Since the start of their tenure in the front office, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have preached the importance of improving the Cubs’ starting pitching depth. This was even more apparent during the club’s first playoff berth in seven seasons where ace pitcher Jake Arrieta tired and backend starters Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel struggled to be effective. In the off-season, the team seemed to be in on several highly talented arms on the trade market and added Adam Warren and John Lackey to bolster their rotation. Let’s take a look at the current crop of starting pitchers set to make their debuts in Mesa in a little over two weeks.
With all the trade talk, you’d think that the Cubs had issues in the starting pitching department. Instead, the squad ranked third overall with a 3.36 ERA. Much of that success can be attributed to the 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta.
In 33 starts, Arrieta was nothing short of phenomenal. He pitched to a 22-6 record, four complete games, three shutouts and one no-hitter, the team’s first since Carlos Zambrano’s in 2008. He struck out 236 batters with an amazing 1.77 ERA and 0.86 WHIP. His 229 innings were a career high by about 70 innings and it showed in his last two playoff starts. There’s no question that he’s the staff ace going into Spring Training, but it bears monitoring how his heavy workload of last season will affect him. With elbow and shoulder injuries in his past, one hopes that pitching coach Chris Bosio’s mechanical fixes to Arrieta’s delivery not only will help continue to make him the dominant ace, but also improved his durability.
If Arrieta does not continue where he left off, Jon Lester will again be heavily counted on. Lester struggled some to start the season and may have been weighed down by astronomical expectations due to his large contract. Lester rebounded nicely from a rough April and finished with solid overall numbers. In 32 starts, he amassed an 11-12 record, 3.34 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 207 strikeouts. His 205 innings were his fourth straight season of 200 innings or more and his 2.92 FIP suggested he was a little unlucky in the ERA department.
With Arrieta, now the new staff ace and Jason Heyward the shiny new toy for fans, the spotlight should be off of Lester. He should be able to relax and settle into a better record and more consistent results.
Following Lester in the rotation will be an old friend of his and former teammate John Lackey. Cubs’ fans got a close look at Lackey in the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals. In his first game, he was masterful and shut out the club for 7.1 innings yet only lasted four innings with four earned runs in his other start. Overall, Lackey posted pretty solid numbers for a 36-year old pitcher. In 33 starts, he had a 13-10 record, 175 strikeouts in 218 innings, 2.77 ERA and 1.21 WHIP. At 37, it’s more than fair to question how much time Lackey has left in the tank, but with a recent Tommy John surgery performed in 2012, his elbow is probably in better shape than others his age. His FIP of 3.57 suggests there will be some regression to his game, but if he can continue to eat innings, he can help take pressure off the bullpen that was taxed often last season.
With Lackey taking his place in the rotation, Jason Hammel goes into Spring Training with something to prove. 2015 was a tale of two seasons for Hammel. In the first half in 17 starts, the 33-year old posted a 5-4 record, 105 strikeouts in 103.2 innings, 2.86 ERA and 0.94 WHIP. In 14 starts in the second half, he pitched to a 5-3 record, 67 strikeouts in 67 innings, 5.10 ERA and 1.49 WHIP. Hammel was impacted by lower body issues in the second half. With the lack of pitching depth, Hammel tried to gut it out as best he could, but pitched six innings or more in just two of his final 14 starts. Reports had Hammel working with a trainer in the off-season on his lower half to avoid the issue that also plagued him the season before. It’ll be interesting to watch to see if he bounces back.
Like Hammel, Kyle Hendricks also will be under the microscope during the spring and will likely battle with new acquisition Adam Warren for the fifth starter job. On the surface, Hendricks’ first full season looks good. In 32 starts, he posted an 8-7 record, 167 strikeouts in 180 innings, 3.95 ERA and 1.16 WHIP. The cerebral pitcher showed a penchant to get inside his head too much and his command often suffered. This tendency usually manifested itself after the second time through an opponent’s lineup. Last year, his ERA jumps from 3.28 through the first three innings to 4.71 after the 4th inning. It caused manager Joe Maddon to use a quick hook at times and it led to Hendricks having just 11 quality starts. He’s going to have to show he can log more innings and stay effective in order to keep Warren from taking his spot in the rotation.
It was recently reported that Adam Warren was told by the front office when he was acquired from the New York Yankees for Starlin Castro that they planned to use him as a starting pitcher. The 28-year old has experience as both a reliever and a starter and has shown himself to be effective in either role. As a starter, he owns a 7-6 record in 20 starts, with 76 strikeouts in 106.1 innings, 3.98 ERA and 1.27 WHIP. To get hitters out, he uses a combination of five different pitches. His main pitch is a 94 mph rising four-seam fastball that is known to be a good pitch against both sides of the plate. He mixes in a two seamer with similar velocity that is basically a sinker with a good amount of fade. His 85 mph changeup is considered his best and is mainly used as an out pitch. An 80 mph curve is his best at inducing grounders and an 85 mph slider is basically a cutter, but he uses it sparingly. If he doesn’t win the fifth starter role outright in Spring Training, he could be used as a swingman in the bullpen or be sent back to the minors to be the first man called upon when needed.
With Warren set to transition to a starter role, Trevor Cahill, Travis Wood and Clayton Richard will likely be the main swingmen in the bullpen. In our next preview, we will profile them further for their contributions in those roles. All three do have a fair amount of starting experience and may be counted on at some point for spot starts as they were last season. Of the three, Wood’s nine starts were the most, but his first seven starts earned him a rough 5.59 ERA and led to his demotion to the bullpen. Richard made three starts, winning two of them and earning a 3.00 ERA in 18 innings. Richard is a two-time 14-game winner and would be more than capable as a possible fifth starter if needed. Cahill didn’t start any games with the Cubs, but could be a dark horse for the fifth starter job. Bosio clearly helped Cahill find some of the magic he had earlier in his career and re-signed with the Cubs despite offers to pitch in the rotation for other teams. At the start of his career, Cahill won 18 games for the Oakland A’s in 2010 and has pitched 200 innings or more twice since then. At just 27, he’s young enough to bounce back and could be a real asset if he could return to his former glory.
Some other names to keep an eye on in Spring Training are current pitching prospects on the 40-man roster and non-roster invitees. Of the prospects, Dallas Beeler, Pierce Johnson, Eric Jokisch, Duane Underwood Jr. and Ryan Williams are names to remember, although Williams will not be in big league camp in Spring Training.
Dallas Beeler made three awful starts for the Cubs and his 9.72 ERA showed he was overmatched by Major League pitching and with one minor league option remaining this is likely his last shot to make an impression.
Eric Jokisch was a victim of bad luck last year when an oblique injury sidelined him and led him to be passed over by guys like Richard, Beeler and Donn Roach for spot starts. He started just 17 games in Iowa with decent results and will likely spend his year in Iowa hoping for another opportunity.
Johnson’s minor league career has been all about bad luck injuries and the front office will be watching his progression closely. The former 43rd overall pick has a career 2.50 ERA in the minors and should get a chance to crack Iowa’s rotation should he stay healthy long enough. If he does, it’s very possible that Pierce Johnson could make his Major League debut at some point this year.
Duane Underwood Jr. is a non-roster invitee and hasn’t spent time higher than High-A yet. The invite is probably to see how Underwood Jr. will fare against tougher competition and if his 97 mph fastball is the real deal against tougher hitters. He likely will be among the first round of cuts.
Although Cubs fans won’t get a look at Ryan Williams, the name is one to keep an ear out for during the season. The 2014 10th round draft pick opened some eyes in the organization in his second season with a 14-3 record, 2.60 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and 98 strikeouts in 141.2 innings. Williams finished well in Double-A Tennessee and could find himself at Iowa with Johnson, Jokisch and Beeler vying for a chance to pitch at Wrigley this year.
As for the other non-roster players, Stephen Fife, Jonathan Pettibone and Drew Rucinski will be in the mix for jobs at Iowa and possible swing men for the bullpen.
Stephen Fife is a fomer Red Sox farmhand and fresh off Tommy John surgery. He’s an extreme ground ball pitcher good against righties and could start at Iowa or work in a bullpen role.
Jonathan Pettibone started 20 games in his Major League career with the Phillies with middling results. At the moment, his ceiling is that of a fourth or fifth starter who can eat innings if needed and could find himself as another veteran option in Iowa.
Drew Rucinski had a rough year for the Angels Triple-A club pitching to 5.69 ERA in 22 starts. However, previously in his minor league career he showed much better results and has a good mix of pitches with good velocity and movement. He might be a good project for the team to see if they can regenerate his talent.
Across the board, the starting pitching depth has really improved from the previous season. The addition of Lackey and Warren, the returns of Wood, Cahill and Richard and prospects like Johnson, Williams and Jokisch give the team a lot more options should they need it. With the rotation pretty much set, it will be interesting to see how the front office views who’s up next and who will make their debut at Wrigley this season.
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