Jesse Rogers recaps the Cubs by position and looks at what changes might be in store for 2014.
Simply put, the starting rotation kept the Chicago Cubs from being a complete embarrassment in 2013. They’re the one group who earned their paychecks, to the tune of 91 quality starts, fifth most in the National League. Their win totals weren’t very high but that was because the offense and bullpen failed them. And even though their ERA rose throughout the year, some of that was due to the trades of Scott Feldman and Matt Garza. Both were pitching very well, which led them to be dealt to needy contenders. Overall, the Cubs rotation was the strength of the team.
The good: It has to start with Travis Wood. He developed into the ace of the staff, finishing the year in the top 10 in several categories league wide, including batting average against (.222), ranking sixth among NL starters who took the mound at least 20 times. His ability to work both sides of the plate made him dangerous against lefties and righties. And his athleticism helped him at the plate, on the basepaths and most important, to make 32 starts while throwing exactly 200 innings. If not for giving up three runs in his final inning of the year his ERA would have finished below 3.00, a feat for any pitcher. The rest of the staff had its moments as well, whether it was Garza coming back from an injury to pitch well or Feldman coming out of nowhere to facilitate his trade. Jeff Samardzija pitched well in some big games (Opening Day, the White Sox) while fill-ins Carlos Villanueva, Chris Rusin and Jake Arrieta all showed flashes.
The bad: It’s no secret Edwin Jackson had a bad year after signing a $52 million deal last offseason. It’s hard to pinpoint why things went wrong as more often than not he simply didn’t give his team a chance to win, getting hit hard and walking the opposition at the most inopportune of moments. His 18 losses were the most since Steve Trachsel in 1999 and most of them had nothing to do with a bad bullpen or anemic offense. It was on him. Ironically, the player signed to be an innings-eater barely made it to 175. Unlike Wood, Samardzija didn’t always keep his team in the game either, badly giving up leads or simply not minimizing damage. Instead of a one- or two-run inning, Samardzija would give up a crooked number and the Cubs would be hopelessly out of the game. His high ERA (4.34) was a result of bad innings not necessarily overall bad outings -- though those isolated innings led to a shorter stints than he would have liked.
Who’s next: The Cubs won’t be dipping into the minor leagues for their starting staff for 2014. By season’s end they had the in-house candidates for next year already on the roster. The most intriguing is righty Jake Arrieta. He was acquired for Feldman mid-season and immediately showed he has elite stuff. Now he just needs to harness it. Assuming no one is traded from the staff, expect Samardzija, Jackson and Wood to return with Arrieta as the No. 4 starter to begin the year. Villanueva is under contract as is Rusin so either of them could be the No.5 man. Scott Baker returned admirably from Tommy John surgery but is a free agent. Expect the Cubs to add an arm or two for depth.
2014 outlook: It still might be a rotation in flux in 2014, but the upside is starting to show. Samardzija is a big key. He needs to get to where Wood is in his progression. There’s the assumption that Jackson will rebound as the back of his baseball card shows better numbers than he displayed in 2013. Arrieta is the other key at the back end of the rotation. If he develops, he won’t be a No. 4 starter for long. His stuff is that good.