The Cubs Starting Pitching Possibilities for 2011

Another Chicago team broke my heart last weekend and I told myself, like I’ve done so many times at the end of a Cubs season, there’s always next year. No one expected the Bears to make the playoffs, let alone win the division and make it to the NFC Championship game, maybe the Cubs can surprise us this year as well … I’m definitely ready for Spring Training.

At this point, if everyone stays healthy, Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Garza should anchor the Cubs’ rotation with Andrew Cashner likely beginning the year as the fourth starter. That leaves James Russell, Randy Wells, Casey Coleman, Jeff Samardzija and Carlos Silva competing for the final spot in the rotation

Is this the best rotation in the NL Central? No, but on a paper it is a very competitive one … and with Tom Gorzelanny no longer in the mix, Mike Quade will likely begin his first full season as a big league manager without a southpaw in his rotation.

I think the Cubs are in love with the idea of Andrew Cashner in the rotation and he will be given every opportunity to succeed. Cashner has electric stuff and the potential to be a front of the rotation starter.

The Cubs have stated that James Russell will be stretched out and given an opportunity to compete for a spot in the starting rotation. Unless he has a phenomenal spring, I don’t think that is going to happen. One thing that is intriguing about Russell is his strikeout to walk ratio.

Last year, he allowed only two walks per nine, while striking out 7.7 per nine for a 3.28 SO to BB ratio, pretty impressive. And Russell’s big league numbers do not appear to be a fluke … Russell put up similar numbers in the minors.

On the downside, Russell allowed 10 hits per nine and two home runs per nine innings a year ago. Again, Russell’s minor league numbers are consistent in the hit column but he served up more dingers in the majors than down on the farm. Russell has good command but is not overpowering and pitches to contact.

Randy Wells has the best shot in my opinion to make the rotation. He was very inconsistent last year especially in the first two innings of a game. Despite his inconsistencies, Wells still posted an unspectacular but decent ERA of 4.26 with a 1.40 WHIP. If Randy Wells can get back to his 2009-form (12-10 with a 3.05 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP) and stay focused he could end up being successful in the backend of the rotation.

Wells showed he is more than capable of pitching in the big leagues. If he is able to prove the first three quarters of his career was not a fluke it would help solidify an already solid rotation. Wells does not have to be as good as he was his rookie season but somewhere in the middle could be very beneficial to his team.

Carlos Silva showed up to the Cubs Convention and some said he appeared to have gained weight. With his injury concerns, heart problems, and poor second half, I would be very surprised to see him win a spot in the rotation. Although Silva has experience pitching out of the pen, I do not see him as a candidate for the bullpen this year. Silva isn’t really a strikeout pitcher and mop-up duty would likely be his only role in the pen. I wouldn’t be surprised if Silva is released at the end of spring training (the Cubs are on the hook for $8 million of Silva’s $11.5 million contract for 2011 and a $2 million buyout on a $12 million mutual option for 2012).

Casey Coleman relies on his command and doesn’t possess overpowering “stuff”. Coleman locates the ball well and showed improvement with each start last season.

Like many rookies, Coleman struggled after his call-up and posted a 1-1 record in August (seven games, three starts) with a 5.76 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP. Coleman finished the season on a positive note with a 3-1 record over his last five starts with a 2.81 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP. (2010 line: 4-2 in 12 games, eight starts with a 4.11 ERA and a 1.42 WHIP). Coleman finished his season with seven shutout innings against the Astros on October 1. Coleman notched six quality starts and completed seven innings in each of his last two outings against the Cardinals and Astros.

Despite his solid finish, Coleman will likely be a victim of the numbers game and end up starting the year in Iowa … and if something goes wrong, Coleman should receive the first call-up to Chicago.

Jeff Samardzija will break camp with the Chicago Cubs either in the pen or in the starting rotation. Reports before the convention suggested Samardzija would compete for a spot in the Cubs’ rotation. But reports after the annual gathering have stated otherwise and he could end up pitching in middle relief ahead of John Grabow, Kerry Wood and Sean Marshall.

Samardzija has been less than effective in the majors (4-5 in 53 games, five starts, with a 5.95 ERA and a 1.73 WHIP) and his 2010 season in Iowa was uninspiring as well (11-3 with a 4.37 ERA and a 1.37 WHIP).

The Cubs claim that Samardzija made great strides towards the end of the year but I just don’t see it. In his last 10 games (all starts) at Iowa, the Shark posted a 5.77 ERA 1.46 WHIP (42 runs, 37 earned, on 52 hits with 32 walks and 50 strikeouts in 57.2 innings).

Jeff Samardzija has a lot to prove this spring and if he struggles the Cubs will have a hard time trying to justify him being with the team on Opening Day … especially with the likes of Jay Jackson and Chris Carpenter knocking on the door in the minors. Mark Riggins suggested that Jay Jackson and/or Chris Carpenter could make their Major League debut this year. Both feel comfortable pitching out of the pen or starting games. Could Jackson or Carpenter force the Cubs’ hand on Jeff Samardzija?

Tom Gorzelanny struggled with his command last year. His strikeouts went up but he averaged just over five innings per start. Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Casey Coleman and Randy Wells averaged over six innings per start last year … and Dempster and Garza have averaged at least six innings per start throughout their Major League careers.

Carlos Zambrano has been a workhorse over the course of his career and despite recent struggles at getting through five-plus innings; Zambrano averaged over six innings per outing in his final 10 starts of the year.

Innings per start is obviously very important. The more times Mike Quade can get the ball to Kerry Wood and Sean Marshall as the bridge to Carlos Marmol, the more success the Cubs will have during the season. The Cubs have four starters that could reach the 200-inning plateau this year.

The Cubs rotation has just as many questions as a majority of the rest of the league.

Which Big Z will we see? Will Matt Garza make a successful transition to the National League? Can Randy Wells return to form? Will Ryan Dempster continue to anchor the rotation? Will Andrew Cashner take the next step in his development and become a successful starter at the Major League level?

The Cubs will start finding out the answers when pitchers and catchers report to Fitch Park on February 13 … just 17 days away.

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  • Vivid_Reality



    I would love for Guzman to fit in somewhere but who knows if he can return to form or even stay healthy. Regardless, I like the direction the pen is headed. Definite question marks in the back four but also alot of potential. Mateo has impressed in the winter league and I think he will sneak into the pen somehow.

    As for the rotation, I really hope management gives Cashner a decent sample size. If they demote him after three rough starts I will be displeased. For as much as everyone hates Wells, I thought he pitched ok. It was only his second year in the league, bumps are to be expected. A 4.26 ERA isn’t anything to write home about but from our 5th starter, who are we to complain?

  • Tony

    1. Dempster – There’s no way Z gets the ball on Opening Day…right?
    2. Zambrano
    3. Garza
    4. Cashner
    5. Wells

    I don’t see Silva making it, unless finances dictate the rotation.
    Coleman has options – Iowa bound.
    Russell – If they want him to start – he will be in Iowa doing it.
    Samardzija – Didn’t Levine just say, that he is in the bullpen, that Riggins, likes him better as a reliever?

    To me there really is no competition, as Wells can ask to be a FA if they want to send him to the minors. So unless they really don’t intend to give Cashner a shot, the 5 are set.

    The rotation WILL NOT be a problem on this team, unless they all have too many nightmares about giving up 1 run and losing…

    This rotation is good enough to win, but not good enough to win in the playoffs against, the elite rotations. This rotation will be much better if one of the young guys ends up being a #1 pitcher (Cashner?) Garza can be a stud in the NL and be very good #2 (or even great if he ends up the ACE, that we paid for), and Zambrano and Dempster can move down to #3 and #4.

    • Richard Hood

      Wells can not ask to be a free agent he still has options. But Samardzija can saving the Cubs 2 million in the process. If Shark struggles I think that JH keeps him on this team in a relief role no matter what. Hendry does not like to look like he is wrong on something. But a smart move would be to look real hard at trying to get Shark through waivers at the end of spring and let him get claimed by someone else or walk. Admit fault and move on JH you were not the only one wrong on the Shark.

      • Tony

        Wells actually can’t be sent to the minors without his consent, which I doubt he would give, since he would get picked up by one of the teams needing a starter.

        From the 40 man roster tab (excellent source for info!)

        “Thomas Diamond and Randy Wells have accrued less than three years of MLB service time, but they have been outrighted previously in their career and both could hve the right to decline the outright assignment and choose free agency.”

        Samardzija – due to his no trade clause, can not be put on irrevocable outright waivers and then be sent to the minors if he clears.

        • Richard Hood

          Thanks for the info Tony.

    • Kev

      Give Garza the ball on opening day! Nothing like throwing him into the fire right away.

  • Cindy’s Corn Cob Dress

    The Cubs need to stop bouncing around Samardzija (starter or reliever, pick one) and find a spot for him and keep him there. This will be a very interesting spring training for him, espically if he does not pitch well in Arizona. He has a no trade clause which he already has invoked and he is out of options. I guess we need to keep him no matter how bad of a spring he has, since we have invested a lot in him and he has great talent.

    I would like to see them sign Rodrigo Lopez for the 5th starter spot. Yes, he struggled last year but he threw 200 innings and has good stuff. I think he is a head case like Big Z and Garza, but 3rd time could be the charm.

    We will miss Gorzelanny I think. A lefty in the rotation and a decent one at that is hard to replace. A lot of good left handed thunder in NL but we will wait and see.

  • Aaron

    Unfortunately, many are discounting the fact that Hendry just signed Wellemeyer. I would be absolutely shocked if he did so with the pen in mind. This was a move to give competition to the rotation battle. Patrick mentioned the givens, which seem to be Z, Dempster, Garza, and Wells….after that, it’s really between Silva and Wellemeyer, and here’s the reason why….

    Cashner, Coleman, Jackson, Carpenter, and Russell all have options left. Hendry will justify sending Cashner down, even if he has a big spring, as a way to get him more acclimated to the rotation. I think we all can agree that the latter 4 have almost no chance whatsoever of opening the year in the rotation…So, I guess you could say Cashner is in with Silva and Wellemeyer, but I’d be shocked if Hendry allowed that to happen.

    After all, Colvin and Castro clearly outperformed their counterparts in Spring Training last year, and Castro opened in the minors for the first month while Colvin was warming the bench pretty much the whole first month as well.

    The point is, Hendry absolutely does not trust young players. And believe it or not, that’s not a terrible strategy to have, as long as the players you’re bringing in aren’t veterans on the downsides of their careers as he’s done in the past.

    For instance, if Hendry would’ve gone after Cabrera, Chris Carter (the Mets one), Milledge, Franceour, etc., who all happen to be young, and have experienced a good amount of success in MLB or the minors, then we’d all probably feel more comfortable with our OF….at least I would anyway.

    Likewise, if he’d gone after, say, a Josh Fields for IF corner depth, instead of relying on Baker, I would’ve been more comfortable. Or, if he’d actually consider a 28 yr old Willy Aybar for middle IF back-up instead of Cabrera, Guzman, and Lugo, I’d be much more comfortable, but it ain’t gonna happen, because it’s Hendry we’re talking about.

    The common complaint with Hendry is that each offseason it seems he has a picture of a given player on his ceiling over the top of his bed, and he probably gets a boner every time he looks at it. Consequently, he has this laser-like focus on trying to obtain that player (Roberts-twice, Peavy, and now Garza) that he completely ignores other possibilities.

    There have been MUCH better fits for this team either as extra bench help, arms, or just camp bodies in the event someone gets injured than the likes of Miles, Bako, Gathright, and Wellemeyer.

    A lot of moves are puzzling to me, but Hendry’s problem of not going after young players is mind-boggling. Some of these guys just need a change of scenery, while others put up the same type of stats, if not better than the over-the-hill veterans Hendry goes after.

    All of that really makes you wonder, “Does he actually get it? Does he realize the Steve Finley’s of the world don’t exist anymore, as there is, in fact, testing for PEDs now?”

    My rule of thumb is that outside of true superstars like Pujols, etc., you should NOT give any position player a crazy multi-year deal beyond age 32. This is PRECISELY why I had such a problem with the Byrd deal. Yes, $15 million for 3 years is fairly minor, but you can already see it’s going to become a problem for us, judging by how he finished the season. Look at ARAM, Soriano, Fukudome. Are they improving or declining (either in stats or injury)? I guess you have your answer.

    For pitchers, it’s often fairly different, especially starters. Usually injuries like TJ will occur in a pitcher’s first 3 years as a starter with the increase in workload, etc., so that means from when they’re about 23-24 (when they usually get to MLB), then you give them 3 years, so they’re now 26-27, then have TJ, lose a year, and now they’re 28-29, then they take about another year to return to pre-TJ form, so they’re 29-30, and all of a sudden, they have a good year, and are ready for another contract. From what I understand (I’ve never had TJ myself, but had severe triceps tendinitis), if a pitcher goes through TJ, he’ll often times return even better than he was before, because of all the strengthening exercises that pitchers often ignore. In my case, I couldn’t throw for awhile (almost my entire senior year of high school actually), so I began doing shoulder exercises, and I came back even stronger (though I eventually wrecked my shoulder, but that’s besides the point).

    When I had the consult with the orthopedic surgeon, we discussed my options, but we also talked about the physics of throwing a ball, because I wanted to know if there was anything I did wrong with my motion, etc. to get to where I had to go under the knife. He said softball with an underhand throwing motion is a more natural movement than throwing overhand, and the further up you go (meaning over-the-top, 3/4 delivery, sidearm, is what he was talking about), the more strain you put on your shoulder. He went on to say that since I had an over-the-top motion, I could throw harder from that slot, but the stress was greater. He added that it’s not a question of if pitchers will have shoulder problems, it’s a matter of when. He said guys that throw with top velocity often times will have the greatest stress on their arms, and because of the sheer force of the pendulum (arm) when you whip it outward (that’s what she said…LOL, had to throw that in) toward home plate, it must then decelerate, otherwise you’re arm would fall off. That deceleration is often the cause of many shoulder injuries, because the small, intricate muscles of the shoulder are put under a great deal of stress. But pitchers with controlled motions such as Maddux often times don’t deal with that type of injury because they don’t have the same whipping motion that the high velocity guys do.

    Just look at the Braves rotation from back in the day:
    Maddux-no arm issues
    Glavine-This is a bizarre case, because he didn’t early in his career, but late, when he was like 40 yrs old, he had shoulder issues, but never threw particularly hard
    Smoltz-elbow and shoulder injuries
    Avery-elbow and shoulder injuries
    Millwood-shoulder injury (maybe TJ, can’t remember)

    Guys like Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, have all succumbed to shoulder injuries at some point in their careers, and in Johnson, Schilling, and Pedro’s cases, it ended their careers. (Johnson was actually a combo of shoulder and back issues).

    We’ve experienced it with the Cubs and Wood, Prior, and Clement among others.

    Anyway, I hope that information offered some insight with pitching injuries and what causes them, along with timelines…..

    My main point is that elbow injuries typically occur in mid-to-late 20’s, while shoulder injuries typically occur in mid-to-late 30’s. So, between rehab times with elbow injuries, you have a window of about 4 years in the middle of his career where you can expect to have an effective pitcher before major injuries start piling up. That will typically occur from age 29-34, depending on when he has TJ surgery, which these days, is almost a given.

    My prediction is we MIGHT……MIGHT….get one good year out of Garza before he has to undergo TJ surgery. When I found out he hasn’t had it before, I was like, “oh, wouldn’t it be soooooooo Cub-like to trade the farm for a pitcher that has TJ right off the bat”….Imagine what that would do to the Cubs psyche. You get Garza for maybe one year, his first arbitration year, and he goes down with TJ, takes an entire year to rehab (his second arbitration year), comes back his third arbitration year, and is about league average. Then it’s decision-time. What do you do? Do you sign him to a multi-year deal then and take your chances, or just let him walk? Pretty scary thought, right?

    That’s why they always say if you’re going to use young, top pitching prospects in a trade, use them to get a young, proven bat. Otherwise, you might as well hang onto your own young pitching. Sure, you have cases where young pitching like Kyler Drabek is used to land Halladay, but keep in mind that Halladay is a Cy Young, Ace pitcher….Garza is NOT.

    Anyway, I truly hope Hendry knows what he’s doing, but I fully expect a veteran rotation, veteran lineup, and veteran bench to carry us to yet another sub-.500 season.

    Like I said at the end of last season, wouldn’t it have been something to watch guys like Guyer, Lee, Chirinos, LaHair, Snyder, Castillo, etc. playing everyday versus Scales, Hill, Baker, Nady, Fukudome, etc.? At that point, we’d know who was legit, and who was a pretender among our prospects.

    If something like last year happens again, we best be seeing a white flag trade in July that sets the stage for the likes of: LeMahieu, Jackson, Vitters, Flaherty, Tony Thomas, etc. playing everyday down the stretch, otherwise, it’s yet another lost season.

    I know this is the most random post ever from the rotation to the injuries, to the lineup, etc….but…

    Does anyone realize that in a similar “lost” season, the Astros went with their prospects down the stretch, and actually finished ahead of us in the division? I find it hard to believe they won’t finish ahead of us again this year based on the valuable experience they’ve gained from that, don’t you?

    • paul catanese

      Aaron,are really an Orthopedic surgeon? Sounds like it,been there and you are right, a 3/4 delivery is best,even at shortstop,over the top and the arm goes. Interesting that you brought that up. Treatment in my day was novicane and no surgery you were just thru. No one went beyond that,cause they just didn,t know. And you or someone can forcast the future for a pitcher simply on the style of delivery.

    • Gary J

      I’m 100% with you on the pitching thing – the human body is simply not constructed to endure that kind of stress. However items like conditioning, rehab, arm angle, endurance, “rubber arm”… all contribute to the likelihood of injury.

      And sometimes there’s just flukes – Mark Prior had his share of things go wrong – but to me he just never recovered properly from that nasty spill running into the second baseman on that pop up (was it Grudzie?)

      Bu then again Nolan Ryan was a power pitcher and throwing no-hitters when he was 40 – other pitchers “evolve” as they progress from being a hurler to a pitcher… there’s no guarantee that a player is going to get hurt.

      And I’m with you too on the fact that we should have given more of the hitters a shot at the end of the year. They simply didn’t get enough playing time. We were battling for fourth – time to let the vets sit and at least see if the youngsters are overmatched or if they’re ready for a more extended look. A few kids got a little time (Barney, Castillo) but there wasn’t nearly enough youth getting their shot in the lineup.

      But the pitching – that we did see some kids get their shot – although some of that was during the season work. Cashner and Russel both pitched in over 50 games… now it’s time to stretch them out and see what they can do. Coleman got 8 starts too, so he’s ready to battle for the spot. The shark even got the nod a couple of times (with less than impressive results). They got a taste – now take the hill kid and lets see how you handle a little bit of pressure when your job is on the line.

      I’d actually be stunned to not see Cashner take that 4th spot. In fact I think it’s his job to lose – and there’s a shot he could lose it if he has a horrid spring – but his stat lines in the minors in 2009 and 2010 were impressive. He’s had some seasoning in the pen (which a lot of teams do you acclimate starters to the show) but I think his repertoire lends itself to being a starter and his minor league stats back that. It’s just a matter of stretching him back out. The only scenario (other than implosion) where I see him starting the season in AAA is if he’s not quite ready to get in 85-90 pitches right out of the gate… in which case he’d be back up shortly.

      • bpot92

        I think you are referring to the time he ran into Marcus Giles, brother of Brian Giles?

        • Gary J

          I didn’t remember who he ran into – just the flip and landing… well that and the subsequent DL time and apparent rushing back and just making things worse. Thanks for the assist bpot92

  • Galetts1

    Could the Cubs pull off a trade sending either Baker or Fontenont along witha prospect to Texas for Michael Young and cash. Young would fit nicely at 2nd base and also as a # 2 hitter.

    • Tony

      The Rangers say they plan on Young being their DH and filling in all over the infield. Plus it would take alot for the Cubs to get Young, as they would not want to pay his salary in 2011.