Thanks to an off-season spending spree aimed largely at the starting rotation, there’s a lot of buzz surrounding the Cubs pitchers. Improvement was necessary to a group that saw 13 pitchers make a start and compile a 4.11 ERA and 1.31 WHIP. Let’s take a look at some of the stories for Spring Training and the coming year at the starting pitcher position.
Perhaps the biggest buzz maker of the off-season came in the signing of free agent pitcher Jon Lester. Lester had a lot of suitors, but the front office was able to convince him that the Cubs were on the rise and wanted him to be a big part of a potential World Series Championship in the coming years. At 31 come Opening Day, Lester is no longer a spring chicken, but he has been one of the most durable pitchers in baseball averaging 207.1 innings per season over the past seven years. He gives the rotation a veteran presence as well as an ace that the team can rely on to give them a chance to win every start he makes. Last season in 32 Lester starts, he posted a 20-12 team record. Another strong season will go a long way for a club that has not had a pitcher of his caliber since Mark Prior was a Cy Young candidate in 2003.
The second free agent signing for the rotation that was actually made before Lester involved Jason Hammel. Hammel spent half a season with the Cubs last year before being traded to the A’s in a blockbuster deal and arguably pitched his best baseball during his stint with the club. Hammel pitched to an 8-5 record in 17 starts, 104 strikeouts in 108.2 innings with a 2.98 ERA and 1.02 WHIP. Hammel has suggested that the improvement in his game came from the tutelage of pitching coach, Chris Bosio. This was likely a big factor in the front office re-signing him and assuming that he can build on his performance and be a strong anchor as the third man in the middle of the rotation.
Another set of high hopes the front office has for the rotation revolves around two young pitchers acquired in trades during the rebuild, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks. Arrieta is currently slated to be the Cubs second starter behind Lester after an excellent season where he posted the team’s only complete game and shutout. He also gave up just three hits or less in eight of his 25 starts which led to his 2.53 ERA. The main knock on Arrieta and a big question mark heading into this season is if he can stay healthy enough to complete a full season. Last year’s 156.2 innings were a career high, but a shoulder injury suffered before the start of the Spring Training a year ago is cause for some concern. A full season from Arrieta would go a long way in legitimizing the Cubs playoff hopes and give the team both a second pitcher that can dominate every time out while putting the team in position to win every game he takes the hill.
With the fourth spot likely his to lose, Hendricks may not have the raw talent that Arrieta has, but he certainly has the same amount of pressure as fans have likened him to Hall of Fame and former Cubs right-hander, Greg Maddux. Hendricks made only 13 starts with the Cubs at the end of last season, but his cerebral, pitch to contact approach earned him a 7-2 record, 47 strikeouts in 80.1 innings with a 2.46 ERA and 1.08 WHIP. Usually, a player with his kind of ability does not fool hitters as well the following season, so it’s anybody’s guess what kind of pitcher Hendricks will end up being. The best case scenario may yield an innings eater that keeps the Cubs in games and keeps the bullpen fresh as the season wears on.
If the top four spots are mostly settled, the fifth spot in the rotation is up for grabs. The Cubs have a lot of options and Spring Training will likely be an all-out competition between Travis Wood, Edwin Jackson, Tsuyoshi Wada, Jacob Turner and Felix Doubront.
Assuming he’s not traded before Spring Training ends Travis Wood is likely the odds on favorite despite last season’s struggles. Last year, his ERA jumped almost a full two points from 3.11 to 5.03, his WHIP rose from 1.14 to 1.53 and his quality starts dropped from 24 to 14. At this point, Wood is likely a league average starter and with one year of control left beyond this season, he could be a nice value to another team. If the team can’t find a home for him by the start of the season and he shows improvement in the spring, he may earn the fifth spot just by virtue of showcasing him to other teams to get the maximum return in a trade.
If Wood is traded, Tsuyoshi Wada is likely next in line thanks to the front office signing him to a one-year, $4 million deal in the off-season. Wada was fairly decent in 13 starts with the club last year posting a 3.25 ERA and 1.24 WHIP. Of those 13 starts, Wada managed just five quality starts and was mostly a five-inning pitcher. To stick in the rotation, he’s going to have to go deeper into games and if he can’t, he might find himself in a bullpen currently short on solid left-handers.
Another option in the fifth spot is free-agent flop Edwin Jackson. The front office was unable to find a taker for him in the off-season as he is still owed $22 million over the next two seasons. The team has been quoted as saying that it’s up to Jackson to earn himself a roster spot either in the rotation or the bullpen thanks to a horrendous season where he registered a 6.33 ERA, 1.64 WHIP and 15 losses in 27 starts. If Jackson actually chooses to listen to Bosio during Spring Training and makes a marked improvement, it’s hard to see the Cubs not allowing their high-priced pitcher to showcase his skills in the rotation in hopes of pawning him off on someone else. If he doesn’t, it would not be surprising to see the front office persuade Tom Ricketts to eat the rest of his contract and release him outright either.
Jacob Turner and Felix Doubront were acquired late last year in trades and will compete for the fifth spot, but will likely find themselves in the bullpen as long relievers and rotational depth due to being out of minor league options. Turner may have the best shot thanks to his pedigree as a former first round pick who just hasn’t been able to put it all together yet as evidenced by his terrible 7.12 ERA in six starts with the Cubs. The team may be hoping that more time with Bosio may help Turner unlock what he’s capable of. Doubront was markedly better in his four starts with the Cubs last year. Like Wada, his spring may be a big factor in determining his role, as he may slot in as a lefty reliever.
Dallas Beeler and Eric Jokisch also got quick looks in the rotation last year, but are more likely ticketed as minor league depth in Iowa. Beeler and Jokisch should be the first arms called if necessary of the four thanks to holding their own at the Major League level. Beeler made two starts for the Cubs last season and composed himself well notching a 3.27 ERA. He struggled with walks though as evidenced by his 1.54 WHIP, so more minor league seasoning is definitely in order. Jokisch also fared well in four games with the team that included one start. He posted a 1.88 ERA pitching mostly in long relief and has an outside shot at the left-handed bullpen job that Doubront and Wada are in the mix for. The front office will also likely take a closer look at prospects like Corey Black, Pierce Johnson and C.J. Edwards to determine who is ready to be fast tracked to the majors and who needs more time to hone their craft.
On paper, the Cubs rotation has improved thanks to the signing of veterans like Jon Lester and Jason Hammel, but its fate ultimately lies in the maturation and good health of Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks. If both players can build on their strong seasons and meet expectations, it’ll give the club four starters they can rely on and keep them in games. If they can’t, the team currently has a lot more depth than they have had in the past, but with a lot of question marks. If anything, this is sure to be the best Cubs rotation since the start of the rebuild.