The Cubs have done a good job of identifying bargain pitchers over the past two years. Scott Feldman and Travis Wood are the first two names that pop up in my mind. The Cubs will enter 2014 with a few question marks in their rotation and considerably less talent sans Matt Garza. Let's take a look at the three mainstays of the rotation and a quartet of guys that I think will be fighting for the last two spots.
I did a long form post on Samardzija, it can be read here. Basically, we know that Shark often teases at a juicy potential but the gulf between where he is and where he can be is wide. Age doesn't help much on that front either. Samardzija will be 29 on opening day and while the arm is young the rest of him isn't. Still, if he can even approach the type of production that his occasional brilliance teases at then he is without a doubt the Cubs' best pitcher.
In 2010 Wood, then with the Cincinnati Reds, had an impressive 17 game debut in which he posted a 1.08 WHIP, a 20.5-6.2 K%-BB% and a 3.51 ERA in 102.2 innings. The athletic Wood followed that up with a lackluster 2011 and was traded to the Cubs for Sean Marshall ahead of the 2012 season. Wood struggled again in 26 starts for the Cubs but he recovered nicely in 2013 to post impressive surface numbers. Wood famously gagged in his quest to hit 200 innings and keep his ERA under 3 in his final start of the season but all in all it was a rather impressive season for the lefty.
Wood held batters to a .222 OAV in 2013. He did slightly better against lefties (.207/.294/.305 in 198 PAs) but his work against righties wasn't anything to scoff at (.226/.291/.365 in 623 PAs). Wood also posted a 17.5-8.0 K%-BB% which isn't phenomenal but a +2-1 strike out to walk ratio is pretty good for a starter.
I don't think Travis Wood is a top of the rotation arm, and even though the results were extremely good this year he'll have to prove it to me again this year before I pin "Solid 3 starter" on him. The stuff is ok but it isn't excellent, the athleticism helps and he fields his position very well. I'm looking for innings from Wood in 2014; he never got beyond the 7th in 2013.
It's always funny when you see two completely different types of pitchers in the same rotation. While Travis Wood outperformed his peripherals and his stuff in 2013, Edwin Jackson severely under performed both. Jackson is erratic but in that inconsistency is a certain consistency that's hard to understand. It makes it doubly difficult to evaluate Jackson as a pitcher. Jackson posted a 17.4-7.6 K%-BB%, but he got drilled for a 4.98 ERA. He was hit often and hard as well, hitters posted a .281/.339/.436 slash line against him in 777 PAs in 2013.
FIP (3.79) and xFIP (3.86) both say he should be better, but it's difficult to reasonably predict what Jackson will do in 2014. His uneven 2013 had performances that shotgunned the entire spectrum. If we use Game Score there's a 62 point spread between his best performance and his worst.
While I believe that Jackson will bounce back in 2014 I don't think he is anything more than a back end arm which will make contract conscious fans a bit angry. I disagree with the notion that Edwin Jackson is overpaid relative to the league, however. As we're about to see with whatever contract Ervin Santana gets this offseason contracts are getting more inflated as the years go on.
The last two spots
Jake Arrieta - Arrieta's peripheral numbers aren't very inspiring (12.7 BB% rate, 4.84 FIP in 2013) but the arm is still big enough to entice some folks into believing in a better future. I'm like the X Files poster here, I want to believe but the Scully in me is, well, skeptical. Arrieta is seen as a change of scenery candidate and he did very well on the surface level during his brief stint with the Cubs. He still posted a double digit walk rate, however. He'll have a shot in the rotation, but the more I look at his profile the more I think "reliever".
Chris Rusin - I firmly believe that the only reason Rusin is projected to be the fifth starter is because the Cubs haven't signed Scott Baker yet. The Cubs' lack of impact arms shows in Rusin, he of the 12.8 K%. I don't believe in Rusin over the long term due to a combination of peripheral numbers (4.75 FIP) and stuff. Baseball is hard, pitching is really hard and it's made harder when you don't miss bats.
Alberto Cabrera - I hope that the Cubs have made up their mind regarding what they want Cabrera to be because I'm concerned about his flip in between relieving and starting. There used to be a time where young pitchers would serve an apprenticeship in the bullpen and earn a rotation spot. It doesn't quite work the same way anymore. Starting and relieving are two completely different jobs now, relievers are short burst specialists who are conditioned to go all out for 20~ pitches. That's not something you want a young pitcher to learn if you think he can be a starter. For now, I think the Cubs want him in the rotation and he deserves a shot, especially in a rotation short on the backend like the Cubs are. He's been erratic over his pro career but there are enough positives over his past 180 innings to offer up a lot of hope.
Scott Baker - I put him here in the hopes that he signs with the Cubs and pushes Rusin out of the rotation. Baker is an interesting bounce back candidate. Before the injury Baker posted 20-6 K%-BB% with regularity which made his secondary stats all the more attractive. He was another one of the broken toys the Cubs started nabbing when the front office took over and his rehab lasted longer than anyone thought it would. Baker had a severely short audition (15 IP) and there were some velocity concerns in 2013 but I have high hopes for him in 2014.