Storylines of the Spring….The Rotation

To quote the great Charley Steiner, “There is something liberating about those magical words, pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training.” The wait is over. The baseball season begins today.

Ryan Dempster, Rich Hill, Angel Guzman, Scott Eyre, Sam Fuld, Jeff Samardzija, Daryle Ward, Geovany Soto and Jason Marquis were among the early arrivals to camp. Samardzija, along with Tyler Colvin and Jake Fox were victims of a thief that broke into the locker rooms at Fitch Park on January 29th and stole personal items that included identification, checkbooks, credit cards and a cell phone. Mesa Police arrested the burglar and security has been increased at the practice facility.

In other news, Pat Hughes was named the 2007 Illinois Sportscaster of the Year on Tuesday. Hughes received the award for the 7th time in his career, his 4th since joining the Cubs.

While Lou Piniella feels the Cubs are the team to beat in the Central Division this year, many are split between picking either the Cubs or the Brewers to take the title. Lou Piniella’s crew has plenty of questions to find the right answers to over the next six weeks. Here is a look at a few of the stories in the starting rotation worth keep an eye on….

The Starting Six?

Many have touted the Cubs starting rotation as one of the best in the National League. The projected starters are Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Rich Hill….and then it gets a little foggy. Jason Marquis had a solid start once again last year but stumbled down the stretch and fell out of favor with Lou Piniella. Jon Lieber will make a return to the North Side and his experience and ability to eat innings could be valuable….but his health, or lack thereof is always a concern. Lou Piniella planted the idea in Ryan Dempster’s head last May about returning to the rotation and the club’s former closer has decided to give it a shot. But Dempster might be more effective as the long man out of the pen with an occasional spot start. The backend of the rotation, while might not be very effective in a short series, must be solid through 162 games. Carlos Zambrano and Ted Lilly figure to hold the key to success while Rich Hill must build on his first full season at the big league level.

One of the old cliches is, pitching wins championships and while some have questioned the Cubs quality, without a doubt Spring Training will begin with quantity.

Carlos Zambrano

While Carlos Zambrano has the stuff to be mentioned among the elite pitchers of the game, he has yet to earn his ‘ace’ status. Zambrano is the Cubs number one pitcher, without a doubt, but to put it simply….it all starts with Big Z. If the Cubs are to make it to the post-season Zambrano must have a solid season and build on his career high 18 wins from a year ago.

Zambrano will not have a new contract to worry about and maybe the predictions he made before last season will come to fruition this year.

Ted Lilly

Ted Lilly had a career year last season. He posted a 15-8 record with a 3.83 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP in 34 starts….15 wins tied a career high, while he set new career marks in starts, ERA, WHIP, strikeouts (174) and walks allowed (55). And if not for the Cubs’ slow start and struggles in the pen over the first two months of the season, Lilly could have posted a 20-win season. Not only was Lilly effective, he also became the stopper of the staff. The lasting memory from 2007, however, was his glove throwing incident in Game 2 of the Divisional Series.

To ask Lilly to build upon last year would be hard to do, but to ask him to post a third consecutive 15-win season would be in order.

Rich Hill

The Cubs very talented southpaw had a good but not great first Major League campaign. Hill posted an 11-8 record with a 3.92 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP while leading the Cubs in strikeouts with 183 to just 63 walks. Hill’s biggest problem was holding runners and keeping his focus with runners on base. Hill has a huge upside with all the tools to be a solid number two in the majors but he must improve on the mental part of the game to take the next step in his development. The biggest question surrounding Hill, will he take a step forward or back this year?

The Other Three

Barring a trade Sean Marshall, Sean Gallagher and Kevin Hart will get a shot this spring at making the Cubs rotation. Hart was very impressive in September and based on the way he pitched last year (three different levels), he figures to be the long-man out of the Cubs pen. Hart proved he could pitch in relief and most importantly shut down teams and not allow those tack on runs that prevent late inning comebacks. In very limited action (8 games, 11 innings, 1 run on 7 hits with 13 strikeouts and 4 walks) he showed good poise and presence on the mound.

Sean Marshall has shown he can win games at the big league level and that should give him an advantage over Sean Gallagher. Marshall was effective in May (0-2 in 2 games with a 2.70 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP), June (4-1 in 6 games with a 3.82 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP) and July (1-1 in 4 games with a 2.31 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP) but struggled in August (2-3 in 6 games with a 6.18 ERA and a 1.55 WHIP with a .309 opponents batting average) and forced Jim Hendry to trade way-to-much to the Orioles for Steve Trachsel. Marshall’s biggest challenge could be following Rich Hill in the rotation, but if Marshall is still on the roster and remains healthy, he could challenge both Jason Marquis and Ryan Dempster for the final spot in the rotation.

Most have gotten on the Sean Gallagher bandwagon this off-season, not based on his performance at the big league level but based on promise and rumors. Gallagher is one of the Cubs top prospects and many project him to be a mid-rotation starter in the Major Leagues….and one day, he very well could. Gallagher has lost weight this winter and figures to be ready for a break out season, but to say he was less than impressive last year would be an understatement. Gallagher pitched in 8 games, all out of the pen (8.59 ERA, a 2.11 WHIP and a .317 opponents batting average with 12 walks and 5 strikeouts in 14 2/3 innings) and did earn a save, a 4 inning performance in relief of Carlos Zambrano….the save was earned by rule. But that outing against the Giants on July 18th was his longest and clearly, his best of the year.

A Wild Card?

One possible wild card in the equation could end up being Juan Mateo. Mateo showed he could pitch at the Major League level in 2006. Mateo was selected by the Cardinals in the Rule 5 draft back in 2005 but was returned the Cubs after Spring Training. Mateo reportedly showed up to camp out of shape and was ineffective. Mateo ended up making his big league debut in 2006 with the Cubs and posted a 1-3 record in 10 starts with a 5.32 ERA and a 1.62 WHIP.

Mateo started last season on the DL after missing most of spring with a shoulder injury. Once healthy, Mateo started the year at Peoria and posted a 2-1 record with a 5.24 ERA in 6 starts and finished the year in Iowa. Mateo was 2-3 in 8 games, 7 starts, with a 4.05 ERA in 40 innings. However he gave up a ton of hits and continued to struggle with his command….50 hits allowed and in 62 1/3 combined innings walked 19 and struck out 43.

Juan Mateo pitched in the Dominican Winter League with Licey (Felix Pie and Carlos Marmol) and quietly had a successful winter….1.04 ERA in 6 games, 1 start, 3 strikeouts, 0 walks, 1 earned run allowed on 8 hits in 8 2/3 innings.

The main concern about the Cubs’ rotation must be the lack of a true ace or stopper. If Zambrano is going through one of his ‘down times’, the Cubs could go on a prolonged losing streak and in the process wear out the bullpen. As has been the case for the last couple of years, the Cubs go as Big Z goes.

The Storylines of the Spring

  • Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly and Rich Hill finishing the Cactus League schedule healthy
  • The ‘battle’ for the last two spots in the rotation
  • Jon Lieber’s health
  • Jason Marquis’ status
  • Ryan Dempster’s return to the rotation

On Thursday, the first day of workouts for pitchers and catchers, the CCO will take a look at the Bullpen and the Backstops.

Click here for the first footage of Spring Training from WGN.

2008 Spring Training Articles from the CCO

Quote of the Day

"You can be a kid for as long as you want when you play baseball." - Cal Ripken Jr.
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