Wells could be key to rotation

Randy Wells was a pleasant surprise last season, but the Cubs will need more out of their second-year starter in 2010. AP Photo/Paul Beaty

If you’re looking for positives from the Cubs pitching staff to look forward to in 2010, search no further than their 2009 ERA, which came in at 3.94, a very low number, even in a down season for the team.

Walking onto the field in Mesa, Ariz., today, I saw the likes of Carlos Zambrano, Jeff Samardzija, Tom Gorzelanny, and numerous others working out days before the pitchers and catchers are supposed to report, a certain sign of seriousness that I assume will emanate from this camp.

Zambrano should rebound from his worst season in the big leagues 2009. The likable, but highly volatile, Venezuelan went only nine games, battling through a number of injuries and self-imposed problems. The presently svelte Zambrano has been up and back between Chicago and Mesa over the past three weeks, preparing for a major comeback. For the Cubs’ ace, a return to 16 wins would be vindication after an embarrassing season.

Right-handed pitcher Ryan Dempster was able to work more effectively than anyone could have imagined last year after the personal trauma that he and his family dealt with last spring after his daughter was born with a serious birth defect. Dempster missed three weeks with a broken toe, which occurred in a freakish accident after jumping over a dugout railing to congratulate his teammates on a victory. Dempster’s focus should be close to 100 percent this year. The likeable veteran’s presence was missed just as much in the clubhouse as it was on the field. Dempster is entering the second year of a 4-year, $48 million contract. Fifteen wins should be a realistic goal for a pitcher just two years removed from winning a career high 17 games.

Once again, right-handed pitcher Randy Wells will be counted on to be an effective fourth starter on the team. Wells, above anything else, wants to prove not only to his critics, but to himself, that 2009 was not a fluke. With numerous injuries to the team’s top starters, Wells delivered big time, winning a rotation spot. The kid from St. Louis made good on his chance, pitching well until a late-season slump ended any chance of winning 15 games (Wells won 12).

Indeed, the likable right-hander may be the key to the Cubs’ attempt to uproot their division rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, which leads us to left-handed pitcher Ted Lilly, the Cubs most consistent pitcher over the last three seasons. Lilly’s 44 wins is the most by any starter during that period of time. The southpaw will return to test his surgically repaired left shoulder and his left knee that was scoped last August. An early fall cleanup of the shoulder leaves Lilly’s early-season status unknown. Media reports have been all over the map, trying to project when Lilly will be able to start the season. When I asked him at the Cubs convention when he thought he would be back, he basically said he had no idea. Cubs general manager Jim Hendry is hoping that Lilly will return by April 15, but wouldn’t be held to that date.

For the Cubs’ pitching staff, the No. 5 spot will be a four-horse race between right-handed pitcher Carlos Silva, right-handed pitcher Jeff Samardzija, left-hander Tom Gorzelanny, and lefty Sean Marshall fighting for the spot. The veteran Silva was acquired for Milton Bradley in an early-January deal. From his recent pitching resume, it appears he is a long shot for being counted on as a quality starter again. Silva missed most of 2009 with injuries after going 4-15 in 2008. Possibly a surprise candidate, Samardzija could win the fifth spot hands down. Samardzjia spent four weeks in Mexico this winter working on his off-speed pitches. Both he and Cub coaches who were in Mexico felt that Samardzija's slider and change-up improved dramatically.

Gorzelanny and Marshall are both young veterans, with plenty of upside. Marshall’s progress as a starter has been hampered by his success as a bullpen pitcher as well. Because of his versatility in starting, being a long man and a short man, his overall pitching persona has been diminished. As for Gorzelanny, the Chicago-area veteran will try to recapture the magic that made him a solid starter with Pittsburgh as a rookie three years ago. Assuming all or some of these scenarios take place, look for the Cubs to outdistance the Cardinals in the NL Central.

Now, for the five staring spots, we’ll give you five reasons the starters may fail and send the North Siders in the opposite direction in 2010:

  • Zambrano’s conditioning takes a U-turn as his win total comes in similar to 2009.

  • Dempster repeats his 2009 season with 11 wins, while losing just as many.

  • Wells goes back to being a journeyman, winning less than 10 games.

  • Lilly’s rehab runs into May or June, and he comes back ineffective.

  • No pitcher among Samardzija, Silva, Gorzelanny and Marshall stand up and take hold of the No. 5 slot.