Cubs Rotation: Depth Chart Discussion

Projected Rotation

Matt Garza
Jeff Samardzija
Edwin Jackson
Scott Baker
Scott Feldman

Waiting in the Wings

Travis Wood
Arodys Vizcaino
Casey Coleman
Michael Bowden

Rebuilds happen. Eras end, the great players leave or retire, and the team has to move on. The goal of any front office is to prolong periods of dominance as long as possible and to shorten the inevitable rebuilding phase. The Cubs haven’t been to the playoffs since Barack Obama won his first presidential election and haven’t won a playoff game in nearly a decade, so it seems fair to say that the Cubs are in that rebuilding phase. The question now is how much longer they’ll be there.

One of the ways the Cubs have tried to shortcut the rebuilding process is by signing relatively low cost free agents, polished them up, then shipped them off to contenders for prospects. It’s not hard to look at the Cubs’ offseason rotation moves and see the same impetus for the additions of Baker and Feldman. Garza, too, could find his way out of Chicago if a buyer can be found in his last year before free agency.

While on paper this rotation looks quite different from last year’s, the first few weeks of the season may be much more familiar to Cubs fans as the team’s depth gets tested almost immediately given the current status of the former Twins, Garza and Baker. While the sight of Garza walking off the mound after his first appearance caused no small amount of trepidation for the Cubs, the biggest concern right now is less the injury itself and more the time lost.

It’s a virtual certainty that he’ll make a full recovery, but getting his arm strength and command back into game shape may take more time than is left in spring training. It’s not a huge deal from a fantasy standpoint; owners can easily stash him on the DL since he likely won’t miss much time at all. Garza is in his last year of arbitration, meaning that he’ll be a free agent after the season, meaning he’s unlikely to be a Cub come August 1 if he’s healthy and pitching effectively in June and July. Therefore, there’s a huge incentive for the Cubs to keep him out until he’s 100 percent ready to roll, lest he flop at the beginning of the season for lack of reps in camp, and thereby damage his trade value. If he’s not moving toward making his spring debut over the next two weeks, consider the strong possibility that he’ll miss at least two starts until the Cubs are satisfied he’s capable of leading the rotation upon his return.

My hunch is that the Cubs signed Baker with the intention of trading him, which would set up the same incentive structure for him as there is for Garza. Current speculation has him missing the first 2-4 weeks of the season, which makes sense, though timetables this far out from opening day are always a little fluid. I wrote about Baker in depth early this offseason, and I still like him a plenty as a sleeper, but for NL-Only players, every start he misses at the beginning of the season diminishes his value since there’s no way to know whether he gets traded within the league as Paul Maholm did last year or out of the league like Ryan Dempster did.

Feldman is the last member of the Cubs’ rotation whose deal expires after this season. I love the move of signing him as cheaply as the Cubs did, but I’m a little undecided on him as a fantasy option. The league switch is going to help him a fair bit, as will the move out of Arlington, but the rest of his profile is just a little underwhelming. He has never reached 200 innings, made 30 or more starts just once, and generally posts pretty middle-of-the-road counting stats. With pitching as deep as it is, I’d rather spend the late round pick on a true sleeper and grab Feldman off the wire if he puts together a couple of encouraging starts once the games get going.

On the other side of that coin – i.e., someone I like fantasy-wise, but dislike their actual contract – is Jackson. There’s a lot to like about how he pitched for the Nationals, even if his ERA did sneak over 4.00. He dropped his line drive rate to a career low, generated a career high 12 percent SwStr rate, and kept his walks under control relatively speaking. If nothing else, in his worst season out of the last five, he was still just 5 percent worse than league average and he has made 30 or more starts every season since 2007. In a league of any meaningful depth, there’s value in a ton of innings with a decent strikeout rate and otherwise league average production. Given the length of his contract, Jackson is one of two starters I don’t see the Cubs moving.

It’s hard to believe that the ace of the Cubs’ staff wasn’t even assured of a rotation spot this time last year, but it’s hard to argue with Samardzija’s first season as a starter. There are nits to pick with how he got to his final line, but there’s honestly no point in it. He gave up a few too many hits, a flaw that’s hardly unique, and did a good enough job getting out of trouble via the strikeout. Yes, it’s not a combination I like to bet on repeating year after year, but it’s not enough to dissuade me from grabbing him in the mid-140s of a mixed draft, which is where he’s going now. I think it’s more likely that he shows slight improvement over last year than stumbles into a bad regression, but if he can simply repeat the trick, the Cubs and most fantasy owners would take it in a heartbeat.

Though I don’t expect either Garza or Baker to miss all that much time, it’s worth looking at the guys coming behind them. Coleman and Wood don’t do much for me, but both have started in the past and can reliably take the ball for better or for worse. Wood still has some potential upside remaining and while I don’t think he ever amounts to much fantasy-wise, the Cubs could do worse than to give him a few starts as the sixth starter and/or designated injury replacement. Namely, they could give the ball to Coleman.

The two more compelling options are the two riskier ones. Bowden came over last season for Marlon Byrd – a trade the Cubs won simply by being the team that wasn’t holding the Byrd when the music stopped – and while he has been much better out of the bullpen than he was as a starter, it wouldn’t be unthinkable for the Cubs to see if his starts over the winter in the Dominican Winter League produced any change in his ability to start in the majors.

Long term, the Cubs almost certainly view Vizcaino as a starter, but he, too, is coming off of Tommy John surgery and may be brought back to the rotation via the bullpen in order to keep his innings down this year. If he progresses well in camp, it isn’t hard to imagine a scenario in which he starts, pitches 4-5 innings, and then gives the ball to the bullpen. I can’t see this happening for more than a start or two, but making do with the pitchers already on the roster rather than adding another might help alleviate a roster crunch if necessary.

I don’t yet look at the Cubs and see a good team, there are too many holes for that to be the case, but they are absolutely an improved one, especially here in the pitching staff. Last year, the rotation combined for just a shade under 8 WAR and that would seem to be a disappointing result if repeated by this year’s ensemble. The caveat here is that the better each individual element of the rotation does, the less likely it is that it will stay intact for a full season. AL- or NL-only league players must always keep the possibility in mind that their players can be traded out of the league, but the Cubs rotation seems to carry that risk with them at abnormally high levels.

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Dan enjoys black tea, imperial IPAs, and any competition that can be loosely judged a sport. Follow him on Twitter.

12 Responses to “Cubs Rotation: Depth Chart Discussion”

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  1. cdkasdin says:

    I’d expect Villanueva to get some consideration to cover for Baker/Garza at the beginning of the year or other injuries during the season. Vizcaino seems to be considered strictly a bullpen option by the Cubs at this point.

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    • Dan Wade says:

      Yeah, that was an oversight on my part. Villanueva will probably get a spot start or two if both Garza and Baker start the season on the DL, but I think Wood is the sixth starter, so once Garza comes back, Villanova will be back to the bullpen. His strikeout numbers are perpetually interesting, but too many walks and too many home runs are two bad things and the whole is worse than the sum of the parts.

      It works in his favor that he’ll see the starts early in the year when Wrigley can play more pitcher friendly, but don’t mistake a good start or two for a sign he should be in the rotation beyond Garza/Baker’s DL stint.

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  2. jackweiland says:

    I’m not really sure why the prospect of resigning Garza is written off so easily here. That’s a significant possibility. Yes, a trade is probably more likely if the value is there, but resigning him is distinctly possible as well.

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    • Dan Wade says:

      The biggest reason I see Garza going elsewhere is the fact that there just isn’t a lot of top-tier pitching talent set to become available this offseason. Teams may save their money for 2015 if they think Verlander actually becomes available — I don’t, for what it’s worth — but teams that like their chances in 2014 are going to choose between Garza and Adam Wainwright, both good, but both going to get overpaid.

      The Cubs can bid with anyone, we know that, but I don’t know that they’re going to want to overpay Garza for his declining years, when they aren’t sure they’ll be competitive over the life of his contract. My sense is that they’d rather turn him into value and let someone else pay the piper next year.

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  3. stan says:

    I’m a little surprised at how highly everyone seems to rate Baker and Feldman. While I completely understand why it was useful to sign those guys to one year deals in order to beef up the rotation and take a flyer on their rebound, Baker is still injured and won’t even be ready to start the year, while Feldman has only been league average in one of his seasons (which is looking like a fluke. Really they have as much reason to be excited about Michael Bowden as the rest.

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    • Dan Wade says:

      Like I said with Feldman, I get why the Cubs signed him and I love the fact that it wasn’t a particularly onerous one, but he doesn’t enthrall me. He reminds me of Maholm, solid and perhaps underrated, but never the guy who makes or breaks a team. They turned Maholm into Vizcaino, here’s a chance to repeat the trick if Feldman is even adequate and healthy.

      Baker I actually do like; I think he was underrated with the Twins. Good strikeout rate, not a grotesque amount of walks, and both will improve with the league switch. He missed the first two weeks in 2009, still made 33 starts, and was worth a career high 3.5 WAR, so don’t sweat him being out too much.

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      • MLB Rainmaker says:

        Caveat — As a Twins fan I hate “Moonshot” Scott Baker

        For $5.5M (without incentives) you’re getting a guy with a career 4.15 ERA, when healthy, and notoriously flat fastball that apparently looks like a basketball when he misses his spots, because guys demolish it. My beef with the deal is that Baker is a control pitcher — his most effective pitch has always been the fastball, painting the corners at 91 — and when coming back from TJ, control is usually lacking the first year back. I’d be willing to wager that if Baker does come back to form, he’ll at a minimum have pretty drastic 1st half/2nd half split — just good enough for Baker to get a gig somewhere else in 2014.

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    • Kevin says:

      Thank you! I’ve been going crazy with how every one loves the Cubs staff this year. It will be just like last year…one of the acquisitions will be as good as Maholm, one will be as bad as Volstad, and one will be as pointless as Wood. Garza and the good pitcher will get traded and the Cubs will end up with 61 wins. Someone, somewhere has to call Theo out for being this bad.

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      • majnun says:

        I know it’s been like a year, how have the cubs not won multiple World Series yet?

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      • Richdanna says:

        Someone, somewhere has to let you know that you can’t judge an organization by what you see at the surface level, which is exactly what you are doing.

        The system from the bottom up is significantly better than it was a year ago. Your statement above is no different than judging the quality of a player by his batting average.

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      • Kevin says:

        Why can’t the organization get better and have a team that can finish .500 where it counts? Anybody can sacrifice three years and get a bunch of prospects. The Cubs have an all-star front office and they can’t win 70 games for two years? Three years? The biggest market in the National League hasn’t competed for five years in a game that gives a huge advantage to large markets. This crew is no different than Lynch, MacPhail, Hendry, except that those regimes didn’t intentionally lose.

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      • steve-o says:

        Absolutely dumbest post I’ve read on here in a while. Congratulations.

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