For the third consecutive year, the Chicago Cubs have gotten sparkling performances out of their starting rotation. Even with injuries to each of the top four slated starters, and inconsistent play from Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster and Rich Harden, the team's starters have been their strength: Chicago leads the league in quality start percentage, at 61 percent, and Chicago's relievers have entered with a lead the fourth-most times of any team in the league.
Those statistics look all the more impressive when placed into context. The starting corps has had the luxury of five or more days' rest only 55 times, 15th in the National League. And no group on the senior circuit has fewer starts with 80 or fewer pitches.
For all the encouraging signs, however, there remains a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the Cubs' starting staff going forward into 2010. Here are five questions, the answers to which may determine the course of the team's 2010 season.
1. Can Randy Wells keep this up? The emergence of Wells has been a saving grace for the rotation, even if the rest of the team has been unredeemable. He has a 2.84 ERA, but even more impressively, a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.4:1. Unfortunately, he's also tossed 155.1 innings already this year, between the Cubs and AAA Iowa, and will probably end up with about sixty more innings than his previous career high. Statistically, jumps like that from one year to the next tend to lead to decreasing effectiveness and higher injury risk in year three. Wells is well-situated to avoid those pitfalls: he has a low-effort delivery, throws mostly sinkers and change-ups (just 27 percent sliders according to fangraphs.com, and those are not as tough on the arm as curves anyway), and has a solid track record in peripheral categories in the Minors. He struck out a very sturdy 8.7 per nine IP in 2008. Still, it's never safe to assume health or effectiveness from young pitchers of wells' ilk.
2. Will Carlos Zambrano ever put it together for a full season again? The hysterical Chicago media notwithstanding, Big Z's best asset has generally been his durability and consistency. That hasn't been the case the last two seasons, however, and so the Cubs have to decide how much contribution they can count on from him in 2010 and beyond. His contract is immovable, so even if they decide he is no longer an ace, they will have to keep him around and simply lower expectations. There's no reason to believe he cannot recover. He has rediscovered his ability to miss bats this year, which had been fading over the previous two. If he can bring his walk rate back below four per nine innings, he will have a good shot to rediscover the magic that made him a $91.5-million-dollar man. Both he and battery-mate Geovany Soto could also benefit from a grueling offseason workout regimen, and each will likely start one. If he does, and can return to form next season, the rotation will be stellar. If he continues to decline, it could be catastrophic.
3. Is Ryan Dempster's 2009 an aberration, or a regression to the mean? Dempster was so good in 2008 that we nearly forgot he isn't really that great. He probably wasn't ever worth $13 million a year, to be frank. That said, however, he has had a lot of well-documented off-field things to take care of, an injury, and the issue of having thrown 140 more innings in 2009 than in 2008. And through all of that, he has a 4.05 ERA in spite of some slight bad luck (witness his .305 BABIP). It could go either way, but the guess here is that Dempster will post an ERA around 3.50 and make his 30-plus starts again next year.
4. Will the team extend Ted Lilly? This is one of Jim Hendry's tougher quandaries for the winter of 2010. With the media either disillusioned or plainly dissatisfied with the rest of the staff, Lilly has received the title of default ace, and has earned it, with a 1.07 WHIP that owes much to a strikeout-to-walk rate on the right side of 4.00. His contract calls for $12 million in 2010, and then he would become a free agent, unless the Cubs re-sign him somewhere in the interim. Lilly will turn 34 at the beginning of the New Year, however, and his already-high home run rate will only rise with age. Hendry would be smarter to save the millions an extension would cost and try to replace Lilly from within: Both Andrew Cashner and Chris Carpenter have flown through the system, and look like they'll be Big Leaguers sooner rather than later.
5. Who's the fifth starter? Rich Harden won't accept arbitration, and the bidding on him will probably go higher than Dempster's current deal of four years and $52 million, according to Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune. At that price, he'd be a bit over-priced, and if Hendry catches on, he will look elsewhere to fill the gap. Randy Wolf and Jon Garland are options, but the smart money may be on the Cubs replacing Harden with homegrown talents like Jeff Samardzija or Esmailin Caridad. The aforementioned Cashner and Carpenter are long shots in that scenario, too, and the Tribune reports Angel Guzman could get a look. For that to happen, though, the Cubs would have to add two free agent arms to the bullpen, which seems unlikely.