Chicago Cubs Report: State of the Pitching Address

Written by Tommy Cook, follow us on Twitter- @kjackmansports or Facebook.com/jackmansports

It’s that time of the year folks. June has rolled around, all non-defensive stats have stabilized, and it’s time to do some evaluating.

It’s tough to believe how many players and teams have performed unexpectedly well so far this season. To list a few of the most outrageous examples: Bartolo Colon has returned from the dead to pitch effectively. Albert Pujols is having, by his standards, an offseason while his teammate Lance Berkman looks to have returned to old form, which is only part of the reason the Cardinals are playing so well. After losing Wainwright, you’d think they’d be on their way to a rough year, but Dave Duncan is working his voodoo magic and getting production out of Kyle McClellan and Jake Westbrook. Jose Bautista is on pace for around 16 WAR (!!!) this season. The Indians are really good, the Rays are better than anyone thought, and the Twins are God-awful.

But do you know who has been playing exactly in line with all credible projections? My beloved Cubbies. With respect to my friend Bobby Mette, who picked them to win 90 games no one in their right minds thought this team was built to contend, and they’re sure playing like it. However, contrary to what most people thought at the beginning of the season, the offense has not been the biggest issue. It’s been, quite obviously, the pitching, specifically the rotation, that has been the problem. Sporting an ERA of 5.46 (!), the rotation has been hemorrhaging runs. Let’s take a look at the Cubs’ rotation and how they’ve done so far this year, and whether there is hope for the future….

Ryan Dempster:

Ryan Dempster started the season off terribly, with an ERA well over 9 at the end of April. He’s since brought that down to 6.00 (accompanied by a WHIP of 1.49), which, when you think about it, is still really freakin awful.

Reasons to panic:

For the last three years, Ryan Dempster has been a very effective pitcher for the Cubs, putting up a sub-4 FIP in each season. This year, his FIP stands at 4.38, which suggests that it is more than reasonable to think that his numbers will stay this bad. Furthermore, his fastball has already been worth -13.5 runs vs. the league, which is not encouraging.

Reasons for hope:

Last year, Dempster had one of the best years of his career. However, his line drive percentage was one of the lowest in baseball, at around 15.6%, which is generally considered to be very lucky. This year? He’s been unlucky. Really, really unlucky. His HR/FB% is at a ludicrously high 15.9% (and stood above 20% at the end of April). This is generally considered to be a luck-based statistic, with pitchers usually hanging out around 10-11%. His line drive % is at 20.1%. This is all reflected by his xFIP (which tries to correct for luck statistics) of 3.46, which is the best mark of his career. So there’s hope that, at least from here on out, Dempster will be an effective starter.

Big Z:

Zambrano has always been one of my favorite Cubs. He gets way too much criticism for ABSOLUTELY NO REASON, considering he’s been our best starter for the last decade or so, eats up innings, consistently posts GREAT numbers, loves the city, is a good family man, and is competitive as all hell. (People call him crazy, insane, a jackass, etc., and that’s all nonsense. Have you SEEN the listless, lifeless group of hacks the Cubs have been made up of the last few years? At least the man plays with some damned passion!)

Reasons to panic:

None. Shut your mouth. You’re probably like the rest of Chicago in clearly not liking this guy and unfairly criticizing him…..oh, his GB% and K’s are way down? Oh, ok, yea, that’s no good. But he’s getting decent results regardless, and once those numbers get back to where they were, he’ll be fine. Also, his velocity will never again be what it once was, but that’s ok, because his stuff is filthy even with an 89mph fastball.

Reasons for Hope:

Trade. Bait. His trade stock has never been higher and if we’re being honest here, he will certainly never be part of a Cubs World Series team. It’s time to get a good haul of prospects for him, or just move his salary. Hopefully he can get moved to a team that wins. If we decide to keep him, expect him to put up his usual underappreciated and productive season.

Matt Garza

I’ll admit it, I was extremely unhappy with the trade for Matt Garza when it happened. And although I still believe we gave up far too much, I’m very happy with how Garza has pitched this far. He’s already amassed 2.3 WAR, and he’s generally looked like the 2nd starter we thought he’d be.

Reasons to panic:

He’s on the DL with “elbow tightness”. And, uh….nope, that’s about it.

Reasons for Hope:

As crazy as this sounds, as long as he’s healthy, he’ll only get better this season. Garza is striking out an absurd spiny of batters, his ERA is at 3.72, but his FIP is 1.86 and his xFIP is 2.47, which all means that he’s been much better than his ERA would indicate. He’s clearly been a victim of an unsustainably high BABIP and low left-on-base percentage. As those normalize, and his HR/FB% increases, he’ll generally move towards putting together a very, very productive season.

Randy Wells

He hasn’t pitched much, so there isn’t a whole ton to say. Other than he’s looked bad.

Reasons to Panic:

Forearm problems can often lead to elbow problems. Also, not including the first start of the season, he’s been lit up like a Christmas tree by all opponents, MLB and minor leaguers alike.

Reasons for Hope:

Wells has been a very consistent starter for the past two seasons. Barring further arm issues, you would think he’ll return to form sometime soon.

Andrew Cashner

He’s looked great! For, um, 5 innings or so….

Reasons to Panic:

Oooh, boy, are there plenty of reasons to panic about Cashner. First and foremost, he’s battling recurring *shoulder* issues. Gulp. Secondly, the Cubs are awful at handling young pitching. Double gulp. There is talk of bringing him back this year, to a terrible team, to pitch from the bullpen. Now, if your “Who in their right minds thinks this is an OK idea what the hell is wrong with Hendry this is the stupidest thing you could possibly do”-meter just exploded in your head, you’re very right. It would be a terrible thing for his young arm. If there is any hope that he’ll be a starter again, he cannot go through another round of transitioning in and out of a relief role.

Reasons for Hope:

Cashner is still very young, and hopefully, with *plenty of rest and rehab* over the next year or so, he will be healthy and able to start games.

James Russell

No. I refuse to talk about his total lack of effectiveness as a starter. That was to be expected. It’s nothing against him, he’s just not a very good pitcher, and he’s an exceptionally poor starting pitcher.

Casey Coleman

He had a WHIP of over 2.00 this year with the big league club. How is that possible, you ask? Well, when you’re a terrible pitcher, you’re forced to nibble around the edges of the plate. Which leads to walks and lots of base runners. Which leads to necessary pitches over the plate with runners on base. Which leads to long, long, long home runs.

Seriously, a WHIP over 2!!!

Doug Davis

WTF, I know, he was like the 8th option, but DOUG DAVIS was the best we could find?!? There was NO ONE ELSE in the minors we could call up?

Rodrigo Lopez

Purely, strikingly, astonishingly bad

Thoughts

My take on the future of the Cubs’ rotation is that it is going to be a trouble spot for the rest of the year for many years to come. I know that Tom Ricketts (a man you should all learn to hate) said yesterday that the team is just sufferring through injuries, and that otherwise we’re fine, but that’s just blatantly false. Yes, injuries have hurt, but look at the numbers. Other than Garza and Z, the pitching has been bad. I know it hurts losing two starting pitchers at once, but you can’t tell me James Russell was your best option for a 7th starter for 6 straight outings. Coleman was indescribably bad in his role as the 6th starter.

I just can’t muster up the strength to say “the pitching will be better for the rest of the year”. I know that our top 3 will be better, and wells is likely to snap out of his funk, but I’m not of the belief that Garza’s arm won’t be at least somewhat affected by his DL stint, or that Z (who I love) will continue to be successful with such low ground ball and strikeout rates. And even if the pitching is better, and this is a *key* point here – it doesn’t matter in the slightest. This Cubs team is terrible, and better starting pitching isn’t going to do a whole ton to improve the situation. So, on that cheery note, let’s look at what the future may look like for this Cubs rotation…

The Future

Here’s where I get to play GM. And I, in my infinite wisdom, decree that changes should be made thusly….

1. This is more of a general note, but the first thing I do is totally revamp the cubs scouting system, which is pretty much entirely made up of old-school scouts. Guys with no use for wOBA or FIP, or even stats preschoolers understand the value of, like OBP and WHIP. I hire many, many, many more scouts who base decisions off of more advanced metrics. (This would be the true way to follow in Boston’s footsteps, Mr. Ricketts)

2.  I realize that this team is probably 3-4 years from seriously contending. Even IF we had an owner willing to commit huge sums of money on the free agent market, such moves would not do much. Ricketts is “committed” (see: trading 3 of your top 10 prospects for a 2-3 starter as evidence to the contrary) to building through the farm system. That is exactly how one should go about building a reliable pitching staff. By the time pitchers reach free agency, their arms are usually shot, or have only one or two more years of effective production in them, and then they cost a few hundred million dollars. My first move to fix the staff is to begin to heavily draft pitchers. This year, if Bubba Starling, CF, is not available there are plenty of high-caliber pitchers that would look good in a Cubs uniform. After the first few rounds, where its generally prudent to pick the best available players regardless of need, it is time to load up on pitchers. And not just this year, but in the next few drafts to come, I would pick as many young pitchers as I possibly could. Hopefully enough hit where you have a Boston-like situation where your system is overflowing with arms, and you can spend big free agent money on position players to drag yourself into contention.

3. The Cubs farm system is currently experiencing a dearth of pitching talent (see: 6 infuriating starts from James Russell, Casey Coleman’s time in the bigs, Doug Davis’ return, and the fact that you even heard Rodrigo Lopez’s name this year.) However, there are a few bright spots in Trey McNutt and Robert Whitenack. Whitenack is a tad bit old, but he’s added velocity this year and he’s really upped his production early on. McNutt is young at 22, and so far he has a 2.34 ERA with a 1.18 WHIP at AA Tennessee. Expect to see both of them this September. Hopefully we’ll be seeing quite a bit of them for years to come. As GM, I do my best to fast-track these young pitchers to the major leagues, and have them come in as starters, not reliever who maybe eventually turn in to starters.

4. To make room for McNutt (and if his improvement is genuine, Whitenack), it’s time to move some pitchers. As I said before, Big Z’s stock hasn’t been this high in a long time. It is time to move him now. You would be able to some middle of the rotation caliber prospects in return, or move his salary, or do both. I’m not entirely sure who’s in the market for an aging power pitcher, but if I had to guess, the Yankees look like a fit for Zambrano. They could certainly handle his contract and they need pitching help. After Zambrano is gone, it’s time to move Dempster. I understand that his value is low, and his contract large, but trading him would be a pure salary dump, and I would not ask for anything but a bag of balls in return.

5. Assuming I could move both of those contracts by next season, I would have the luxury of throwing a rotation that looked like this next season:

            1. Garza

            2. Wells

            3. Sean Marshall

            4. Cashner

            5. McNutt

Let me first address this: This is not a good rotation. Yet. Again, this is a team that I am building to contend in 3-4 years, not 2012. This is what rebuilding looks like. However, every piece in this rotation has the potential to help the team contend. Garza does look like he can be an ace for years to come. Wells is consistent and his arm is young (he’s a converted catcher) and you can expect him to still be effective in 3-4 years. Sean Marshall’s value is being completely wasted in the bullpen. He’s only 28, he’s cheap, and he has very good stuff. If he could throw half as well in the rotation as he does in the pen, he will be very productive, and he can be a great 3-4 starter for years to come. Cashner needs to be a starter and will be given every opportunity to start. Hopefully he develops into a 1-3 starter by the time the team is competitive. And if McNutt continues to develop like he has, he will deserve a spot in the rotation next year, and will be an anchor in your rotation by the time the team is competitive.

If everything goes to plan*, and the pitchers we draft develop, we would have 4-5 quality starters and a few youngsters ready to start by the time the team can compete. A strong rotation coupled with smart free agent spending will give us a team that can contend year in and year out. This great problem of surplus starting pitching leads to a strong bullpen, too.

*6. Contingency plans. Not everything will go to plan. In all likelihood, one or two of Garza, Wells, and Marshall will be gone in 3-4 years. There is a significant chance that Cashner isn’t physically able to start anymore. And McNutt and Whitenack could easily bust. In regards to Cashner, he definitely has the stuff to close. If I find out that he can no longer start, I trade Marmol as soon as I can for 1 high-quality pitching prospect.

The most likely rotation I would throw out there 3-4 years from now looks like this:

  1. Garza (now signed to a very large contract)
  2. McNutt
  3. Free-agent signing
  4. Wells/Whitenack/Marshall/Free-Agent Signing
  5. A pitcher from the 2011 or 2012 draft

I know, it doesn’t sound like I’m the most competent GM if I can’t be any more certain than this about the Cubs’ future, but it is a sport that does not lend itself well to prognostication. It is also important at this point to note that the Cubs will not be doing anything like this at all. They’re a poorly run organization with no overarching plan for success and no will to go through a rebuilding phase. As such, look for the team to struggle with its pitching into the foreseeable future.

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