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John Smoltz Could Fortify the Chicago Cubs' Rotation

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst INovember 12, 2009

ST. LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 10:   Pitcher John Smoltz #30 of the St. Louis Cardinals delivers a pitch against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the seventh inning of Game Three of the NLDS during the 2009 MLB Playoffs at Busch Stadium on October 10, 2009 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) )
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

When Ted Lilly opted for left shoulder surgery on Nov. 3, he may have put his Chicago Cubs in the market for a free agent starter.

One week later, an MLB.com story revealed that John Smoltz, who filed for free agency Nov. 5, hopes to pitch in 2010. For many Cubs fans, the gravity of that revelation should not be overlooked.

Smoltz struggled in a brief stint in the American League last season, but came around under the tutelage of Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan after signing with St. Louis in August. He struck out 40, and issued only nine walks in 33 innings of work as a Cardinal.

Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild is no Dave Duncan, so Smoltz will have to show that he still has some of the magic that made him the 1996 Cy Young Award winner and that gave him 213 wins and 154 saves. If he does, however, he could be a perfect fit for the back of the Cubs' rotation, and once Lilly returns to the fold in late April, the Cubs could choose to move either Smoltz or southpaw Tom Gorzelanny to the bullpen to make room.

Smoltz made $5.5 million last year, but given his age, injury history, and rough campaign in 2009, he might expect about half that figure in 2010. For the sake of simplicity, and to figure conservatively, say Smoltz is a $3 million proposition on a one-year deal next season. At that rate, Smoltz would cost substantially less than Jon Garland, Erik Bedard, and Doug Davis, all of whom present as high an injury risk as Smoltz, with roughly equal ceilings. 

Smoltz has a career strikeout-to-walk ratio just north of 3.00. Since his return to the starting rotation in 2005, that number is 3.79. He has struck out at least eight men per inning in 13 of his last 14 seasons. His 2009 FIP, a statistically-derived fielder-independent metric scaled to ERA, belies his ugly surface-level numbers: he posted a more-than-respectable 3.87.

Most importantly, Smoltz has a bulldog mentality and a devastating slider, and if he can rediscover the split-fingered fastball that allowed him to be such a dominant ground-ball pitcher until 2008, he could provide some team with much-needed depth and experience at the back of either the rotation or the bullpen, even at 43 years of age. Jim Hendry would do well to consider Smoltz.

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