Jesse Rogers previews the Cubs by position in the days leading up to pitchers and catchers reporting for spring training on Sunday.
The Chicago Cubs' starting staff had a solid start last season, but injuries to Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster and trades of Dempster and Paul Maholm decimated the staff. The Cubs had zero depth so the likes of minor leaguers such as Brooks Raley and Chris Rusin were called upon well before they were ready, and the results were not good.
This offseason the Cubs added depth and got healthy. On paper, it means they should be better. But that's only on paper.
1. Matt Garza, RHP: Barring a new injury or his old one (elbow), Garza should be the Cubs' Opening Day starter. Until last season he was a workhorse throughout his career but has yet to have that signature season which would point to him being a true ace. He's been consistent enough, sporting a career 3.84 ERA and a WHIP of 1.29 although he's been better than those numbers in recent years. A 17-win season should be the goal for Garza as he enters his final year before free agency. He's never had more than 15.
2. Jeff Samardzija, RHP: Samardzija made strides as a starter, and if he wants to work his way into being a No.1 pitcher, this is the year he needs to stay healthy and win 10-plus games. Garza could be gone after 2013 which further opens the door for Samardzija's growth. His stuff isn't the problem; putting it all together is. Although he was shut down last year after pitching 188 innings, it was nearly 100 more than he had thrown previously at the big-league level. Samardzija is still young, motivated and seasoned enough to have a true breakout season. His 9-13 record last season should reverse itself, assuming he receives some run support, and he pitches to his abilities. It wouldn't be a complete shock if Samardzija started Opening Day if Garza isn't ready.
3. Edwin Jackson, RHP: Jackson actually has the experience and know-how to be a No. 2 pitcher, but he fits better at the middle or back-end of the rotation. On this Cubs team he's a solid No. 3. On a contender he's probably better suited as a No. 4, though he's getting handsomely paid either way ($52 million over four years). That's mostly due to his durability which is the best thing about Jackson. He's been at or near the 200 innings range for most of his career as a big-league starter. That bodes well for a team that has been short on pitching and could trade Garza for more prospects at any moment. In the end, Jackson should be part of the transition from the Cubs being pretenders to contenders over the next few seasons. He'll do it with 10- to 15-win seasons, but it's doubtful he'll take any big step in his career. He is what he is.
These four pitchers should battle for the final two starting spots assuming Baker is ready to return from Tommy John surgery. Feldman is a former 17-game winner with the Texas Rangers and Wood took strides last season but also struggled just when it looked like he might be turning a corner. Villanueva should be the consummate part-time starter, part-time reliever as he's done for much of his career. Wood has an advantage as a left-hander and a year with manager Dale Sveum, but Feldman and Baker were brought in with the intention of giving them a chance to start. Health and spring training games should sort the back-end of the rotation out. Look for the incumbent Wood and newcomer Feldman to be starting in early April unless Baker is ready to go.
OUTLOOK: There's little doubt the Cubs will be deeper in their rotation than last season though it would be hard not to be. But will they be better? Ryan Dempster was lights out before and after his injury but then was traded, and when Garza went down the Cubs were left with little on the mound. Assuming Garza is healthy -- and with Samardzija fully transformed into a starter -- the top three pitchers for the Cubs should eat up a lot of innings and win enough games along the way to keep them afloat longer than last year. The bottom end of the rotation will be a work in progress with Wood potentially being a key. If he takes the next step and holds down the No.4 spot then mixing and matching at No. 5 won't be the worst thing. The bottom line is the starting pitching should be better, that is until the Cubs start making trades or injuries occur. However, this season they're more equipped to handle that adversity which means they should be more respectable for the long haul.