One of the more compelling story lines for any team in the spring is the battle, whether faux or real, for the final rotation spots. We often see teams set up battles among youngsters and veterans to foster a sense of competition — that is, so that they take nothing for granted. What we don’t often see is a team’s second best pitcher without a guaranteed rotation spot. Yet that is happening in the Chicago camp. Early in the spring we learned that Randy Wells was not guaranteed a role in the rotation, but was instead in a battle with the likes of Braden Looper and Todd Wellemeyer for two open spots. The perception of a battle continues into March, which makes it even more baffling.
During the last two seasons Wells has been the Cubs’ second best pitcher to Ryan Dempster. While both Ted Lilly and Carlos Zambrano had lower ERAs, they also pitched fewer innings: Wells was 77.1 innings ahead of Zambrano and 65.2 up on Lilly. Zambrano had a better FIP, but a worse xFIP. Lilly had similar FIPs and xFIPs. It all amounted to 6.4 WAR for Wells, 5.9 for Zambrano, and 5.1 for Lilly. If you’d rather measure based on overall outcomes rather than fielding-independent ones, Wells’s 6.1 bWAR topped Zambrano’s 5.4 and Lilly’s 6.0. Now that Lilly has moved west, it’s even clearer that Wells is the second best remaining pitcher.
During the off-season the Cubs did add Matt Garza, which presumably pushed Wells down in the pecking order. Yet if you look at both of their numbers from the past two seasons, Wells comes out ahead in every major statistical category: ERA, FIP, xFIP, ERA+, fWAR, and bWAR, despite Garza’s having pitched 47.1 more innings.
There are other factors to account for, such as the differences between the AL East and the NL Central. It’s no small gap. During the 2009 and 2010 seasons the non-Tampa Bay AL East teams hit .266/.335/.439, while the non-Chicago NL Central teams hit .257/.324/.402. That certainly means there’s some adjustment involved. There’s also their respective home parks. Wrigley Field is a bit more hitter friendly, while Tropicana Field depresses some offensive numbers, especially for lefties. I won’t pretend to know where this adjustment puts the two, but I don’t think it would go far enough to make Garza definitively the better pitcher.
The situation now appears even more perplexing. If Wells has outperformed all but one member of the Cubs 2011 staff, then why is the team placing him in a battle for the final two rotation spots? There appear to be two answers to this question.
Despite his age, 28, Wells is relatively inexperienced for a big league pitcher. He has thrown just 365 major league innings and has made just 59 starts. The idea behind the competition, then, is to ensure that Wells doesn’t get too comfortable. By creating a competitive environment they’re trying to keep him on track with his preparation. It’s not easy to determine whether that works, but teams continue doing it in any case. If this is the primary answer, we can safely ignore the competitive overtures and assume that the Cubs have planned for Wells to pitch in the rotation all along. That seems more likely to me.
The Cubs might be concerned over Wells’s somewhat disappointing 2010. But other than his ERA jumping to 4.26, there’s not much reason to be worried. His FIP was right in the same range in both 2009 and 2010, and his xFIP actually dropped. He continues to get ground balls to compensate for his below-average strikeout rate — a rate that actually climbed in 2010. The biggest differences in terms of results were his BABIP, .311, up from .288, and his strand rate, 72%, down from 76%. In terms of the events over which he has the most control, Wells wasn’t all that different from 2009 to 2010.
His 2010 woes also rested heavily on one month’s performance. In June — the month he was allegedly out celebrating the Chicago Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup victory — he pitched three terrible games and produced a 6.14 ERA, though his FIP was 3.71. If we temporarily ignore that month Wells is left with a 3.93 ERA and 3.97 FIP. It’s not as though we can continue ignoring that month — it did happen — but it does appear that Wells’s 2010 season was more a case of one bad month than a bad year. If it was just one bad month and five good months, the Cubs probably don’t need to worry.
Every year we see teams lump players into position battles, regardless of whether they’re already decided. It’s an annual rite of spring. But we don’t often see a player as productive as Wells has been for the Cubs ensconced in such a competition. More than likely it’s a facade, and Wells has certainly done his part by allowing just one run, unearned, in his five innings this spring. Still, the mere idea of placing Wells into a competition, real or manufactured, is absurd. He has been the team’s second best pitcher during the last two seasons, and there’s a good chance he’s in that same spot again in 2011.
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