2009 Chicago Cubs Season Outlook: Aaron Heilman

straitpinkieCorrespondent IMarch 23, 2009

MESA, AZ - FEBRUARY 23:  Aaron Heilman of the Chicago Cubs poses during photo day at the Fitch Park Spring Training complex on February 23, 2009 in Mesa, Arizona. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

Aaron Heilman is next up in the Pinkie’s series of season outlooks for the Chicago Cubs.

Heilman was originally drafted by the New York Mets as the 18th overall pick in the 2001 MLB Draft. He spent his college years at Notre Dame, and grew up in Logansport, Indiana, which is only about 134 miles away from Chicago.

He was a highly regarded prospect for the Mets, largely on the strength of a stellar senior season for the Fighting Irish in which he made 15 starts and won every single one, finishing with an ERA of 1.74. He was projected as a starting pitcher in the big leagues, and eventually broke into the Majors in 2003, making 13 largely unsuccessful starts.

He spent limited time in 2004 with the Mets, and finished his first two major league seasons with a 3-10 record. It was in 2005 that the Mets moved him to the ‘pen, and Heilman responded with a strong effort. He also flashed that potential as a starter that had enticed the Mets, throwing a 1 hit shutout on April 15. He made 6 other starts, but struggled.

The bullpen, though, became his home. His ERA as a reliever was 2.18 on the year, and a sparkling .68 during the second half. He posted solid follow up years in 2006 and 2007, with very solid ERA and WHIP numbers, but in 2008, Heilman, along with the entire Mets bullpen, fell apart.

His ERA jumped to 5.21, and gave up a lot of important runs, especially down the stretch as the Mets faltered in September for the second consecutive year. The Mets were dead set on revamping their bullpen before this season, and Heilman’s trade to the Mariners as part of a three team deal for JJ Putz was part of that initiative.

Heilman was a Mariner for about a month when the Cubs snapped him up, trading the newly acquired Garrett Olson (who came from the Orioles for Felix Pie) and Ronny Cedeño. Heilman’s acquisition was met by head scratching by many Cubs fans, myself included.

Garrett Olson had struggled in his time in the Majors, but he seemed like an intriguing lefty pitcher, and with the dearth of left handed pitching in the organization, his quick trade was puzzling. However, Jim Hendry has long fancied Aaron Heilman, and the opportunity to pick him up presented itself.

His acquisition reminds me of the way Michael Barrett, another player Jim Hendry had admired from afar for years. Barrett, like Heilman, was coming off of his worst professional season and was past the point of being called a prospect, but still had shown unrealized potential.

Barrett will be remembered most for his fall from grace during the ’07 season which culminated with a dugout dustup with Carlos Zambrano, but don’t forget the three very solid seasons he had for the Cubs before that.

I guess my point is that I think Hendry has a pretty good eye for talent, so Heilman needs to be given a chance to succeed. He has posted an ERA of 1.32 in five Spring Training appearances, and based on what I have seen out of him, I have been impressed. He put together a very solid campaign for the fifth starter spot, but Sean Marshall did as well, so Marshall will get the nod.

Heilman still features excellent stuff. His low 90’s two seam fastball darts very hard away from lefties and into righties, and is his best pitch. His splitter and changeup are also effective pitches when he locates them. Even though he still wants to be a starter, I think he will succeed in relief for the Cubs.

As I said in my season outlook for Chad Gaudin, there will be plenty of spot starts to go around, and you would think Heilman will be first in line to get them based on his strong spring performance. Ultimately, though, I think Heilman’s future with the Cubs is as a reliever, and I believe they will treat him as such, which will allow Gaudin to serve as the spot starter.

He’ll be the seventh-inning guy to start the season, hopefully handing the ball to Kevin Gregg and Carlos Marmol uneventfully. Here are his career stats and my projections for his 2009: