Chicago Cubs: Looming Offseason Decisions, Part III (In-House Pitching Options)
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Ryan Dempster, Carlos Marmol, Sean Marshall, Jeff Samardzija, and Carlos Zambrano are all pretty safe bets to break camp with the Cubs when they finish up in Mesa next year.
Marmol and Marshall did more than enough to earn whatever salary raise they end up getting this offseason. Dempster didn't have his best season, but he put in 215.1 strong innings with 208 strikeouts (one less than his career high) and a 3.85 ERA.
Samardzija, who is out of minor league options and has a no-trade clause that allows him to reject trades and waiver claims, will likely get a shot at the fifth spot in the rotation, but break camp in the bullpen.
Zambrano had a whirlwind season, but finished strong enough that there should be no doubt that he will remain in the rotation. He has a large salary and no-trade protection, but the main reason that other teams might shy away from acquiring him is his frequently stated intent to retire at the end of his current contract. Even if the Cubs wanted to trade him, which they have repeatedly denied, his value to other teams isn't necessarily the same as it is on the North Side.
The next closest thing to a sure bet is Andrew Cashner, who will, in all likelihood, be in the bullpen. But the possibility does exist that he could be sent to Triple-A Iowa to be stretched out as a starter instead of throwing him into the fray on day one. This assumes, of course, that the Cubs wish to develop him as a starter right away rather than having him spend another year in the bullpen, or molding him for a permanent late-inning role.
With two rotation spots and four bullpen spots already (for the most part) locked up, there are still six players needed to fill out the twelve-man pitching staff that I anticipate they'll field.
The organization certainly has no shortage of left-handed pitchers to choose from to fill those spots, though. John Gaub, Tom Gorzelanny, John Grabow, Scott Maine, and James Russell are all set to return to the organization in 2011, but only so many can find a seat alongside Marshall in the bullpen.
Gorzelanny will probably return to the Cubs' rotation next year, but the Illinois native might get moved if the organization finds another southpaw starter to take his place. If such a find were to be made, that could mean that Gorzelanny moves to the bullpen (as he has done a few times these past two seasons) or that he gets traded in an attempt to land another piece of the puzzle.
More likely than not, to avoid the matchup problems associated with having more lefties than righties available in relief, there will be only three southpaws in the bullpen. This means that if Gorzelanny moves to the bullpen, Grabow might see the end of his Cubs tenure, or that all three of the young lefties (Gaub, Maine, and Russell) might be sent back to Triple-A.
Of course, if Gorzelanny isn't in the bullpen, either because of a trade or because he remains in the rotation, then the picture becomes less cluttered. In that situation, which I find to be much more probable, and under the assumption that Marshall will be healthy, there's no reason that the remaining left-handers have to come via trade or free agency.
In other words, two of Gaub, Grabow, Maine, and Russell would stay and two would go. Since Grabow's $4.8 million salary is not necessarily an amount that the team would be willing to eat by releasing him, Grabow would probably only leave this team via trade, an unlikely scenario considering his recent performance and injuries.
Then, assuming a left-handed starter (Gorzelanny or someone else) will be occupying a slot in the rotation, two starters will still be needed.
The top candidates going into spring training will most likely be Carlos Silva (unless he's traded) and Randy Wells, for the simple reason that they have the most major league starting experience of all the internal candidates, and each has had some recent success doing it: Wells in his rookie season of 2009 and Silva in his first sixteen starts of 2010.
But other players such as Casey Coleman, Thomas Diamond, Jay Jackson, Cashner, and Samardzija could get their own shot at making it. So if one or both of the aforementioned front-runners is removed from contention through injury, poor play, or trade, look for the youngster with the best spring training performance to get his shot.
Those left on the outside looking in for the final rotation spots would then join Justin Berg, Esmailin Caridad, Rafael Dolis, Angel Guzman, Marcos Mateo, Brian Schlitter, Jeff Stevens, and others in pursuing the final bullpen spot.
Guzman showed promise between 2007 and 2009, but, after being hampered by elbow and shoulder injuries, it is unknown whether he will be fully healthy coming into next season. If Cubs management doesn't have faith in his ability to pitch this upcoming season, there's a chance that he's non-tendered and let loose to free agency.
On the other hand, if they don't non-tender him, I would be hard-pressed to believe that he wouldn't get a very fair (and perhaps somewhat forgiving) chance at making the team, since he is out of options.
Also, with the Rule Five Draft coming in early December and Chris Archer eligible for selection, look for the Cubs' 2010 Minor League Pitcher of the Year to be added to the 40-man roster and get his own shot at making the Opening Day roster in 2011.
With the indication of a decrease in payroll for 2011, and the announcement that the difference will be allocated towards scouting and development, I don't expect the team to make any significant free agent pitching acquisitions.
They will likely look to trade away the $4.8 million owed to Grabow and the $8 million (including his 2011 salary and 2012 buyout) owed to Silva, but the injury problems experienced by both players should make that difficult.
Although I don't expect the 2011 pitching staff to be completely without turnover, I do suspect that there will be many faces familiar to this organization taking the mound on the North Side next season.
You can read part four of this series, which covers the team's in-house lineup options, by following this link.
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