The Cubs have been conducting a facelift of their rotation this past week starting with Carlos Zambrano shipped out of town for Chris Volstad, Andrew Cashner being dealt for first basemen Anthony Rizzo, and probably not ending with Paul Maholm’s signing. Matt Garza has been rumored to be on the market all off-season and may not be with the team by the time spring training opens. If he is, he will headline the rotation.
Ryan Dempster will end up the default ace if Garza does indeed depart. Dempster has been a workhorse since 2008 starting no fewer than 31 games and throwing no less than 200 innings. He has consistently posted solid strikeout rates and has greatly improved his control and command since joining the Cubs in 2007. Last season, however, the 34-year old produced his first 4+ ERA since joining the Cubs rotation. It needs to be instantly noted that Dempster’s 2010 and 2011 peripheral numbers are almost identical.
K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% HR/FB%
2010 8.7 3.6 1.0 .294 71% 11%
2011 8.5 3.7 1.0 .324 70% 11%
See anything that stands out? Well one’s batting average on play will most certainly rise when your line-drive rate jumps over 5%. So Dempster’s command and perhaps concentration were not as good as it has been in the past. The skills all clearly point to a rebound season. Dempster’s age (he turns 35 in May), however, along with his performance may keep his price lower though. If the bidding starts to peter out in the low-teens (NL only leagues), his durability and strikeout skills make him quite desirable.
From then on who is #2 through #4 is fairly irrelevant and will likely come down to early season matchups. That said, Paul Maholm’s experience and contract likely make him the #2 with Chris Volstad and Randy Wells as a flip-floppable #3 and #4.
Paul Maholm, as pitchers go, has been quite reliable since 2007. That is if you define reliable based on peripheral numbers and being relatively healthy. In 2011, Maholm made the fewest starts of any of his full seasons in the Majors with only 26. The lefty is consistently around or above the 50% mark on ground-balls, is usually around the 2.7 mark in walks, and just above 5.0 in strikeouts. His pitch selection has remained fairly consistent too, working with a standard four-pitch package with his best pitch being his changeup. What has varied quite a bit from season to season are his left-on-base percentages and batting average on balls in play. In other words, his defense and bullpen with Pittsburgh has had varied effectiveness issues too. In theory, the infield defense should be stronger for Maholm in 2012 with Ian Stewart, Starlin Castro, and Darwin Barney behind him, but I would instead focus on the fact that though Maholm does indeed have some skills, his overall package speaks to being more of a 4’s ERA pitcher than a 3’s, and that is where you should set your expectations. Anything better should be considered gravy.
Volstad, 25, is a bit more intriguing given his size and youth which suggests there may still be upside to be found here. The results, thus far, however, have not been all that exciting and it is tough to justify more than a $1 or 2 at NL-only auctions given his history. It really comes down to command with Volstad. Like Maholm he is a ground-ball pitcher, but he is harder thrower and a right-hander who can generate some swing and misses given his 6.4 K/9 in 2011. He has started to translate his minor league strike-throwing abilities with a 2.7 BB/9 in 2011 and 3.1 in 2010, but has line-drive rates against him of 18% and 20% each of the past two years too along with a 16% HR/FB in 2011. Volstad strikes me as a pitcher who is really still just learning his craft and who perhaps needs to mature more in terms of really command his pitches. Throwing strikes is not enough. He’s the type of pitcher who could breakout at any time (upside as a #3 starter though) or just as easily remain in mediocrity. Not a bad choice in the end game if you’re looking for some innings.
2012 will be right-hander Randy Wells' fourth year in the Cubs’ rotation. He continues the theme of ground-ball inducing, middling bat-missing, striking throwing pitchers in the group. A 6.7 K/9 raised some eyes in 2011, but that feels like a fluke when you consider Wells works in the high eighties and that there is not a great deal of separation of velocity in any of his four pitches. Despite a .275 BABIP, his 2011 ERA was at 4.99, though this was in large part due to an out of characteristic issue with the long-ball. Still, his upside is that of a mid-4’s ERA inning eater who could easily be supplanted by an up and comer at anytime.
Speaking of possible up and comers, the number five spot is wide open if Garza departs. It is possible the Cubs will seek additional free agent help to fill this void, but also they do have a few options already in house to give a try.
Leading the charge is Jeff Samardzija who the Cubs claim will be stretched out as a starter this spring. The soon to be 27-year old is still blessed with a power arm, averaging about 95 mph on his fastball last year in combination with his slider to generate an 8+ K/9. Relief is probably his best role and this experiment is not one to look upon with too much optimism. As a starter, Samarzija works 2 mph lower and does not have the depth in his repertoire or the control or the command of his pitches (5+ BB/9) to be a reliable starter. It’s quite possible 2011 could have been a career year for the right-hander unless he makes the transition from thrower to pitcher.
On the other side of the spectrum is Andy Sonnanstine was brought in as a minor league free agent. He has held onto a rotation spot for an entire season only once and his command and control have not been the same since 2008. Instead he has pitched mostly in middle relief since that time and is now on the wrong side of 30. It is more likely he is used as Triple-rotation filler or as a short-term option if given a starting role.
Another option, and perhaps the best option, may be Travis Wood who the Cubs acquired from the Reds in the Sean Marshall trade. The almost 25-year old leftymade 18 starts last year with a solid 6.5 K/9 and 3.4 BB/9. He works primarily with a high-eighties fastball, a cutter, and a plus-changeup. Last year was rough for him, but he has enough depth in his repertoire and pitchability to rebound. His one shortcoming is his fly-ball tendencies. So far this has not been an issue as it relates to giving up the long-ball, but is something of which to be apprised.
Right now, especially if Garza departs, the Cubs will feature a rotation mostly consisting of inning-eater and back-end of the rotation types with the exception of Dempster. While this group may be able to keep the Cubs in many ballgames, they are not putting an offensive juggernaut on the field. They managed just a .314 OBP and .401 SLG last year as a club and are returning neither of their best two power hitters in Carlos Pena and Aramis Ramirez. Alfonso Soriano is also rumored as trade bait meaning Geovany Soto and Rizzo or Bryan LaHair along with Ian Stewart will have to provide the thunder. In other words, unless some more positive moves occur, the Cubs may have some difficulty attaining the 71 wins they achieved last season and wins for Cubs starters could be scarce.