the Cubs’ new spring training digs in Mesa, Ariz., in 2014, the team could be well on its way to building one of the best staffs in baseball.
From the maturation of Jeff Samardzija, to rumblings about the Cubs trying to swing a deal for David Price, to the likelihood that Mark Appel or Jonathan Gray will be a Cub sometime this summer, there is a lot to like about the team’s evolving rotation.
So let’s examine how things might shake out for the Cubs’ staff over the next year or so.
PITCHERS HERE TO STAY
Jeff Samardzija: In a cross section of rankings of the majors’ 30 opening day starters this year by various baseball writers, Samardzija generally finished between Nos. 15-20. But he is certainly trending upward.
Prior to Opening Day – as part of his “10 Bold Predictions for the 2013 Fantasy Season” – David Wiers of RotoGraphs (part of FanGraphs) predicted he would finish with the most value of any starter in the NL Central, even more than the likes of Johnny Cueto, Adam Wainwright and Mat Latos.
“Great things are on the horizon for him, and 2013 will be his big breakout season,” Wiers wrote.
Samardzija, who will pitch at age 29 in 2014, ranked as one of the five hardest-throwing starting pitchers in baseball last season, with his average fastball speed sitting at 95.1 mph according to FanGraphs. And of course, that’s not to mention his swing-and-miss slider, cutter (which he is throwing more) and slit-finger pitch.
At this point, Samardzija seems like a good bet to project as a No. 2 starter on a contender. If we’re talking about a championship rotation, he’s probably a No. 3.
At this point, however, the still-improving right-hander will most likely go into 2014 as the Cubs’ ace.
Travis Wood: He’s definitely not “the best pitcher in baseball” as Dale Sveum suggested after another strong outing by Wood against a hard-hitting St. Louis team Tuesday night. But there is a lot of buzz about how Wood is mixing is pitches and using all sides of the plate this year.
That doesn’t mean he’s going to turn into the next Tom Glavine, but Wood is also only 26, meaning his improvement this year could just be part of his development. These factors, along with his being a lefty, suggest that Wood is going to be around when the Cubs turn the corner.
Edwin Jackson: It would be as silly to jump to the conclusion that Jackson’s four-year, $52 million contract was a horrible signing based on his poor start as it would be to think that Scott Feldman has suddenly turned into Greg Maddux. Advanced stats suggest that Jackson has been a bit unlucky this year, and he has always had his ups and downs.
The 29-year-old’s track record shows that he can be an effective innings eater (though I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cubs put him on the disabled list with some cryptic injury when Matt Garza returns to the rotation).
Down the road, the hard-throwing right-hander could also be moved to the bullpen as a swingman or late-innings guy.
Arodys Vizcaino: One of the Cubs’ aces in the hole, Vizcaino climbed as high as No. 43 on Keith Law’s Top 100 prospect list as a teenager and has worked his way back to No. 64 on this year’s list after Tommy John surgery (with his lower ranking likely having a lot to do with the fact that he may now project more as a bullpen guy than a starter).
It’s too early to tell whether Vizcaino, who is on the small side at 6-feet, 190 pounds, will be durable enough to start. But after striking out more than a batter per inning during a stellar minor league career and continuing on that pace during a brief stint in the majors for Atlanta before arriving in Chicago, he has the stuff to become a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter or at least a standout closer.
Either way, barring another injury, Vizcaino is a valuable young commodity who figures to be a major contributor to the pitching staff for the next few years.
Mark Appel: Another potential future top-half-of-the-rotation starter for the Cubs is Stanford’s Appel, who seems to be the consensus No. 1 pick in baseball’s June draft.
Houston has the top pick, and could take Appel, but Oklahoma’s Jonathan Gray – who throws even harder and like Appel boasts an off-the-chart-slider – is also in the mix.
The consensus among scouts seems to be that Appel is the more refined pitcher and has a better delivery. And that while the ceiling is about the same for both pitchers – No. 1 or 2 starter in the majors – Appel (who is a few months older) is more likely to get there first.
Law had an interesting take on the situation during a recent talent analysis of the draft in which he said Appel and Gray were clearly Nos. 1-2.
“If I were the Astros (or the Cubs, picking second), I'd try to work out a deal less than the recommended bonus number ($7.7 million for Houston) but more than the figure Appel turned down from the Pirates last year ($3.8 million), with the carrot of a big league call up in September if he throws well after signing. He could pitch in a major league rotation in 2014 regardless.”
David Price: If the Cubs are ever going to go all out to land a top-of-the-line pitcher, Price would appear to be a good candidate. The Tampa Bay lefty seems headed for a massive payday when he becomes a free agent in 2016, leading many to believe that the small-market Rays could unload him for a nice package of prospects as early as this year.
Price, who already has a Cy Young and a runner-up finish, seems to fit the Theo Epstein criteria for acquiring high-profile talent. He throws hard, will only be 28 next season, and has the added attraction of being a southpaw.
ESPN columnist Buster Olney recently guessed that the Cubs might be the favorite to land Price at the trade deadline if Tampa Bay is out of contention or this winter.
“It is a guess, but … how many teams can pay David Price? The Cubs certainly can… [They] to me would be the most likely team to get him…”
If there are no red flags, and Price’s velocity is down this year – perhaps contributing to his poor start –Chicago would likely have to part with a package along the lines of Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Dan Vogelbach, Pierce Johnson and probably at least one other pitcher just to get the Rays interested. Fans who think the Cubs could just offer one of their top prospects, I think, are mistaken, given Price’s track record, age and the fact that he won’t be a free agent for nearly three seasons.
Another obstacle, beyond concerns over whether anything is wrong with Price and the cost in prospects, is the cost in dollars. The Cubs would want to be sure they could buy out his remaining free agent years and sign him to a long-term deal – likely to be in excess of $150 million.
Alberto Cabrera: His being stretched out as a starter at Tennessee this season seems a little strange, since many have projected Cabrera as a reliever. It’s questionable whether the hard-throwing righthander has the arsenal to make it as a starter in the majors. He is off to a solid start in 2013 – though his age, 24, could begin to work against him.
Matt Garza: His saga has been well-documented, as have the scenarios for him going forward. Will he stay healthy and then pitch well enough to bring something of value back at the trade deadline? Will the Cubs make him a qualifying offer and perhaps retain him for 2014? Or will they sign him to an extension before the year is up?
It appears unlikely, to me anyway, that Garza will fetch much in a July trade even if he is lights out for two months when he returns. There will still be injury concerns, and he will be a two-month rental.
Kansas City might be the best trade partner as things stand now, with the Royals in early contention following an offseason commitment to pitching. There, he could be reunited with James Shields and Wade Davis.
If the Cubs were willing to sweeten the pot, say by adding James Russell, might the Royals part with center field prospect Bubba Starling and perhaps one of their pitching prospects?
Carlos Villanueva and Scott Feldman: Both beneficiaries of favorable BABIP numbers this year, these two seem to be lining up as this year’s Paul Maholm and Ryan Dempster.
And that’s not a bad thing. If they continue to put up numbers better than their career averages, imagine what kind of value they might bring back if packaged in a trade with Garza and Russell. Especially Villanueva, with his previous success as a swingman and the fact that he is signed through 2014.
OK, I’m thinking blockbuster, and I know that’s not likely to happen.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
One enticing scenario for the Cubs moving forward, strictly from a pitching standpoint, would be a 2014 rotation of 1. Price; 2. Samardzija; 3. Garza; 4. Wood; and 5. Appel – with the likes of Vizcaino, Jackson, Kyuji Fujikawa, Russell, Villanueva and Cabrera, or even a Juan Carlos Paniagua, in the bullpen.
Even with Price out of the mix, something along the lines of 1. Samardzija; 2. Garza; 3. Wood; 4. Appel; and 5. Jackson would have a huge upside. If Appel (or Gray) develop quickly, they could slide into the No. 1 or 2 spot by 2015, with Vizcaino also in the mix.
So many possibilities, and so much road to cover. One thing for sure, if things fall right for the Cubs pitching-wise, it likely won’t take another five years for the North Siders to become legitimate contenders.
Filed under: Guest Post