Chicago Cubs: Has the Cubs' Rotation Improved from Last Year?

Jared DwyerCorrespondent IIIDecember 18, 2012

CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 13: Jeff Samardzija #29 of the Chicago Cubs pitches against the Houston Astros in the first inning on August 13, 2012 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
David Banks/Getty Images

There is no doubt the core of the Cubs’ starting rotation has improved from the beginning of the 2012 season if for no other reason than experience.  The question should be, rather, has the overall rotation improved from last year?

The splendiferous verity of Chris Volstad no longer being a part of the starting rotation is already an improvement from the Opening Day staff of 2012.

But the Cubs did trade away Ryan Dempster, and no matter how cynical you are about Dempster, losing your best pitcher can not, in no uncertain terms, improve your ballclub.

Therefore, the equation is this:  SRDempsterVolstad = x.  Solve for x.  Remember, subtracting a negative is like adding a positive.

            SR= Starting Rotation value of 3

            Dempster= 1

            Volstad= -1

Hopefully, you have figured out x=3.  Representing the three starters left over from 2012 who will be in the rotation come 2013—not accounting for injuries or a Matt Garza trade—and losing the club’s best pitcher is negated by getting rid of the staff’s worst hurler.

But which pitchers provide “x” the value of “3”?

Jeff Samardzija’s 2012 season could not have gone better for the Chicago Cubs.

Samardzija was able to put a full season under his belt as a starter, developing throughout the season, and proved himself as a viable future leader of the starting staff. 

He began the 2012 season as the No. 3 or No. 4, but closed out the season as the Cubs' No.1 starter.  This was due in part to Dempster being traded and Garza’s season ending early, but it was also because he showed his stuff…and, boy, it was good.

Samardzija did in the starting rotation what Anthony Rizzo did at first base and Welington Castillo did as catcher in 2012: He cemented himself as a long-term starting option.

During his time with the Cubs in 2012, Ryan Dempster was by far and away the club’s best pitcher, which placed Garza as the clear-cut No. 2.  But if you compare the statistics of Jeff Samardzija and Matt Garza up until the latter’s season-ending injury, there is not much distinction between the two.

Garza was 5-7 with a 3.91 ERA, 96 Ks, 45 earned runs, 15 HR given up and an average Game Score of 54 in 103.2 IP.  The Shark was 7-8 with a 4.25 ERA, 114 Ks, 54 earned runs, 12 HR given up and an average Game Score of 53 in 114.1 IP.

So, we have Samardzija and Garza representing two-thirds of the value of “x”.  The other one-third is the Cubs’ season-ending defacto No. 2 starter, Travis Wood.

Travis Wood had a decent year in his third season as a big league starter, increasing his innings total by 50 from the 106 he had in 2011 with the Cincinnati Reds.  He also made eight more starts than he had the previous year.

But with increased pitching time there came an uptick in areas you do not want upticks to happen:  Hits, runs, HR, HR\9 and earned runs.  But he also saw increases in his K\BB- and K\9 ratios and overall WAR, and decreases in BB\9, ERA and WHIP. 

When looking at those statistics you can see he made more improvements in the areas he is directly responsible for than those that are more team concentrated.

That leaves two spots in the rotation to be filled.

And thus far the Cubs have signed Scott Baker—who missed the 2012 season due to Tommy John surgery—to an inflated one-year\$5.5 million contract, and Scott Feldman to a one-year\$6 million contract with an additional $1 million in incentives.

Scott Feldman’s full 2012 season resembled a cross between Jeff Samardzija’s and Matt Garza’s 2012 season through Garza’s arm injury (see statistics above), but with a higher ERA: 5.09.

He could turn out to be a solid No. 5 in 2013, but his addition to the rotation does not really improve the starting staff from a year ago.

When you look at the rotation as a whole, some doubt of the starting rotation that begins the season will be the same that finishes it: Jeff Samardzija had 174.2 IP in 2012, his first as a starter; Matt Garza is coming off a major arm injury; Travis Wood had 156.0 IP in 2012, more than any other season in his career; Scott Baker is one of three players the Cubs have acquired in 2012 that is coming off of Tommy John surgery; and Scott Feldman’s limited IP concerns have been noted.

As it stands right now, the Cubs’ 2013 starting rotation strongly resembles that of their Opening Day 2012 starting rotation.  The Cubs’ front office could have done more to improve the starting rotation for 2013 and beyond, but Epstein and Hoyer are looking at next offseason at being their coming out party as the Cubs’ leadership.

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have set the club up to be able to make higher-quality moves next offseason.  ESPN's Buster Olney tweeted a few days ago that other organizations admire the methodical approach the Cubs are taking to rebuilding the club.

The Cubs did what they could in a seller’s market to make it through the 2013 season.  Epstein and Hoyer are positioning the club to be able to make some major moves next offseason.

@Buster_ESPN December 13, 2012

One more thing about the Cubs: I don't think Price will be traded until next winter, but by then, they could be well-positioned to land him.

With all of that being said, has the 2013 rotation been improved over the 2012 rotation?  No, at best it is the same quality of starting staff as last season, and may have been made worse with the removal of Ryan Dempster.

But what could make the 2013 starting rotation improved from years prior is the upgrading of the bullpen.  Fewer blown leads and more stranded runners will equate to more wins and lower ERAs.

Nevertheless, this starting staff needs to concentrate on allowing fewer walks and keeping the ball on the ground if it is to become better than the 2012 rotation.  And to know that, we’ll either have to convert a 1981 DMC DeLorean, or wait until next October.


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