The Chicago Cubs' starting rotation looked a lot better on the first day of spring training than on the last. Injuries to Matt Garza and Scott Baker have put major stress on the five who will begin the season starting games on the mound.
The Garza injury is a killer. After rehabbing his elbow and declaring himself in great shape he's been out for most of the last two months with a bothersome lat ailment. If he comes back by May 1 all might be OK, that is if the Cubs haven't buried themselves in April. If his return is closer to June -- or later -- then the starting rotation could really be in trouble.
Baker is less of a disappointment. Hoping for a pitcher to return from Tommy John surgery within a year is one thing, counting on it is another. The Cubs were hoping in Baker's case. With Garza they were expecting his production.
Samardzija seems like a man on a mission to prove he's a top of the rotation guy while Jackson is reliable enough at least as an innings eater. Wood and Villanueva are less predictable as Wood is just learning his craft while Villanueva is better suited as a long reliever. At the very least Villanueva seems like a decent five-inning pitcher who should keep the Cubs in most games he starts.
The bottom line is not one pitcher in the rotation has a career winning record nor an ERA under 4.00. That's what the Cubs are up against when they send their top 5 to the mound right now.
Three keys to success
• Health has to be one key. Garza's issues aren't with his arm so he might be able to be productive as soon as he returns, as long as he doesn't have any setbacks. If Baker provides anything this season it'll be gravy while the rest of the group needs to take the ball every turn until one or both are back. One more injury will mean Chris Rusin's return to the big leagues. The Cubs are thin after that.
• Samardzija and Jackson need to be the workhorses of the rotation. With uncertainty behind them the Cubs need quality starts nearly every time they take the mound. If one has a bad April it will really mess things up as the bullpen will undoubtedly be needed more for 3-5 in the rotation.
• The ‘X” factor in the rotation might be Feldman. He's been on a winning Texas team for several years where he produced a 17-victory season in 2009. Fully recovered from injury problems in 2011 he could be a sleeper. Some of his 2012 numbers give hope: His strikeouts (7) per nine innings was the highest of his career while his walks (2.3) per nine were the lowest since he broke into the league. The problem is he was a fly ball pitcher in 2012 which turned into a lot of hits and runs hence a 5.09 ERA. That could be troublesome in Wrigley. And he's left the ball up more times than not in spring training. But he is coming from the American League to the National -- always a good thing -- and from a climate that is always warm to one that's mixed. His run support in 2012 was also the lowest of his career as a starter. Definitely a guy to watch.