Ultimately, what I’ve been asking myself since last night is this: who would I rather have on the Chicago Cubs in 2012? Carlos Zambrano or Chris Volstad? It’s close, but I just can’t bring myself to say Zambrano. Throw in a little big of money saved (after Volstad’s arbitration raise is taken out of the $3ish million the Cubs saved in the deal), Volstad’s three years of control, and theoretical upside, and I guess it’s a good deal. It certainly doesn’t knock your socks off like the Marshall trade (well, my socks, anyway), but this looks like, at worst, a wash. And a wash that removes a potentially toxic element from the clubhouse?
That’s a win.
But, about that Volstad fellow. Is he someone to get excited about? Could he adequately replace Zambrano’s production in 2012? Is he another bounce-back candidate?
First, the plain numbers: Volstad’s ERA over the past three years has been an ugly 5.21, 4.58, and 4.89, and his ERA+ was just 82, 91, and 80. His WHIP has stayed above 1.410, and his K/9 hasn’t been much better than 6.0 (though it did improve in 2011). His BB/9, on the other hand, has generally been both good and consistently improving – 3.3, 3.1, and 2.7 over the last three years. He’s just a dude who gets hit a whole lot, giving up more than a hit per inning. That leads to plenty of runs given up. And in 2011, an abnormally high number of those hits were homers, so the run situation was even worse.
The advanced statistics tell a slightly more encouraging story about Volstad’s past and future, though.
Volstad’s FIP (an ERA-like stat that tries to take the defense behind you out of the equation (i.e., if you’ve got a crappy defense behind you, your ERA is going to be higher because they don’t make as many good plays for you)) has improved each of the last three years, culminating in an ok-ish 4.32 in 2011. His xFIP (which is like FIP, but it takes home run rate out of the equation on the theory that a pitcher’s home run rate fluctuates wildly from year to year, without much predictive value) was an even better 3.64, good for 18th in the NL. In addition to an unusually high home run rate last year, Volstad’s BABIP against was .310, versus a career .295 mark. In other words, the advance stats paint the picture of a decent pitcher (not good – just decent) who was pretty unlucky in 2011. In 2009 and 2010, however, he was just bad.
Setting aside the numbers, there are a number of reasons for optimism.
Volstad is just 25, an age at which many pitchers are in their first or second years in the bigs (for reference, Andrew Cashner is 12 days older than Volstad). The righty is also a physical beast, coming in at 6’8″ and 230 lbs. He was a first round pick in 2005 out of high school, and rocketed through the minors to make his big league debut in 2008, after just two full minor league seasons (for a kid out of high school, that’s very, very impressive).
On the contract side of things, Volstad is in his first year of arbitration eligibility (some thought he was at risk of being non-tendered in December, but that had more to do with a misperception of the Marlins’ financial situation than it did with Volstad’s ability), so the Cubs have him under control through 2014, assuming they choose to keep tendering him a contract after 2012. That’s a plus.
I don’t want to create unrealistic expectations here. While there are reasons to be *hopeful* for a Volstad rebound and, then, further development, expecting him to be more than a passable number five starter is setting yourself up for disappointment. Volstad has been healthily below average for three years straight, and, while he only just turned 25 in September, that means something. If you want context, the chances Travis Wood is a quality piece for the Cubs in 2012 and beyond is much greater than the chance Volstad is.
In the end, the Cubs picked up another nice bounce-back candidate in Chris Volstad. He’ll likely be handed the 5th starter job out of Spring Training, depending on what happens with the rest of the rotation, and is a nice lottery ticket for the Cubs – one that comes with a lot less risk of clubhouse implosion than the lottery ticket the Cubs sent to the Marlins.