Chicago Cubs: Storylines of the Spring...the Rotation

Neil FinnellCorrespondent IFebruary 11, 2009

As the old cliché goes, pitching wins championships. On paper, with health concerns aside, Lou Piniella has one of the deepest starting rotations in all of baseball. The Cubs staff, however, could be without two of their starters for a majority of Camp Lou.

While Ryan Dempster decided not to pitch for Team Canada and injuries have prevented Rich Harden from participating in the World Baseball Classic, both Ted Lilly and Carlos Zambrano could participate in the upcoming tournament. Final rosters for the WBC will be announced on Feb. 24.

Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly, and, if healthy, Rich Harden, will fill out the top four spots, unless Jim Hendry makes another addition during Spring Training. Aaron Heilman, Sean Marshall, Chad Gaudin, and Jeff Samardzija reportedly will battle it out for the fifth spot.

With pitchers and catchers reporting to Fitch Park in two days, the first look at the 2009 Chicago Cubs will focus on the starting rotation.

Carlos Zambrano

Carlos Zambrano is still considered the Cubs No. 1 pitcher by most, but despite a very good career, he has never put it all together for a full season...neither on the field nor in his own head. Zambrano has the stuff to be mentioned among the elite in the game, but until he shows the maturity required of an ace, he will always be just a very good pitcher.

Zambrano is coming off a down year and a horrible second half, no-hitter aside. He posted a 14-6 record with a 3.91 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP and dealt with arm problems for the first time in his career. Big Z got off to a good start for the first time in three seasons (10-3 in 18 starts before the break with a 2.84 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP) and earned a trip to Yankee Stadium but posted a 4-3 record in 12 starts with a 5.80 ERA and a 1.40 WHIP after the break.

Zambrano's second-half performance led to Ryan Dempster starting Game One of the NLDS, and while Dempster put together a great year, Zambrano should have been on the hill at Wrigley for Game One.

To put it simply, for the Cubs to make it to the postseason for the third season in a row, they will need a bounce-back year from Carlos Zambrano and for him to build on his career high 18 wins in 2007. The Cubs go as Big Z goes, and for them to three-peat as Central Division champions, Zambrano must put the same focus into his day job as he does with his offense.

2009 PECOTA Projection: 12-9 with a 4.12 ERA and a 1.39 WHIP

Ryan Dempster

Ryan Dempster quieted his critics in 2008, putting together a career year and earning a big he must do it again. After throwing 233 2/3 innings from 2005-2007, Dempster compiled 206 2/3 innings last season and was the most consistent starter on the Cubs staff.

Dempster finished with a 17-6 record, a 2.96 ERA, and a 1.21 WHIP while holding opponents to a .227 batting average. Dempster also struck out 187 with 76 walks...not quite the preferred 3:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The 33 starts for Dempster was just one short of his career high set in 2001 with the Marlins.

After earning a trip to the Mid-Summer Classic, Dempster put together a better second half (7-2 in 13 starts, 2.52 ERA, 1.26 WHIP) than first (10-4 in 20 starts, 3.25 ERA, 1.18 WHIP), and his most impressive stat was his 14-3 record in 20 games at Wrigley with a 2.86 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP.

Dempster took on more of a leadership role last year than he appeared to have in his previous seasons with the Cubs. The best way to lead is by example, and in order for Dempster to pickup where he left off at the end of the regular season, he must stay healthy and on the mound every fifth day.

The biggest concern for Ryan Dempster in the upcoming season is how his arm will respond after throwing so many pitches a year ago. Dempster appeared to be in better shape during the annual Cubs Convention in mid-January than he was last year, and he alluded to that fact during several it is time for him to prove 2008 was not a fluke.

2009 PECOTA Projection: 10-9 with a 4.10 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP

Ted Lilly

For the third year in a row, Ted Lilly set or tied a new career high in wins (17 in 2008, 15 in 2006 and 2007). The Bulldog posted his first 17-win season after a horrible start (1-4 in first 6 starts with a 6.46 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP) and finished the year with a 17-9 record with a 4.09 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP. Lilly was the Cubs best pitcher down the stretch (4-1 in last 5 starts with a 3.30 ERA and a 0.83 WHIP) but did not throw a single pitch in the postseason.

Lilly said in January that he changed his offseason program in order to get off to a better start this year. Many questioned the Cubs signing Lilly in December of 2006, but his 32 wins in his first two years with the Cubs have silenced many of those doubters.

Ted Lilly could end up being Lou Piniella's lone southpaw in the rotation. The biggest key for Lilly is to keep the ball down and in the park. Lilly benefited from the Cubs offense scoring a lot of runs for him last year (189 runs in 34 games, five or more runs in 20 of 34 starts). Giving up nearly a home run per start (32 in 34 games) will eventually catch up with him and his team.

2009 PECOTA Projection: 11-9 with a 4.26 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP

Rich Harden

When healthy, Rich Harden is one of the best in the business, but that is the problem...when healthy. Harden is coming off a very successful year. He started 25 games for the A's (13) and Cubs (12), six shy of his career high set in 2004, and his most starts since 2005 (22).

Harden dominated the National League in his 12 starts for the Cubs. He struck out 89 and walked only 30 in 70 1/3 innings while holding batters to a .157 average. Harden posted a solid 5-1 record with the Cubs with an incredible 1.77 ERA and a 0.97 WHIP.

Arm issues caused him to miss time in late August and early September. When he returned, his velocity dropped and he barely resembled the pitcher that put together an electric debut at Wrigley in July. Harden was 1-0 in 3 starts with 14 strikeouts and 12 walks in his last 17 innings of 2008 (2.65 ERA, 1.18 WHIP).

Harden reportedly spent the winter in Arizona at the Cubs Spring Training facility (Fitch Park), working on strengthening his shoulder for the season. However, it was revealed during the Cubs Convention that Harden has a tear in his shoulder and, by mid-January, he had yet to throw off a mound.

The Cubs have Rich Harden penciled in to make 25 starts this season, with Sean Marshall the likely candidate to take the other eight. If Harden can stay off the DL for an extended period of time, the Cubs will have the best fourth or fifth starter in the Major Leagues.

2009 PECOTA Projection: 11-5 with a 3.05 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP

The Three for Five

Aaron Heilman, Sean Marshall, and Jeff Samardzija are the leading candidates to be the fifth starter in Lou Piniella's rotation. Chad Gaudin would be a long shot at this point and will likely serve as the Cubs' long man out of the pen.

The Cubs will give Aaron Heilman every chance to earn the fifth spot in the rotation. Jim Hendry has reportedly been interested in trading for Heilman for many years, and this winter he finally got his man. Many think Heilman would be a better fit in Bobby Howry's setup role, but the same was said about Ryan Dempster a year ago.

Heilman was booed out of New York, and many Mets fans were almost as happy when Heilman was traded to Seattle as when they signed Francisco Rodriguez to a three-year deal. Heilman was solid out of the Mets pen until last season but must develop an effective third pitch in order to win the competition for the last spot on Piniella's starting staff.

Heilman last started a Major League game back in 2005.

2009 PECOTA Projection: 2-2 with 2 saves in 10 starts with a 4.52 ERA and a 1.46 WHIP

Sean Marshall proved his value a year ago. He was solid in both spot starts and out of the pen. Marshall finished the year 3-5 with a 3.86 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP with 58 strikeouts and 23 walks in 65 1/3 innings (34 games).

Marshall has been very effective as a starter in the big leagues. He posted a 7-8 record in 19 starts in 2007 with a 3.92 ERA and a 1.37 WHIP. Marshall's versatility could be his downfall and will likely land him in the pen to start the season.

With Neal Cotts being the only lefty in the pen, Marshall would give Piniella another southpaw as well as a spot starter. Marshall will likely serve as the Cubs' sixth starter this season...a very valuable piece of the puzzle.

2009 PECOTA Projection: 7-6 with 2 saves in 22 starts with a 4.29 ERA and a 1.38 WHP

Jeff Samardzija could be the wild card in the whole scenario. The Shark has publicly stated he does not want to start the year in Iowa, but he could end up being a victim to the numbers game. Samardzija still has options, while Chad Gaudin, Neal Cotts, and Angel Guzman do not.

Samardzija exceeded expectations last year, and some have compared his situation to that of Joba Chamberlain's. Samardzija might serve the Cubs better out of the pen but could end up being a very good big league starter.

Samardzija was 1-0 with a save in 26 games last season with a 2.28 ERA and a 1.41 WHIP. He faded down the stretch and could not find the strike zone in September (10 runs on 11 hits in 8 1/3 innings with eight walks and six strikeouts, a 5.40 ERA, and a 2.28 WHIP while opponents hit .297 against him in his last 10 games).

Jeff Samardzija arguably has the most to prove in order for him to make the starting rotation...but he might have the biggest upside as well.

Coming Soon: Storylines of the Spring...the Bullpen