So the Cubs made some changes in July and it's going to affect the strength of the team, which has been the starting pitching. The Cubs have pitched well without Matt Garza and Scott Feldman, so perhaps it won't be be much of a hit next year, and it may even benefit them in the long run.
But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Let's take a look at what the rotation will look like next season:
- Jeff Samardzija, 28, RHP: Samardzija has ace-like stuff with a fastball that averages 95 mph and a nasty splitter than can be unhittable at times. He's a bit inconsistent with his slider and his command. He's also still learning the art of pitching -- though he has come a long way in all those areas. Samardzija still has upside and his early stint as a reliever both in the minors and majors -- plus his limited use in college gives him a lot less miles than your typical 28 year old and I think he'll have an atypical bell curve when it comes to peak years. I believe he'll continue to pitch well into his mid 30s. His traditional numbers don't look ace-like: 6-9 with a 3.75 ERA, but Samardzija misses bats (9.13 Ks/9 IP) and keeps the walks down at a reasonable rate (3.38 per 9 IP this year). His xFIP is at 3.46, which ranks 27th in all of baseball.
- Edwin Jackson, 29, RHP: Like Samardzija, Jackson throws hard (avg. of 93 mph) but his best seconary pitch is a hard mid 80s slider that is a genuine out pitch. He's still young and he's athletic, so I expect him to continue to pitch well through his contract. Jackson's traditional numbers look very pedestrian 7-11 with a 4.65 ERA, but his peripherals tell a different story. He has similar command to Samardzija but misses less bats (7.45/9 IP). Jackson has been hurt by an unusually low strand rate, which has adversely affected that ERA. His FIP is a much more impressive 3.45 (31st in baseball) -- and his performance of late has begun to reflect that.
- Travis Wood, LHP, 26, LHP: Wood hasn't even entered his prime years and he's already showing signs of breaking out and perhaps becoming a part of the Cubs young core. He has had the best results of any Cubs pitcher and even made the all-star team, but some regression is due. But don't freak out -- he's not going to regress to the guy who struggled mightily in his last season with the Reds and early on with the Cubs. He's a different pitcher now with an improved approach and better command than he had then. His FIP is still a respectable 3.67. Wood isn't going to miss a lot of bats. He's throwing less 4 seamers and a lot more cutters, so he's been inducing weaker contact and he's been better at keeping the ball down this year (0.67 HRs/9IP). Wood is an extremely athletic pitcher who helps himself with the glove and the bat. And that athleticism will help him pitch well even as he ages.
The In-House Candidates
- Carlos Villanueva. 32, RHP: Villanueva is signed on for one more year and has proved himself to be a very versatile pitcher. He's the kind of pitcher every team needs to keep things flowing smoothly through injuries. Villanueva has 29 appearance, 13 of them starts and a 4.33 ERA that needs little dissection as it accurately protrays his performance. He's a 5th guy if he starts and a nice, experienced option to have in-house in case of injury or if the other pitchers don't work out.
- Scott Baker, 31, RHP: Many of us considered Baker a steal when the Cubs signed him but injuries have proven many of us wrong. Baker is on his way back, now rehabbing in Daytona, and the Cubs will likely get a look in September and will then need to make a decision on whether to try and bring the impending free agent back or to go in a different direction. When healthy, he fits the profile the Cubs like perfectly -- athletic, throws strikes, misses bats, and has excellent intangibles such as pitchability and makeup. Assuming they can get him to stay on a team friendly, incentive laden deal, both Baker Villaneuva lessen the need for the Cubs to try and dig up a reliable veteran out of a weak free agent class.
- Jake Arrieta, 27, RHP: Guys who are entering their prime years, have prototypical size/build (6'4", 225 lbs) can throw 97 mph FBs and 90 mph sliders tend to be just a wee bit intriguing, don't they? The Cubs have a potential monster on their hands if they can harness all those great attributes. Arrieta has shown flashes of dominance at AAA Iowa and looked good in his one spot start this year.
- Chris Rusin, 26, LHP: Like Arrieta, Rusin may be something of a late bloomer. Unlike Arrieta, he's not going to wow you with his raw stuff. Rusin is strictly a pitch to contact, 5th starter type who throws a high 80s fastball that he can cut at times to get more movement. He also has a good change-up that he uses to keep hitters from sitting on his fringe average fastball while also giving him a weapon vs. RH hitters. He doesn't have an "out pitch" so he relies heavily on command, changing speeds, and locating his fastball. He's in his prime and has had good results in 3 starts this year, but peripherals suggest he won't sustain that sub 3.00 ERA.
- Justin Grimm, 24, RHP: Grimm was pressed into MLB duty this year before he was ready. Most think of him as a #4 type guy though some think he can be as high as a #3. He has good velocity, often pitching in the 90-93 range and a big curve that he need to throw for strikes to have success. He's had some trouble early on as MLB hitters won't swing at that curve as much as minor leaguers did, so Grimm will have to keep refining his command. His developing change-up will be a key for him vs. LH hitters. He'll have to learn to keep the ball down better too. Some potential here, there's a lot to work with, and he's in the mix for next season.
- Alberto Cabrera, 24, RHP: Cabrera has the kind ideal build (6'4", 210 lbs) and athleticism the Cubs like, which is part of the reason they decided to try him as a starter. He's also a rare power arm in the system, able to hit 97 mph though he gets better command and movement in the 92-94 mph range. His slider is wipeout pitch when he commands it and his change-up is average and just good enough to keep LH hitters honest, as well as a change of pace to keep hitters off his hard primary pitches. Cabrera was 9-3 with a 3.20 ERA (3.63 FIP) as a starter in AA Tennessee but with the sharp increase in innings, the Cubs have put him back in the bullpen for now. He's a darkhorse candidate for the rotation next year, in part because he's out of options and also because the Cubs have invested in his conversion as a starter. He can always move back to the bullpen, but I expect him to get a crack at a rotation spot next year.
Let me preface by saying that I think it's unlikely the Cubs bring Garza or Feldman back, even though, unsurprisingly, they would fit pretty well. I also think guys like Jon Lester (who also has a club option), Josh Johnson, and Tim Lincecum will at least get qualifying offers and the Cubs won't give up a 2nd round pick for them (maybe Lester, but I can't see the Red Sox not picking up his option) -- and they certainly won't give up an unprotected 1st round pick if they continue to win and drop out of the top 10. If these guys become FAs and don't get QOs then we can put them in the mix in a later piece.
- Phil Hughes, 28, RHP: Hughes is the right age but he could get expensive on this market, though he got the cold shoulder before the trade deadline from most GMs. His peripherals aren't all that impressive and the injury history give you some pause.
- Edinson Volquez, 30, RHP: Could be an interesting buy low candidate. He's still relatively young and averages 92 mph on this fastball, though that is down a tick and he has struck out batter less per 9 innings this year. The bright side is that his walks are down too. (4.27 walks per 9 IP). His FIP (4.01) is significantly lower than his ERA (5.56).
- Mike Pelfrey, 30, RHP: Pelfrey has better command and velocity similar to Volquez but his FB lacks movement and he's a classic pitch to contact guy. Another buy low candidate, he's 5-9 with a 5.31 ERA but his FIP is a much more platable 4.17. And you wonder if there is something the Cubs can do to add movement, perhaps try a cutter or change his grip to create more movement the way Bosio did with Cabrera.
- Arodys Vizcaino, 22, RHP: Probably bullpen bound for now. The Cubs will need to gradually build up his innings.
- Brooks Raley, 24, LHP: I think Raley's better suited for the bullpen at this point as well.
- Kyle Hendricks, 23, RHP: Not yet on the 40 man roster and won't need to be until after the 2014 season, but another big year in AAA and he may force the Cubs hand at some point during the season. Finesse guys work with little margin for error and that margin for error only shrinks as you move up and face more advanced, disciplined hitters. Hendricks will have to keep refining his already very good command to sustain success.
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