At this point, it should be clear that the Cubs are not willing to be doormats in the NL Central in 2015. Claiming Cole Hamels on trade waivers last week is a clear illustration of the game plan for next season. Adding at least one, and possibly more, high end pitchers to team with the existing pitchers while the plethora of hitting potential begins flowing into Chicago is what is in store for next season.
Before we look forward to the off-season, where Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, James Shields, Justin Masterson, and others will surely be on the Cubs' radar, it is important to look in-house first. Assuming the Cubs add one established major league pitcher, the Cubs will have four open spots in the rotation in 2015 to be filled by Jake Arrieta, Travis Wood, Edwin Jackson, Kyle Hendricks, Dan Straily, Felix Doubront, and Jacob Turner. That does not include prospects C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson, who by the end of next season, may be knocking on Wrigley's door.
As far as the veteran options go, in Wood and Jackson, neither is looking like a viable option to fill in the middle of the rotation, which is what the Cubs would prefer. The fact that both have struggled so mightily this season will necessarily factor into just how aggressive the Cubs are with trades and free agency this winter. For Travis Wood, there was some regression expected as we turned the page into 2014. Believe it or not, his Skill Interactive ERA (SIERA) is exactly the same now as it was last season (4.43) and his xFIP is actually one point lower than it was last season (4.49 now vs. 4.50 in 2013). The good news is that we should expect a regression back to somewhere in the middle of where he was last season and where he is this season, which would likely place his ERA around 4.00. The bad news is that's not a middle of the rotation starter. For the Cubs, if things break well, that may not actually be good enough to make the rotation at all. As far as Edwin Jackson goes, the end of his tenure with the Cubs is likely near. Unless he can somehow rediscover the performance that caused the Cubs to sign him before 2013 between now and the end of the season, the Cubs will likely pay a lot of Jackson's remaining contract for a team desperate for a back of the rotation starter to take him.
Conservatively speaking, there should be two spots left in the rotation for Kyle Hendricks, Dan Straily, Felix Doubront, and Jacob Turner. Kyle Hendricks, at least early on, is making a case to be in the back of the rotation...and don't say fifth starter like it's a bad thing. Every team needs one that can pitch adequately and keep his team in the ballgame. That's Hendricks. He's not Greg Maddux. But his 3.87 SIERA and xFIP of 3.68 plays pretty well at the end of the rotation. With likely one spot left for Straily, Doubront, and Turner, the Cubs need to hope that one of these players turns it around. The best track record is Straily, who pitched well for the Oakland A's in 2013. This season, he had trouble keeping the ball in the yard while pitching with Oakland. If he can correct that, he fits well as a fourth starter option. The best pedigree of the group belongs to former top prospect Jacob Turner. While with Miami, Turner had decent peripheral numbers for a back end starter, pitching to a 3.97 SIERA and 3.92 xFIP. He did not allow more line drives, kept the ball on the ground more, and reduced his fly ball rate, but with the reduced fly ball rate came an increased home run rate. Being only 23, however, if he can recapture any of what made him one of the game's top pitching prospects only two years ago, Turner could be a revelation for the Cubs in much the same way Arrieta has been this season. It is difficult to envision a scenario where Doubront makes it into the rotation out of spring. With that being said, he does provide quality depth as a long reliever and spot starter, if the Cubs choose to go that route with him.
There is no scenario where C.J. Edwards or Pierce Johnson makes the club out of spring. With the front office's valuation of Triple A, they could both find themselves in Iowa at the start. Edwards, in fact, could see some time in Double A if it is decided that his bout with shoulder inflammation slowed his development to that extent. It remains possible that Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez get the opportunity to stretch out in spring and make a case to start, but with the existing depth and potential for further additions, that remains a more distant possibility. That possibility is pushed back even further by the success Ramirez has had in the bullpen this season. Grimm, all jokes aside, has also pitched well out of the bullpen this season, making any chance he joins the rotation pretty distant, as well.
Ultimately, the success of the Cubs next season will depend on this group. While the young hitters are adjusting to playing at the big league level (which they would need to do whether they were playing in Chicago now, or not), it will be incumbent on the pitching to be consistently good to push the Cubs into playoff contention. Regardless, we are seeing the end of accepting a poor major league product as part of the process, and 2015 brings the potential of competing with grand scale aspirations coming into clearer focus.
Filed under: Chicago Cubs
Tags: C.J. Edwards, Cole Hamels, Cubs, Dan Straily, Edwin Jackson, Felix Doubront, Greg Maddux, Iowa Cubs, Jacob Turner, Jake Arrieta, James Shields, Jed Hoyer, Jon Lester, Justin Grimm, Justin Masterson, Kyle Hendricks, Max Scherzer, Neil Ramirez, Oakland A's, Philadelphia Phillies, Pierce Johnson, Tennessee Smokies, Theo Epstein, Travis Wood