Without question, the most interesting thing about this offseason will be how the Cubs complete their pitching staff. There are 3 pitchers from their season-long rotation under contract in Jake Arrieta, Travis Wood, and Edwin Jackson. The Cubs perceived organizational weakness has been pitching, yet Kyle Hendricks has shown he has a chance to be a part of the rotation next season. Dallas Beeler has also had some success in his brief audition while Eric Jokisch has impressed at Iowa.
The Cubs have also taken some interesting flyers. LHP Tsuyoshi Wada was acquired last offseason. He was originally signed as a free agent by the Orioles but injuries have kept him out of the majors until this season. Since then, the Cubs have added RHPs Dan Straily and Jacob Turner as well as LHP Felix Doubront. All have MLB starting experience and the latter two were once considered very good prospects.
In case you lost count, that makes 10 pitchers all vying for a spot or two in the 2015 Cubs rotation. We'll cover them in two parts, as the Cubs sudden plethora of depth would make fitting them all in one piece a little unwieldy.
Returnees for next season: Jake Arrieta and Travis Wood
Jake Arrieta's season has not been a fluke. The peripherals match the results. The 25.6% K rate (9.22 per 9 IP) and 6.6% walk rate (2.37 per 9 IP) are excellent. The FIP of 2.37 is even lower than his 2.77 ERA. Arrieta has always had great stuff but a shift in approach seems to have made the difference. A heavier reliance on his cutter, especially in fastball counts, has given him a pitch he can control, yet has been tough for hitters to square up. It has given him a go-to pitch that has gotten him out of difficult situations much more efficiently.
Travis Wood was a fluke in some senses and his excellent results gave some fans some unrealistic expectations for this season. That is not to say he isn't good or can't be a part of this rotation long term. It just says that Wood outpitched his peripherals last season en route to a 9-12 season with a 3.11 ERA. This year there has been a slight uptick in his FIP -- from 3.89 to 4.14 -- that is primarily due to an increase in his walk rate from 8% to 9.8%. He has walked roughly 4 batters per 9 IP this year compared to 3 last season. But what has compounded this uptick in walks is that for all the good luck Wood had last year, it has evened out with bad luck this year. The BABIP is at .321 compared to .248 last year. The strand rate has dropped from 77% to 66%.
If there has been a significant change in his stuff, it's that his cutter has been far less effective. Hitters batted .221 with a .333 slugging pct against it last year. This year they have batted .337 with a .434 slugging percentage. He has given up a lot more hits, but hasn't necessarily been hit all that hard, the line drive rate is roughly the same and ISO is actually down. He has also been getting less groundballs and less whiffs on his sinker this year.
Which is the real Travis Wood? The answer is that it is somewhere in between. I don't think there is anything that can't be tweaked here and he has swung too far the other way in terms of luck,. He's not a 3 ERA pitcher but he's also not a 5 ERA pitcher. He should settle in between the high 3s and the low 4s. Realistically he's a 4th starter and it his low cost, that's solid value.
The question mark: Edwin Jackson
Edwin Jackson has not been good. I can tell you his peripherals are better than his results (they are), but you know and I know that that story is getting old. The distance between those peripherals and results seems to be increasing. The walks and BABIP are up for the 2nd straight year and the strand rate remains low. The velo is down slightly again for the 4th straight season. Yet Jackson still has that FIP (4.14) and xFIP (3.98) at right around his career averages.
He has gone through three of the best pitching coaches in recent history in Dave Duncan, Don Cooper, and now Chris Bosio. He is a good character guy so there is no easy explanation here. The answers are elusive.
The Cubs will have to make a decision on Jackson this offseason. They will not be able to recoup their investment in a trade and will certainly have to pay down his salary to move him. Do they call this a sunk cost and move on...or does he get another chance?
There is little question the Cubs can get better results than what Jackson has provided over the past two years. The question with Jackson may be this: Do they feel reasonably confident they can replace the pitcher that Jackson should be? In other words, do they think they can find another pitcher who can eat innings and give them something in that high 3/low 4 ERA range?
I think they can.
That is different than the previous season where that option just wasn't available. That is why the Cubs signed Jackson to begin with. There was nobody to fill that role. Now there are several candidates, so his future with the Cubs is now in question.
The Midseason Reinforcements: Kyle Hendricks, Tsuyoshi Wada, Dallas Beeler
We can get all gaga over Kyle Hendricks great start and we should definitely be happy...so far. He is 3-1 with a 2.10 ERA. But we have to be realistic here. He is not going to keep getting those kind of results. He doesn't miss enough bats (5.5 Ks per 9 IP). There are too many balls put in play and very view of them have found holes (.245 BABIP). Even the great Greg Maddux achieved that number for an entire season just once in his entire illustrious career. It's unrealistic to think we can expect this from Hendricks. So either he is going to start missing more bats or his ERA is going to go up. How much?
Well that depends.
If Hendricks allows a league average BABIP of around .300, we should expect that ERA to be in the low 4s. If he can replicate the BABIPs he allowed at the minor league level (around the .275 range), then we can expect an ERA in the high 3s.
That is what Jackson was supposed to be and it is likely similar to what Hendricks will be. Can I live with that? Absolutely, especially at his cost and his potential to eat innings with his low effort, efficient style of pitching.
The other boost has come from Tsuyoshi Wada and I will be the first to admit I was wrong on him. I did not think he would be this good. But his fastball has improved (88-91 mph) and in fact, has been better than Wood's this season. He has shown a solid change and the slider has not been great, but good enough to at least keep hitters honest.
In some ways, he duplicates Wood. He is lefty, roughly the same size (5'11", 180), and has around the same velocity. The repertoire is similar except that Wada does not throw a cutter and relies more on his 4-seamer than Wood. He also throws a splitter that gets him some swings and misses. Wada has some deception and he has enough command to effectively change eye levels, making his 4-seamer more effective than you would normally expect given his velocity. Of course, he can get burned if he doesn't locate or the hitter just guesses right -- and HRs were one issue he had at AAA.
Wada has been almost as good as Hendricks, posting a 3.25 ERA and a slightly better FIP than Hendricks (3.35 vs. 3.46). Both pitchers have been worth half a win in their short time here.
It seems possible either one can replace Edwin Jackson's production (who as been worth 0.9 of a win all season) at lower cost.
The encouraging performances of both pitchers gives the Cubs a few things: depth, flexibility, alternatives, options. It will be interesting to see how that comes into play this offseason.
Dallas Beeler is also on that list of alternatives but doesn't project as well as the other two. He generates a ton of groundball outs with his sinker but it is also a pitch that often gets put in play, making him vulnerable to the whims of BABIP. He is dependent on his defense, getting less swings and misses than even Hendricks, who gets some whiffs from his change. Beeler also doesn't possess the same kind of command as Hendricks, so his ability to draw weak contact may not be as consistent . Right now I see Beeler filling a Chris Rusin type role in that he can be sent up and down. He has options and he can be a depth option that affords the Cubs flexibility and emergency insurance against injuries. Its a role that gives him a niche for now and perhaps something he can build on if he can develop a second consistent pitch to keep hitters off his sinker.
The Cubs may not have top of the rotation pitchers in their system right now, and certainly not at the upper levels, but they do have low cost alternatives. They could provide solid production at great value at the bottom of the rotation. That in itself is an asset because it preserves payroll flexibility that can be used on free agent pitchers such as Jon Lester, Justin Masterson, or others. Between all the pitchers mentioned in the beginning of this article, the Cubs have increased the odds that they can fill those roles in-house and at low cost.
Tomorrow I will look at the Cubs latest acquisitions: Dan Straily, Felix Doubront, and Jacob Turner and the possibility of acquiring more pitching via free agency.