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Guest Post: A look ahead at the Cubs pitching staff

Guest Post: A look ahead at the Cubs pitching staff

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...

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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.

POSSIBLE REINFORCEMENTS

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.

TRADE POSSIBILITIES

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.

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  • fb_avatar

    Great article, Greg. This pitching in the system is already leaps ahead of where it was just 2yrs ago. This FO has tried to find upside pitchers in every corner of the game from internationally(Panigua, Rivero), the draft(Johnson, Underwood, Blackburn, Maples, etc), Free agency(Jackson, Baker), trades(Vizcaino, Wood), and even converting hard-throwing relievers(Samardzija, Cabrera).

    Stockpiling good, young, cost-controlled starters is one of the hardest things to do in the game today. What the Cubs have done in only 2yrs considering where they came from is almost remarkable when you think about it.

    By 2015 we'll have so many high upside, power arms coming through the system we won't know what to do with them. I'm vehemently against bombing the farm on Price for a variety of reasons(miles on arm, decrease in velo, etc) but everything else was spot on.

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    In reply to Marcel Jenkins:

    I agree we're making progress, and I think you point out some of they guys that could help. The cupboard was SO bare, though, that we still don't really have good pitching in our system. Particularly at the higher levels, Cabrera is the only guy with much prospectiness, and even that's a bit of a stretch.

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    In reply to Zonk:

    Yeah most of the depth is down at the lower levels but come 2014-2015 we should see some of those guys get up to AA which puts them on the map to the show. I'm putting a lot of faith in Vizcaino and Appel(hopefully) to bridge the gap until the A-ball guys climb the ladder.

    I'd consider Cabrera a decent-good prospect. He has the complete arsenal, stuff, and physical attributes of a #2-3 starter. For him to stay in a rotation it's all about command and he has improved in that area since 2011.

  • In reply to Marcel Jenkins:

    I agree Marcel. In my mind, I'm already putting a lot of faith in Appel being there at #2 and developing into what everyone expects and Vizcaino staying healthy and returning to his previous form. Those two things would be HUGE for the big league club.

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    In reply to Zonk:

    Yes. I think the key will be if Samardzija and Appel or Gray, if the Cubs draft one of those guys, being who we think they are or hitting their full potential.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Marcel Jenkins:

    Thanks, Marcel. I certainly wouldn't advocate giving up that kind of package for Pirce. I was just stating what I think it would take to get him.

  • John: It's great to have the guest POSTS! All Cubs Den Guests are awesome. Gregory a great post and love the thinking on all your aspects. CUBS DEN Keep up the great work!!!!!!!! All involved.

  • In reply to Cubs26:

    Thanks Cubs26!

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Cubs26:

    It's nice to feel welcome. I think this is a great site, which is why I wanted to contribute.

  • This guy clearly has some different opinions to the regular contributors of this site. Nice to see that sometimes from somebody who actually seems knowledgeable, rather than outlandish statements from the Chicago media.

    P.S. I have some article ideas lined up for guest posts of my own. We'll be in touch, John.

  • In reply to elusivekarp:

    I'm confused Karp, are you talking about the commenters or?

  • In reply to Tom Loxas:

    Im talking about Greg. Hes the first person I've heard slamming the Cubs for their decision to make Cabrera a starter.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to elusivekarp:

    Elusivekarp: You always want a wide range of opinions. It helps me, I know, if I'm not just reading about what a few people think if those thoughts don't explore ideas outside the box or more than just one line of thinking.

  • The starting rotation is pitching playoff caliber now.

    I think all the Price trade talk is silly.

  • In reply to peachcobbler:

    I don't know if it's silly, but it's going to be difficult to pull off and that may make it unlikely.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to John Arguello:

    I see it as a 2% chance. Rays are going to want a king's ransom for Price. Wouldn't surprise me at all if they asked for 2 of Almora-Soler-Baez. Maybe even all 3. They landed one of the top 5 prospects in baseball and then some for 1, possibly 2 years of James Shields. Don't think a move like that improves the organization. Royals were stacked with young-ML ready talent and had excess.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    I think it's too early for the Cubs to give up the farm for Price. But a lot of it depends on what happens between now and this winter.

  • Thanks Greg. Good stuff and a nice summary of the Cubs pitching possibilities.

    A staff with Price, Appel, Shark, Wood, and Garza would be phenomenal.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    I wonder what happens to Vizcaino, Cabrera, Jackson, etc at that point. It's a great problem to have :)

  • fb_avatar

    Nice article. You point out the role that luck plays in small sample sizes.

    E-Jax: .352 BABIP so far....he's been unlucky, and he has a long and very consistent track record of being what E-Jax is: A solid #4 type, durable, young, sometimes gives up runs in bunches

    Wood: .202 BABIP. This is unsustainable; he's been very lucky. Is Travis Wood "the best pitcher in baseball?" The next Cliff Lee? Not even close. He's not that good. He is a solid 4/5 though, so that's a good thing, even if he regresses to the mean.

    Also, Jim Callis is pessimistic on Vizcaino remaining a starter, but it's worth trying that's for sure

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    In reply to Zonk:

    Good points. Cubs have absolutely nothing to lose by giving Vizcaino every chance to be a starter. It worked for Shark, has been mostly positive for Cabrera. Why not?

    I'd match Wood with just about every other team's #4. A good piece to have going forward.

    E-jax will be fine. His numbers always level out by the end of the year.

  • In reply to Marcel Jenkins:

    It really doesn't matter if Vizcaino is sitting in the dugout or along the wall during games; his presence will help to solidify either the starting rotation or the bullpen.
    Honestly, the Cubs should treat V as they did Dempster; put him in the bullpen, and allow him to transition to a starter if he stays healthy and effective in yrs 1 and 2.

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    In reply to Eldrad:

    No problem with that. My comment was more long term thinking. I fully expect Vizcaino to start off in the pen to get his workload up with a full transition to starting the year after like you said.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Eldrad:

    Good call.

  • I think next year you're probably looking at Shark, Jackson, Wood, Appel and Vizcaino. They'll probably go out and get another guy to compete with Vizcaino in FA. But I think they'll also aim to package some guys at the deadline to get a top flight major league ready pitching prospect. No true #1 in that group, but that's a lot of #2s/#3s. The 5 guys above are all under control until 2015, so it'd give time for other pitching prospects to develop, which you can then either groom to replace the above guys or deal to fill other holes in the team.

    Just don't see the David Price deal happening. Like Greg, I agree that a package built around only one of Soler/Baez/Almora and a bunch of peripheral guys isn't enough. And if that's the case, that's a lot to give up for 2 years of David Price.

  • In reply to TulaneCubs:

    Not sure why I said Appel, my bet is Appel goes #1 and the Cubs get Gray. My guess is they give Gray the full year in the minors next year.

  • Great Read, I agree, I would hate to give up all our top prospects to get Price, aswell as dropping probably close to 200m for him...
    Also what's the update on Vizcaino?

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Nik0522:

    Heard he was throwing daily at one of the Cubs-affilliate's facilities. AA I think.

  • In reply to Marcel Jenkins:

    Thanks for the response man! Can't wait to start seeing what this kid can do and will become.

  • If they draft pitchers with their 2 top picks and sign an interntional
    top pitcher then they will have more young arms to trade in a
    big package.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to emartinezjr:

    I'm not sure I understand this mindset. You stockpile young pitching to keep it and consistently refuel your rotation through the years. Good young pitching is one of the rarest commodities in baseball.

    I thought we were supposed to be bringing that in, not trading it away, right?

  • In reply to Marcel Jenkins:

    Sure, but at some point if you're developing enough quality starting pitching, you have too much of it to put in a 5 man rotation. That means dealing guys that are in the rotation or dealing guys that are in the minors to fill other holes.

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    In reply to TulaneCubs:

    That makes sense but the last few years we've seen a drastic change in team's willingness to deal young, impact pitching. Most teams do it sparingly, some bordering on desperately, and the others never do it. The teams that never do it are some of the most successful, with the best staffs. Talking Tampa, St. Louis, San Fran, Texas, etc. I don't believe that's a coincidence.

  • In reply to Marcel Jenkins:

    Tampa traded both Shields and Garza in the last few years and it's no secret they're looking to trade Price.

    Giants traded Zach Wheeler recently.

    So that's 2 that have had success that have dealt guys and 2 that have had success that haven't.

  • In reply to TulaneCubs:

    Tampa traded Shields, Garza and soon Price. None of these were prospects. They were all MLB good players when traded. The good teams don't trade high ceiling prospects. I hope the Cubs don't trade the farm for Price though I really like Price.

  • Can't see the FO office giving up a boatload of talent for Price, especially since the rotation is solid right now and we would have to get rid of our young bats which we desperately need.

  • A pitcher like Price does not become available offen. It would
    take alot to get him, but I think Theo mighty go for it.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to emartinezjr:

    I think too many of us, myself included, tend to look at prospects like Soler, Baez and Almora and see them as likely impact players. But when I research how many of the Top 50 prospects from year to year actually become impact players, the percentage is very low. So I think that bears consideration when it comes to dealing them away.

  • I can see no logical argument that success and pitching are inextricably entwined. All of the speculations an scenarios are interesting, but truly just conjecture. I have not so much faith in the punditry that surrounds athletics. So many factors are involved in how talent develops that I am reticent to lend it much credence.

  • Excellent post Greg! I think most of your assessments are spot on. Not sure I agree with your spin on Cabrera. I believe he definitely deserves a shot at starting and has the stuff to be a decent #3 guy, if he can command it. He may falter back to the bullpen, but it was worth a shot either way.

    IDK if Price is worth that package plus the $200MM or so to re-sign him. I'd love to have him, but sheesh!

    I haven't given up hope of re-signing Garza, which if they're able; they should do if we can't get surplus value for him in a trade. We would still need a solid ACE, but Shark/Garza/E-Jax/Wood/Baker/Appel/Gray, etc gives us some options for the back 4.....

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to HoosierDaddy:

    I sure hope I'm wrong about Cabrera. This is an area where the Cubs have failed in the past - player development - and if they are able to turn Cabrera into a solid back-of-the-rotation starter it will be huge for the organization.

  • Thanks Greg, good stuff. I'm feeling optimistic if our draft pick ends up being top of the rotation we can put together a heck of a staff.

  • Wow, great article is right . I think the Cubs will get Appel , something tells me that the Appel and his agent will reject the Astro's pre-draft offer . The Astros will then pick Gray who looks to be easier to sign, leaving Appel to the Cubs will sign him.

  • fb_avatar

    Have we heard anything Panigua and his visa issue, has that been resolved? Any official word on Josh Conway and his injury?

  • fb_avatar

    Greg, I've loved your stuff in the past, and this is a good article. I agree. It all starts with pitching, or should I say pitching and defense. Good pitching and defense is two-thirds of the equation, and if you can stop people from scoring or limit the amount they do score, you stand a much better chance of winning than those don't or can't. Historically, it has also been much harder to acquire quality pitching than it has quality hitting. The latter is simply in greater supply than the former, but at the same time, I would also say caveat emptor: let the buyer beware.

    I have strong reservations about David Price. We're talking about a guy who pitches mostly off his fastball, much like Matt Garza, but who has suddenly seen a decrease in velocity. That alone is disconcerting enough, but then, if I read you correctly, you're suggesting Team Theo should be willing to trade all those kids to get him. Even if I didn't have concerns about his velocity, I'm not sure I'd want to pay that price for a guy who only plays every fifth day. I think that is shortsighted. Now if I had a ton of organizational depth, like Atlanta did in its heydays, I might feel differently, but the Cubs still aren't there yet, and the Braves only made those kinds of deals when they were sure the short term gain would be worth the long term pain, which the Cubs aren't at that point yet. Then there is his pending free agency. If you make that deal and you can't resign him or you decide you don't want to do so, you've just wasted your trading chips, the sum of whose individual parts might have ended up being greater than the whole of what you just traded for.

    I have mixed emotions about Matt Garza. I'm not sure he is as devalued as you think. I think this is going to be a sellers market again, and when I look around at who might be sellers, none of them have anyone who is as good as Garza overall. Also, when I look at who could be buying, I see a lot of teams whose systems have surpluses of what the Cubs need. Granted, he could be a three month rental and he won't fetch you a comp pick, but there are ways around both of those obstacles if Team Theo wants to be creative.

    Sign and trade scenarios have happened before, and the Cubs could make up of the lack of a comp pick by throwing someone like Blackburn or Underwood into the deal. It would be well worth it to get someone like Zimmer or Gausman, and if you could make that kind of deal, I might feel better about making a move for Price because the Cubs would then be dealing from depth, like Atlanta did in 1990's.

    Regardless of all that, if Team Theo can get anymore than a comp pick for him, Garza should be dealt. However, he and his agent should also be made aware that the door is open to a return. Imagine getting prospects for Garza and then resigning him this winter. That's not unheard of either.

    It could also work out that he isn't traded at all. In that case, the Cubs have the threat of a qualifying offer to use in negotiating an extension.

    I'm 100% with you on T-Wood. He's a younger version of Ted Lilly to me. He's a 2 in a poor rotation, a 3 in an average rotation, a 4 in a good rotation and a 5 in a great rotation. I also see him as being a good stable pony for when kids like Peirce Johnson and Appel or Gray do get to the show.

    I think you have to sell high on Feldman and Villanueva, and I think Team Theo will. After all, that's why they were signed in the first place. I will say this about Feldman. I'm not really surprised by his success. He's always had good stuff, but when you take a deeper look at his numbers, like Dave Cameron of Fangraphs did back in November, you see that he has been the victim of some very bad luck, and I would also add that the ballpark he pitched in didn't help him either. Villanueva is already starting to regress to the mean.

    Jackson's internals are a lot better than his popular stats. I would also tell anyone who asked me about Jackson to look at his splits. He has been awful in the month of April throughout his career. His FIP and xFIP are okay as compared to his ERA. His K/9 is above his norm. His BB/9 is up, but not terribly so. Where he is getting killed is an unusually high BABIP and LOB%. That's as much about bad luck as anything.

    Jeff Samardziga is a Godsend to a team whose system is starved of front of the rotation types. I'm not willing to put the #1 tag on him yet, but I'm with you. He is a 2 in a good rotation and a 3 in a great rotation for sure.

    Thanks for you contribution, and I hope to read you on this blog more often.

  • fb_avatar

    Mr. Caldwell: Super analysis by you. I'm enjoying reading these responses to the article, because many of the readers on this site appeared to be quite well informed.

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