Why Is Randy Wells Battling for a Rotation Spot?

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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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

24 Responses to “Why Is Randy Wells Battling for a Rotation Spot?”

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  1. JD says:

    I agree that Wells is talented, but last year he had some serious issues with preparation/being out a bit too late on a regular basis. He’s even alluded to his lifestyle causing problems.

    I think the Cubs don’t trust him to act like a grown up and do what he needs to do to be successful.

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    • There’s been so much hearsay regarding Wells’ alleged “lifestyle” problems that I tend not to put too much, if any, stock in them. As you say, Randy has alluded to something being a little off last season but, to my knowledge, he has NEVER admitted that his social life negatively affected his pitching performance. He’s said stuff like, “I lost focus” and “Got too big for my britches.” In fact, at one point, last season he vehemently denied a rumor that he’d been out partying the night before a bad start.

      As pointed out in the very well-written article above, most of Wells’ 2010 struggles can be attributed to bad luck and normal regression for a second-year pitcher. I’m a little frustrated with the team’s apparent decision to put his rotation spot in jeopardy, but it may very well be just a facade, as Joe mentions. Randy has pitched well in spring training thus far and, to be honest, I’m getting less and less worried about this.

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  2. Randy Wells certainly deserves a rotation spot, but it’s not like 2010 was “one bad month and five good months” — a FIP and ERA of 4.00 FIP aren’t bad, but they’re hardly “good.”

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    • That second “FIP” should have been deleted. Oh well.

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    • NM says:

      I guess it depends on your definition of ‘good’. An FIP around 4.00 is still above average, especially when your home park is Wrigely. He had a +3.3 WAR in nearly 200 innings last year; I don’t know, I’d consider that good. Even if he regresses towards his 4.09 xFIP, I think that still puts him at or above a +3 WAR.

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    • Jason B says:

      Yeah, I would agree with Alex. From the article: “During the last two seasons Wells has been the Cubs’ second best pitcher.”

      Qualitatively, no. As the writer points out, he comes out ahead of Lilly and Big Z because he pitched *more*, not *better*. Sure durability is a key component to a player’s overall value, but I think it’s a stretch to say he was better than Lilly during the past two years.

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  3. Brett W says:

    Demp, Garza, and Z have guaranteed spots; Silva gets every chance (shy of a 7.50 ERA) to earn his money; and should Cashner show that he’s ready to take on the challenge of being an MLB starter, then Wells probably has to do a stint in Iowa and wait for an opportunity.

    That said, the above scenario almost definitely does not play out. For one, Cashner can’t control how many pitches per batter he throws and seems destined more to be a future closer than a member of the rotation. (As an aside, spending a season sitting in the pen next to Woody and soaking up his experience will help Cashner’s development as much as missing the rotation will offset it.)

    Then there’s Silva. He’s historically been a great first-half player, and even if he makes the rotation, which I suspect he will, he is likely to be wavier wire fodder before the end of August.

    Randy Wells will be in the Cubs rotation, barring injury, when they begin their courageous September push to hit 82 wins.

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  4. Jilly says:

    The Cubs generally don’t give pre-arb pitchers guaranteed rotation spots unless they’re coming off of very good seasons. However to say Wells is battling is something that should probably include liberal use of air quotes. He’s in the same situation where RIch Hill was a few years ago, where they’re not guaranteeing him a spot but at the same time it’s pretty obvious he’ll have one assuming he comes to spring doing what he’s supposed to. And considering the spring he’s having I’d assume there aren’t any issues there.

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  5. Jamie says:

    I wonder if the Cubs would have been willing to trade three of their best prospects for Garza, had anyone in the front office been savvy enough to compile a chart like the one above.

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  6. Read the title and said, “Amen, brother!” It’s preposterous.

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  7. berselius says:

    I don’t think the Cubs are too serious about it (though that they would mention it at all is a little concerning). He’ll get a rotation spot. I think this is just the org trying to help motivate Wells a little.

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  8. ofMontreal says:

    It’s pretty clear the Cubs want Wells to step up. That’s it. He is a 4 after all. There’s no way he’s a better pitcher than Demp, Z or Garza unless you don’t watch games. What he really needs is another decent pitch he can throw for strikes. Since Quade became manager, Wells has been outpitched by Casey Coleman. So that’s where the results oriented people are at.

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    • BassmanUW says:

      If that’s Quade’s thinking (that Wells was outpitched by Coleman), than he’s likely not going to be a manager very long. Coleman was serviceable in his 8 starts because of an almost certainly unsustainable 5.3% HR/FB mark. He also doesn’t strike out hitters (4.07 K/9 as a starter with the Cubs, has not put up a mark higher than 5.07 since leaving A-Ball), and did issues walks (3.70 BB/9 last season, although those numbers in the minors have been more up and down). Unless Coleman is one of those rare pitchers who can keep their HR/FB rate really far down, and I have heard no mention or seen any evidence that he has that sort of stuff, he’s going to have problems being a starter in the majors. There is one thing Coleman appears to do well: he does induce a lot of ground balls, at a 49% rate last season. It’s hard to tell if that will last, though, because of a small sample size.

      But Wells is nearly as good at inducing ground balls as Coleman (47.9% in 2009, 46.9% in 2010). But he also strikes out more hitters (and his minor league numbers show there might be some potential for him to get his K/9 into the 7s) and walks less. Wells was just unlucky last year, while Coleman was lucky. Here’s the thing: a lucky Coleman was essentially only as good as an unlucky Wells.

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      • ofMontreal says:

        Oh I agree. I’m just saying Wells is not exactly in the good graces. But then again maybe we’re fools for even wasting our time discussing it.

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  9. Flharfh says:

    If this is an approximation of how the Cubs value Wells, Brian Cashman should be making some calls….

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    • Joncarlos says:

      I completely agree. I suspect that the Cubs’ GM values Wells more than the Cubs’ manager seems to, but Wells would be prime trade bait if the Cubs really did bounce him from the rotation.

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  10. Tracey says:

    Also, he received very little run support when he pitched. I really like Randy as a pitcher and I hope the Cubs realize that for the time he’s been a pitcher for them I think he’s shown great composure most of the time

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  11. Scout Finch says:

    Would that spell doom for the Cubbies if Wells is the second best starter on staff ?

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    • Jason B says:

      Yes – that means Zambrano and Garza were both either hurt, ineffective, or traded.

      If he’s their fourth best starter behind those two and Dempster, its no real biggie.

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    • Dan says:

      Not necessarily. The Cubs don’t have a dominant #1 or anything, but Dempster, Wells, Zambrano and Garza are all solid #2 or #3 type pitchers. They should have an above average rotation.

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  12. merizobeach says:

    Wellemeyer is a form of cancer.

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  13. DGU says:

    The Sun-Times claimed Cashner has a rotation spot to lose because the Cubs want to see if he can be a starter and think he’s ready. If the Sun-Times is right about the Cubs’ intentions behind closed doors, the way this is talked about in public is challenging. You can’t say only Silva is in a battle for a rotation spot; you lose trade leverage if you say Silva is going to be dumped. So, you throw Wells into the mix, too. I suspect the plan was to dump/trade Silva even before the controversy and the rotation will be rounded out with Cashner and Wells unless Cashner “proves” he isn’t ready in Spring Training.

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