Last season, the Cubs rotation finished smack dab in the middle of baseball in ERA, but 10th among National League teams. As is usually the case with teams, the staff included a host of overperformers and several underperformers. With two new addition to the rotation, there are many questions that need to be answered on the North side of the Windy City.
Jeff Samardzija heads the staff and was one of the underperformers, posting ERA estimator marks well below his actual ERA. He once again struggled to keep fly balls in the park and his BABIP jumped well above the league average. His underlying skills though were essentially the same as during his breakout 2012 season. His stuff also passes the eye test as that splitter is fantastic. He has some serious ERA upside and if owners are now unsure about whether 2012 or 2013 represents the real Samardzija, he could come at a nice discount and offer strong profit potential.
Behind Samardzija is another major underperformer in Edwin Jackson, whose underlying skills and SIERA have remained relatively similar since 2010, sitting in the high 3.00 to 4.00 range. However, his ERA has jumped all over the place, peaking at 4.98 this past season. The Cubs defense did him no favors and made it more difficult for him to strand runners. He hasn’t really had an established history of underperforming his SIERA, as his ERA sits only 0.12 runs above his SIERA, which isn’t all that significant. His upside isn’t high enough to really care about in mixed leagues, but he’s a good bet to turn a profit in NL-Only leagues.
In his second go around in the Cubs rotation, Travis Wood made a deal with the luck dragons, posting the second largest positive difference between his ERA and SIERA among all qualified starters. His skills have been virtually identical for three years running now, yet his ERA has plummeted from 4.84 to 4.27 to 3.11. Next stop 2.00? As an extreme fly ball pitcher, his BABIP is not going to regress all the way to the league average. But, SIERA knows this. He’ll be overvalued in every mixed league, simply because he’s going to get drafted and I expect him to generate negative value.
Likely slotting into the fourth spot in the rotation is our first new addition. Last Friday, it was reported that the Cubs had signed Jason Hammel to a one-year contract, pending a physical. Hammel enjoyed a breakout half-season back in 2012, as his fastball velocity jumped and both his strikeout and ground ball rates surged. But he gave it all back and then some last season and the performance was much more in line with his history. But, he missed time due to a forearm strain, which could have very well played a role in his disappointing season. Returning to the National League and not Coors Field will help, but he’ll need to get his slider back to being a weapon again, which he’s only done once. He’ll go for peanuts in NL-Only leagues, so he’s not a terrible speculation, but health will be key.
Jake Arrieta is likely to round out the rotation, and he’s another arm brought in from the Orioles. There was some talk about Arrieta potentially moving to the bullpen, and the idea of him being a closer was intriguing. But that never happened, so he’ll once again get a shot as a starter. Despite possessing above average fastball velocity, his SwStk% marks have always been poor, and that’s because his secondary stuff just isn’t very good. The fact that he has still posted respectable strikeout rates is a surprise, but he’s been able to induce an above average rate of both called and foul strikes. Since he also doesn’t throw enough strikes, there’s really very little that provides any optimism.
If Arrieta doesn’t win the fifth spot, there’s Chris Rusin, the soft-tossing southpaw who lucked his way into a sub-4.00 ERA in 13 starts last year. He has an excellent changeup that got both whiffs and grounders last year, but that’s about it. His control is fine, but without the strikeout ability, he’s safe to ignore.
Arodys Vizcaino is the real sleeper here. The former Braves top prospect hasn’t pitched since 2011 after missing the 2012 season following Tommy John surgery and then 2013 after elbow surgery to address a calcium buildup. Apparently, his stuff has been looking good:
Vizcaino throwing 98 mph, stuff "electric", Theo epstein says
— Mark Gonzales (@MDGonzales) December 5, 2013
Vizcaino started in the minors, but it’s very possible that the Cubs take it slow with him and start him out in the bullpen. With only Jose Veras in his way, there’s also a nonzero possibility that Vizcaino eventually ascends to the closer role.
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