Season preview: Starting pitching

Randy Wells had a solid spring and hopes to put his inconsistent 2010 behind him. Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

It always seems as Carlos Zambrano goes, so go the Chicago Cubs’ chances of winning a division.

The three phases of Zambrano’s 2010 season, included middling results as a starter to begin the season; an incomplete record as a relief pitcher from late April until June and complete domination when he returned Aug. 9 after spending six weeks in anger management classes.

Zambrano’s return to form late last season must continue in 2011 as he once again will be the lynchpin to a solid rotation, along with mainstay Ryan Dempster and newcomer Matt Garza. The final two spots in the five-man rotation are Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner.

Zambrano needs to rediscover the consistency that made him one of baseball’s top starters from 2003-07. His career tailed off in August, 2008, and from then until August, 2010, he was a .500 pitcher with an ERA over .440.

Dempster, who has been the most consistent starter over the last three seasons, gets the Opening Day assignment due to his 600-plus innings pitched over that span. Dempster brings innings and stability to the top of the rotation, if not spectacular results.

Garza, acquired in an eight-player trade with the Tampa Bay Rays, takes over the third rotation spot. The 27-year-old right-hander is coming off his best season, winning 15 games. Many scouts believe Garza has matured to the point he might be a 17-20-game winner. That is what the Cubs expect after trading four top prospects for him.

Wells, who tanked in 2010 after winning 12 games as a rookie in 2009, has worked hard to win a spot in the rotation, posting a 2.10 ERA in the Cactus League and allowing just six earned runs in 25 innings. Besides a great attitude, Wells has re-discovered the command on his hard sinker, which is his bread and butter pitch. Wells paid strict attention to getting his work done this spring, including a strong conditioning program.

Wells believes his work ethic was the same in 2010, but the results were 8-14 and a 4.26 ERA.

Cashner, the Cubs’ No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft, came on stronger in the last two weeks of spring training to beat out Carlos Silva and Braden Looper. Scouts say Cashner’s two-seam fastball and slider are the pitches he needs to command.

Three keys for Cubs' rotation

  • Zambrano stays focused all season and gives the Cubs 15 wins and 200 innings pitched for the first time since 2007.

  • Garza continues his growth as one of the best young pitchers in baseball. The former Tampa pitcher has to find a comfort level in Chicago and win between 17-20 games.

  • Wells and Dempster both give the Cubs 200 innings, and the starting rotation combines for 65 wins.