Position Battles: Cubs’ 5th Starter, Pt.1: Marshall and Heilman

While the Chicago Cubs have made some curious decisions this offseason, the club still enters spring training as the overwhelming favorites in the National League Central. Fresh off of a 97-win season backed up by their runs scored/allowed total (+184 runs), the Cubs are projected to claim victory 96 times in 2009, per Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system.

While spots one through four will in Chicago’s rotation be filled by Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Ryan Dempster and Rich Harden, several arms will duel for the fifth slot this spring. Sean Marshall, Aaron Heilman, Jeff Samardzija and Chad Gaudin will all likely receive some degree of consideration for the job. First, let’s profile Marshall and Heilman.

Marshall, 26, is said to be the favorite to round out the rotation. The lanky lefty was recently tabbed by Cubs skipper Lou Pinella as the 5th man heading into camp. Selected out of Virginia Commonwealth in the 6th round of the 2003 amateu draft, Marshall comes at hitters with about as eclectic a mix of pitches as you’re going to find. Marshall supplements a tame 87-88 MPH fastball with a slow low-70’s curve, a mid-80’s cutter/slider and a changeup.

The 6-7, 220 pounder has tossed 294.1 career innings in the majors, posting a 4.97 FIP, 6.18 K/9 and 3.58 BB/9. Marshall is coming off of his most positive experience in the big leagues, as he struck out nearly eight batters per nine, walked about 3.2 and compiled a 4.39 FIP in 65.1 innings in 2008. Interestingly, Marshall has changed his pitching approach considerably since his first trial with the Cubs in 2006. Back then, he used his fastball about 52% of the time while also pulling out his changeup about 21%. In ’08, he used his heater just 38% of the time, with a changeup utilized just five percent. Marshall has filled the gap with more cutters and curves. There’s little upside here, but the five-pitch southpaw could enjoy a lengthy career as a swingman/innings-eater type.

Heilman, the erstwhile Mets reliever who spent a few days as Mariners property this offseason, has gone on the record as saying that he would like to start. However, his qualifications for such a role are not immediately apparent. From 2005-2007, the Notre Dame product had a good deal of success in Queens, though his FIP did rise each season (2.97 in ’05, 3.28 in ’06, 3.86 in ’07). As a fastball/changeup reliever, Heilman was an asset. In 2008, however, Heilman began messing around with a slider, perhaps in an attempt to show that he had the three-pitch mix to go out there every fifth day.

While it’s hard to say for sure whether Heilman’s experimentation led to his struggles, his performance did head south. He struck out nearly nine-and-a half batters per nine innings, but Heilman’s walk rate soared (5.45 BB/9), he gave up a few more flyballs (his GB% fell about five percent to 40.8%) and he surrendered 1.18 HR/9. The end result was a mild 4.91 FIP. The Cubs essentially swapped both Felix Pie and Ronny Cedeno to acquire Heilman’s services. That’s quite the price to pay for a good, not great reliever or a kinda-sorta-rotation candidate.

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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

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