Chicago Cubs Preview: Breaking Down the Roster, Part Two (The Rotation)
According to Cot's Baseball Contracts , three of the pitchers in the Cubs' rotation on Opening Day will be making at least 11.5 million dollars this year. That's not even counting Ted Lilly, who will start the season on the disabled list, but could return as early as the third week of April.
Granted, the Mariners are footing 3.5 million dollars of Carlos Silva's 2010 salary, but that still leaves a bill of 50.375 million dollars for Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, and the aforementioned Lilly and Silva.
That sort of monetary commitment is easily a contributing factor for the high expectations being thrust upon them this season, but with a bullpen as young and unproven as they will have behind them, it is imperative that they meet those expectations.
As stated in part one of this series, the Cubs will need to get innings out of their starters to ensure that the youth in the bullpen doesn't get overexposed.
Greg Maddux and Zambrano, the club's Opening Day starter, seem to agree with that sentiment. The two have a goal in mind for the Cubs' ace in 2010: log no less than 220 innings.
It certainly was a problem last year, as all of the Cubs' key starters spent time out of action.
Zambrano was on the DL for 42 days, Lilly for 38, Dempster for 25, and the now-former Cub Rich Harden for 26. Harden was also shut down for an additional 17 days in September with shoulder fatigue.
Those days accumulated and left 18 starts to fill over the course of the season. Although 18 starts would likely be considered a small number to fill by most teams, it's important to keep that number in perspective.
The Cubs entered 2009 with four established starters, they had rookie sensation Randy Wells go out for a highly unexpected 27 starts, and they never did make up one of their cancelled games.
This year's iteration has three established starters, Randy Wells (who is hoping to establish himself this season), and one of two pitchers who have struggled each of the past two years.
Carlos Silva did not perform well at all at pitcher-friendly Safeco Field the past two years and spent 131 days on the DL with fraying of both the labrum and rotator cuff in 2009. Meanwhile, Tom Gorzelanny struggled mightily in 2008 and had mixed results between the Pirates and Cubs last year.
With the bullpen in its current state, the Cubs need to have a solid and consistent season out of each slot in the rotation. That means that someone needs to step into that fifth slot and perform like an above average fourth starter.
Even then, if the same injury problems from last season present themselves this year, all sorts of chaos will ensue with managing the pitching staff. You simply can't expect to have a bullpen full of rookies for an extended period of time and still win your division.
Ted's Return and the Aftermath
The first roster move of the regular season, barring injury or horrible performance, will probably come when Lilly returns. That move, as stated earlier, looks like it will come in the third week of April.
That doesn't leave much time for Silva and Gorzelanny to jockey for the fifth spot in the rotation, likely allowing for only two starts apiece before a decision is made.
Initially, whoever wins that slot will have a cushion of a few starts to work with. After that, however, it's going to be an ongoing competition between the same four players that were fighting for the fourth and fifth slots in spring training.
In fact, it could very well be a carousel among the four until one of them establishes themselves or the regular season ends.
If spring training is any indicator, Silva will prevail over Gorzelanny to grab the spot at the outset and get the first chance to establish himself in the role.
Then, the next in line would almost certainly be whichever of Marshall and Samardzija is performing better as a long man out of the 'pen. Although those innings shouldn't hold up throughout the season, the stretching process in the early goings of the season should allow for both to prove themselves in that role.
After that, however, it's all a matter of the hot hand—even if that hand comes from the minor leagues.
Beyond those four, almost any other pitcher that could spot a few starts this year would likely do so as a band-aid.
One candidate is a young man that will actually be breaking camp with the big league team: Esmailin Caridad. Of course, this situation would rely heavily on the stability of the bullpen's back-end without him.
If Marmol gets back to his All-Star form, John Grabow turns into George Sherrill, and either Berg or Samardzija solidify the right-handed setup role, then the Cubs might consider the move.
Otherwise, it would require the Cubs to be very desperate for someone to fill the role and to possibly be out of the playoff hunt.
After him, there are very few names to look at.
To begin with, either of the Cubs' top two pitching prospects could possibly earn a spot start—but both have reasons that this might not happen.
Cashner is thought by many to be a future star...in the bullpen.
He was a closer during his time at Texas Christian and certainly has the stuff to do so again. It's possible that his being a starter in the minor leagues is simply for developmental purposes, allowing him to get more innings to work on his craft.
If the Cubs' brass projects him as a future late-inning hero, then there's a chance that they will limit the 23-year-old to short relief.
Jay Jackson, on the other hand, has four pitches to work with and is definitely being projected as a starter. Baseball America is even projecting him as the Cubs number two starter in 2013.
In order to get even one start in the big leagues, though, he'll need to prove that he has command of his pitches.
Since he might start the season in Double-A Tennessee, that process could be lengthened to the point that he doesn't get a call-up until 2011.
Then, the only other name that has a strong likelihood for a start is J.R. Mathes.
The 28-year-old has steadily improved over each of the last three seasons in Triple-A Iowa, where he will likely be starting again.
Ultimately, the health and performance of the rotation is the one factor that can lead this club to the promised land or land them in the cellar.
They need to be solid from top to bottom. They need to eat innings. They need to be on the mound pitching instead of on the bench nursing an injury.
As a derivative of these facts, all Cubs fans should be keeping a watchful eye on the fifth spot in the rotation.
How quickly this club can take off and make a run at the pole position in the Central will be directly related to how quickly someone establishes themselves in that slot.
You can read part three, which covers the club's bench, here.
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