Cubs Storylines of the Spring: The Pitchers

With the Cubs’ Cactus League opener just around the corner, it is time to breakdown the storylines of the spring.

This is the final spring for the Cubs at Fitch Park and HoHoKam Park. The Cubs are scheduled to cut the ribbon on their new spring home, currently called Riverview Park, in November.

It will be a long Spring Training for the Cubs due to the World Baseball Classic. The team does not leave Arizona until March 28 and they wrap up their pre-season schedule on March 30 with the second of two exhibition games against the Astros at Minute Maid Park. All told, the Cubs have 39 games on their schedule between February 23 and March 30 that includes a trip to Las Vegas and a practice game against a WBC team on March 15. The Cubs have five split squad games, three night games in Arizona and only two days off.

This will be the second spring for a majority of the coaching staff.  Dale Sveum and the coaching staff have promised to break the game down and teach the basics to every player, regardless of their level of experience. Sveum has said his team will play better fundamental ball this year and that foundation will be set this spring.

The Cubs have 62 players in camp, 22 on non-roster invites, and two highly touted prospects. There will be a lot of focus on the future over the next six weeks while working on the current team.

The first of a three-part series on the Cubs’ Storylines of the Spring focuses on the 31 pitchers on the Cubs’ Spring Training roster.

The Starting Rotation

One of the main focuses of the front office when the off-season began was to add starting pitching depth to the big league roster … and they accomplished their goal. As the games are set to begin, the Cubs have more quality starting pitching options at or near the big league level than a year ago.

Provided Matt Garza does not have any additional setbacks, the top three spots in the Cubs rotation are set. Jeff Samardzija, Matt Garza and Edwin Jackson will begin the season as the top three starters in Dale Sveum’s rotation followed by Scott Feldman. Sveum said on the first day of camp that he would announce his Opening Day starter mid-way through the Cubs’ extended stay in Arizona. As long as those four stay healthy and on track, the last spot appears to be down to Travis Wood and Carlos Villanueva and will be decided in camp, contrary to reports that Travis Wood would start the season in the rotation.

Scott Baker is reportedly on schedule to begin the season on the active roster … and if that is the case, he will start the season in the rotation. Baker had Tommy John surgery last April and while he could begin the season with the Cubs, it is highly unlikely. Jed Hoyer addressed Scott Baker’s status last week and said that Baker is throwing the ball well but his legs are not under him yet. The Cubs are going to be cautious with Baker and would rather see him miss time early in the season than later in the year. Reports around the convention indicated an early May timeframe for Baker to make his Cubs’ debut.

Scott Feldman and Carlos Villanueva give the Cubs something they did not have last year … and maybe not since the days of Jon Lieber’s second tour with the Cubs, flexibility. Both Feldman and Villanueva can start or pitch multiple innings out of the pen and are valuable swingmen. While Feldman signed on as a starter and Dale Sveum has said he will begin the year in the rotation, he needs to prove he is healthy and is closer to the 2009-Feldman than the one that pitched in a Rangers’ uniform the last three seasons. Feldman was a solid 17-8 with a 4.08 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP in 34 games, 31 starts, for Texas in 2009 but injuries and ineffectiveness pushed him into a role he would rather not have moving forward.

Travis Wood made significant improvements during his first year with the Cubs. Wood had a miserable spring a year ago, recovered a little in Iowa then finished the season on a positive note in the Cubs’ rotation. Over his last 13 starts, Wood was 2-7 with a 3.56 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP. Wood allowed just 63 hits over his final 78 1/3 innings while striking out 65 batters and walking only 24 … just under a 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio. Wood is out of minor league options and unless he is traded he will begin the season on the Cubs’ roster … either in the rotation or in the bullpen. Wood provides the Cubs with a lefty in the rotation and if he can finally get out of his own way, possibly a very good fifth starter.

Arodys Vizcaino is ticketed for Iowa that is if he is ready to start the season on the active roster. The Cubs have said they are going to be extremely cautious with him this year and are looking more at 2014 than 2013 for Vizcaino. Vizcaino will be on a strict innings limit (Sveum said 100 innings at the end of last season) and it should not come as a surprise if he is placed on the 60-day DL sometime in late March. Chances are Vizcaino could use the extra time in Arizona and by doing so, the Cubs would create a roster spot to add one of the non-roster invitees to the 40-man roster. Vizcaino will likely be used as a piggyback starter at some point during the Cactus League schedule to get innings … that is if he is healthy enough to pitch.

The other young arm to keep an eye on is Alberto Cabrera. Cabrera has an electric arm and while he was a reliever last year, the Cubs are stretching him out as a starter … a process he began in winter ball. Cabrera is ticketed for the I-Cubs rotation to start the year and it would not be surprising to see him remain in Iowa until the rosters expand in September. Cabrera has one minor league option left.

As for the other starting candidates in camp, it would be a longshot, at best, to see them break camp with the Cubs. Drew Carpenter will give the Cubs depth in Iowa and another player that Jed Hoyer is familiar with from their days together in San Diego. Casey Coleman, Barret Loux, Chris Rusin and Brooks Raley will likely join Carpenter in the I-Cubs rotation but there is a remote possibility that Rusin leaves Arizona as the second lefty in Dale Sveum’s bullpen.

Story within the Storylines

Health, health and more health is focus point for the Cubs, like every team, when it comes to starting pitching. Matt Garza has already been shut down for a week with a mild lat strain and has long as he does not miss more than seven days he should have time to prepare for the season. It would easy to see a starting five of Jeff Samardzija, Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson, Scott Feldman and Travis Wood at the beginning of the year with Carlos Villanueva in the pen and Scott Baker on the DL. That all could change if the injury bug hits Cubs’ camp but at least the Cubs have depth and the options are much better than this time last year.

The Bullpen

The Cubs figure to begin the year with a seven-man bullpen and if Carlos Marmol is still on the roster, there are limited spaces up for grabs this spring.

The Cubs have repeated over and over that Carlos Marmol will begin the year as the closer. Marmol is in what figures to be his last camp with the Cubs and is due $9.8 million on the final year of the three year contract he signed prior to the 2011 season. Marmol is not only dealing with getting himself ready for the season while not paying attention to the constant trade rumors but the charges of domestic abuse hanging over him in the Dominican Republic figure to add more onto the fragile Marmol than just the game of baseball.

Kyuji Fujikawa, James Russell and Shawn Camp are locks, if healthy, to make the roster that leaves 11 pitchers in camp competing for two spots, that is if Carlos Villanueva or Travis Wood begins the year, as expected, in the pen.

The Cubs have to keep Rule 5 pick Hector Rondon on the roster throughout the season. Rondon appears to be healthy for one of the few times in his career and if that is the case, he will go north with the Cubs. Rondon did not report to camp on time due to issues with his Visa … and that delay will not help his cause. Rondon has a big arm and could really be a good pickup for the team if he is finally healthy enough to pitch. Unlike last year, the Cubs appear to be looking to win games, instead of just adding inventory and cleaning the books, so if Rondon is ineffective this spring, he will likely be offered back to the Indians.

Michael Bowden made strides last year after being designated for assignment by both the Red Sox and the Cubs. If Bowden could pick up where he left off last season he will make the team … but that is a big if. Over his last 20 appearances, Bowden posted a 1.33 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP, 21 strikeouts, 11 walks and 16 hits allowed over 27 innings.

Rafael Dolis and Trey McNutt should help makeup the backend of the I-Cubs bullpen to begin the season. Recent reports suggested that Dolis is out of minor league options and that is not the case. Dolis is eligible for a fourth option year due to accruing only four full seasons through 2012. The Cubs are reportedly unsure if McNutt will be used as a starter or a reliever this season but based on last year’s success out of the bullpen it would be good to see him complete a full year on the active roster as a reliever then think about converting him back to a starter.

Dayan Diaz and Blake Parker should begin the season in the minors. Parker is recovering from a stress reaction in his right elbow, the same injury that Matt Garza suffered, and while he has a good arm, recovering from the injury should limit his chances of breaking camp with the team. Parker could benefit from more time in the minors to learn how to consistently throw strikes, but at 27 years old, his time may be running out. Diaz has not pitched above A-ball and while he has shown promise, he does not appear to be ready to face big league hitters. Diaz should help fill out the backend of the Smokies’ pen to start the season.

The Cubs have five interesting candidates for the pen in camp on non-roster invites that should push Michael Bowden and Hector Rondon.

Jaye Chapman, Jensen Lewis, Zach Putnam, Hisanori Takahashi and Cory Wade all have varying degrees of big league experience and if nothing else will give the Cubs options in Iowa.

Jaye Chapman made his big league debut last September and showed promise. Like so many of the Cubs relievers last year, Chapman struggled with throwing strikes and walked 10 batters in 12 innings of work … and that simply will not cut it. Dale Sveum liked what he saw out of Chapman, for the most part, in September but he would likely have to be lights out in Arizona in order to break camp with the big league team. And the same could be said for Zach Putnam.

The Cubs claimed the former fifth round pick of the Indians off waivers from the Rockies on November 2 then decided not to offer him a contract for the 2013 season at the deadline. Zach Putnam was granted free agency on November 30 and re-signed with the Cubs as a minor league free agent on December 25. Putnam has pitched in just 10 big league games and is 1-1 with a 4.82 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP … nine strikeouts, one walk and 13 hits allowed in 9 1/3 innings. Putnam is only 25 years old and must figure out how to consistently stay in the strike zone.

Jensen Lewis has 161 big league games under his belt … but not a single inning in the majors since 2010. Lewis could benefit greatly by a reunion with his old college pitching coach, Derek Johnson. Johnson helped Lewis become a third round pick in the 2005 draft and Lewis struggled for the most part since his rookie season of 2007. Lewis spent last year in the Diamondbacks’ system and posted a 7-2 record with a 3.65 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP in 52 games in the PCL. In 56 2/3 innings, Lewis surrendered 50 hits, walked 20 and struck out 43 batters. Lewis is one of three relievers in camp on a non-roster invite that has a legitimate shot of breaking camp with the team.

Two seasons ago Cory Wade was 6-1 in 40 games with a 2.04 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP pitching out of the Yankees’ bullpen. Wade struck out 30 batters and walked eight while allowing 33 hits in 39 2/3 innings. Wade struggled immensely last year (1-1 in 39 games with a 6.46 ERA and a 1.39 WHIP) was claimed off waivers by the Blue Jays from the Yankees in October then granted his free agency on November 30. Wade signed with the Cubs on December 13 and if he is anywhere near his 2011 form, he could force his way onto the Cubs roster.

The Cubs appear to have two options on the 40-man roster that could break camp as the second lefty in the pen along with James Russell. But both Chris Rusin and Travis Wood are starters and project better moving forward in that role. That is what makes the minor league deal they signed Hisanori Takahashi to that much more interesting.

Takahashi has been more than just a serviceable lefty out of the pen over his 143 appearances as a reliever … but could the 37-year old southpaw be out of gas? Takahashi is just two seasons removed from posting a 4-3 record with a 3.44 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP in 61 games with the Angels. Last year in 51 combined games with the Angels and Pirates, Takahashi was 0-3 with a 5.54 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP in 50 1/3 innings … but his peripheral numbers were much better than his traditional stats. In those 50 1/3 innings, he allowed 49 hits while striking out 52 batters and issuing just 14 walks … that is a 3.71 strikeout to walk ratio.

Story within the Storylines

Health concerns aside, the Cubs will start the year with Kyuji Fujikawa, Shawn Camp and James Russell in the backend of the pen … and if Carlos Marmol is still with the team, he will begin the year as the closer. With Carlos Villanueva likely in the swingman role to start the year, as mentioned, that leaves two spots in the pen. And it would not be going out on a limb to say that Hisanori Takahashi and Cory Wade or Jensen Lewis could be the sixth and seventh relievers in Sveum’s pen at the start of the year.

Up Next – Cubs Storylines of the Spring: The Catchers and The Outfield

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