On the outset of the Winter Meetings last December, Theo Epstein commented on the Chicago Cubs’ starting pitching situation.
“We need starting pitching,” he said. “You can’t take your chances very seriously as a club if you go into a season with not just five guys you can point to, but six, seven, eight guys. You better know who your ninth starter is going to be because you’re going to need him. The numbers show you’re going to need your ninth starter through the course of the year.”
Since then, the club has added some pitching, subtracted some pitching, swapped some pitching out and listened to offers on even more. There’s been quite a turnover, thankfully, since last year’s ‘rotation’ in which ten different pitchers gave up almost five runs per nine innings and compiled a 46-65 record. As I mentioned when pleading for Santa to give Cubs fans Mark Buehrle, those numbers are the result of injury and lack of depth.
Depth will not be a problem this year, save for an injury epidemic. Of the 2011 rotation departures: Andrew Cashner (1 GS, 5.1 IP, 0-0, 1.69 ERA) was traded to the San Diego Padres for the first baseman of the future, Anthony Rizzo. Carlos Zambrano (24 GS, 145.2 IP, 9-7, 4.82 ERA) is with the Miami Marlins now, in exchange for a much younger and cost controlled Chris Volstad. Doug Davis (9 GS, 45.2 IP, 1-7, 6.50 ERA)) was eventually released midseason and signed a minor league deal with the Chicago White Sox, and Ramon Ortiz (2 GS, 10 IP, 0-2, 7.20 ERA) remains an unsigned free agent. James Russell will still be on the team this season, but thankfully it will be in a bullpen role. He was 0-5 with a 9.33 ERA in 18.1 innings pitched when forced to start five times last season.
Despite all those subtractions, Theo, Jed Hoyer and company have made quite a few additions, the latest of which (Rodrigo Lopez) is pictured above. Theo says the Cubs need to know who their ninth starter is going to be. So who is it? Below I’ve ranked all the Cubs’ starting rotation candidates in order, as I would place them. Let’s hope it doesn’t go past 5 or 6 …
1. Matt Garza, 28
The Cubs’ biggest trading chip posted career-bests in a number of standard statistics last year, except for record thanks to the Chicago offense: ERA (3.32), K/9 (9.0) strikeouts, (197) to name a few. Additionally, he was good for 2.9 wins above replacement in 2011. If Garza is still here on Opening Day, he should probably be pitching.
2. Ryan Dempster, 34
Dempster struggled in 2011, posting his worst numbers since returning to the rotation with the Cubs in 2008. His wins above replacement was just under one (0.9, to be exact) for the season as well. He did, however, log 200 innings and start at least thirty games for the fourth straight time on a team that was struggling to find starting pitchers. Here’s hoping Dempster can bounce back a bit in a contract year, or at very least, eat up 200 innings for the fifth straight time.
3. Paul Maholm, 29
Unlike his fellow 2012 additions, Maholm was signed as a free agent rather than traded from another franchise. The deal is for one year plus a club option. Paul was so excited to be a Cub that he announced it on his Twitter feed before the media or the club could say anything official. A late season shoulder strain cut Maholm’s playing time in 2011, but he is healthy going into Spring Training 2012. The left-hander compiled a 2.6 WAR last season.
4. Chris Volstad, 25
Chicago is essentially paying Zambrano’s salary for Volstad’s production in 2012, but this year is not why the move was made. Volstad won’t be a free agent until after 2015, whereas you never know when Big Z will “retire” these days. Without an explosive personality like Z, Volstad stayed on the field more in 2011 and will hopefully repeat that in 2012.
5. Travis Wood, 24
6. Randy Wells, 29
Theo and Jed turned one guaranteed year of Sean Marshall into six years of Travis Wood and some nice prospects when they traded with the Cincinnati Reds. Wood was a back of the rotation option for the Reds last season, with some relief work. Wells was injured last year but had a decent season after coming off the DL. To me, these two could go either way, but I put Wood over Wells due to age and a “let the kids play” mentality.
7. Jeff Samardzija, 26
After struggling in various pitching roles since 2008, the former Notre Dame star finally found his groove in the bullpen with a breakout season in 2011. Samardzija has only started five games in his career, but it’s something he says he’s always wanted to do. Personally, I’d rather keep him in the bullpen, but if absolutely needed he is better than some other starting options.
8. Rodrigo Lopez, 36
Lopez rejoins this Cubs this season as their newest signing. He has a minor league deal with an invite to Spring Training, as well as split salary figures depending on what level he pitches at. The pitcher did okay filling in last season, logging almost 100 innings for the North Siders. Think of Lopez as the replacement level player described in WAR – which, coincidentally, he had a 0.1 WAR last season.
9. Casey Colman, 24
Here you go, Theo, your ninth starter is none other than Casey Coleman! My favorite memory of Coleman’s starts last season (and there weren’t too many) was actually the result of his bat, rather than his arm. In this video, Coleman breaks up Mat Latos‘ no-hitter in the 6th with a triple. On the pitching side, Coleman probably shouldn’t have been facing as many big leaguers as he did. He gave up 60 runs in just over 80 innings in 2011.
10. Andy Sonnanstine, 28
The former Tampa Bay Ray is one of those low risk, high reward type signings that the Cubs have made this offseason. He hasn’t been a full time starter since 2008, and has only started 8 games in the past two seasons, but he’s good insurance if he can bounce back. In relief, he wasn’t effective in 2011, only pitching in 15 games total with 22 earned runs given up.
There you have it. The Cubs have other pitchers who could possibly start, but those are mostly prospects like Rafael Dolis or Chris Carpenter. Those two have started in the minors, but have been mainly relievers the past few years. James Russell is another hopefully-never-gonna-happen case, and at ten deep, it looks like it is going to stay that way.