With speculation rampant that the Chicago Cubs will pursue a starting pitcher in free agency this offseason, an implicit question presents itself: who will be the odd man out? To accommodate the faceless newcomer, after all, someone will have to move from the team's current rotation to the bullpen. Who ought that to be?
Let us begin by dismissing the notion, still prevalent in some circles, that the team will or should trade Carlos Zambrano. After a disproportionate punishment for a messy dugout brouhaha in June, Zambrano has recovered nicely and has earned his spot in next year's rotation. Ryan Dempster, who has shown signs of wear from overuse in the second half, is nonetheless useful and will also have a secure space in next year's rotation.
Carlos Silva, the cardiac kid of the 2010 team, has had a miserable second half. With Seattle paying nearly half of his salary for next season, however, and given management's firm belief that Silva would wither under the strain of pitching on consecutive days, it will be rotation or bust for the big Venezuelan next season. If the Cubs feel they can send five better pitchers to the mound as starters, GM Jim Hendry will explore trading or releasing Silva.
Tom Gorzelanny, line drive magnet, has managed a 3.90 ERA this season and seems poised to attain some measure of the success promised by his breakout 2007 season with Pittsburgh—as long as he works on his reflexes this season. Gorzelanny has taken two line drives to his body this season, each driving him out of starts early.
Despite those setbacks, and ever-changing roles on the pitching staff, Gorzelanny has learned to get out both left- and right-handed batters consistently. That bodes well for him as a starting hurler next year.
That leaves Randy Wells. Wells, 28, had a tremendous rookie season in 2009, but this year has suffered a serious setback. His 6-12 record is of little concern; it's ugly, but partially due to poor run support and bad luck. Wells' continued struggles against left-handed hitters, though, are more troublesome.
Lefties have taken advantage of Wells's inability to command his third pitch, a change-up, by walking more than twice as frequently as right-handed batters against the right-handed Wells. Wells's best strikeout pitch, a slider, is also somewhat neutralized by left-handed opponents; that has resulted in a strikeout rate 20 percent lower against left-handers.
Wells is a decent ground-ball pitcher, and his stuff can be fairly nasty at times. To unlock his full potential, though, Wells might do well to accept relegation to the Chicago bullpen for 2011.
For the Cubs, moving Wells makes the most sense fiscally. If management must cut one pitcher's workload in half, it would be nice to know that that pitcher will be relatively cheap. Wells still has one remaining season under total team control; the Cubs need not offer Wells arbitration. As a result, the team can pay Wells roughly half a million dollars to take over a crucial role as right-handed long reliever or set-up man.
If the next Cubs manager deployed Wells intelligently, the team would benefit from having its most platoon-susceptible pitcher gain the platoon advantage nearly all the time. Wells would assume the role currently held by Thomas Diamond in the 2010 bullpen; the upgrade is undeniable.
Will Wells really be re-assigned? Perhaps not. Injuries, trades, or the simple inability of Hendry to reel in the kind of talent for which he is so desperate could still press Wells into starting duty. If all goes to plan, though, Wells could become a solid contributor to the Cubs' relief corps next year.