Presumed Chicago Cubs fifth starter Jake Arrieta is going to start the season on the disabled list after dealing with some shoulder stiffness in the offseason, and having his season ramp-up slightly delayed. This has been the expectation for some time, but it now finally sounds like Arrieta is ready to concede it. As he tells Patrick Mooney, Arrieta is preparing to miss the first week or two of the season as he builds up arm strength.
The good news is that Arrieta threw live BP yesterday, and pitching coach Chris Bosio said he couldn’t have been more pleased by it. Hopefully Arrieta continues to feel good after his throwing sessions, and he does indeed return after missing just a start or two at the outset of the season. Gotta take the long-view with Arrieta – missing a couple starts is really not a big deal.
In the meantime, that means the Cubs are going to have to decide on a fifth starter for those one or two missed Arrieta starts. Who gets the nod? Well, it’s still unclear.
Chris Rusin – A kind of fill-in starter in each of the past two years, Rusin is a guy who could have a nice little big league career as a back-end starter. In that respect, he seems like the obvious choice here. Further, he’s had a couple great outings back-to-back (though his Spring stats in the aggregate are pretty meh: 5.40 ERA over 11.2 innings, 5 K, 3 BB). The problem for the 27-year-old Rusin is that he’s got minor league options left. In other words, unlike the three other primary competitors here, Rusin can be freely sent to Iowa at the end of Spring Training, without any kind of risk of losing him for nothing. Yes, if he’s clearly the best option, you don’t necessarily let that make the decision for you, but we can’t act like it isn’t a part of the calculous. Since it’s just a couple starts, and since the actual output difference between Rusin and one of the other options might be pretty low over so few innings, I have a hard time justifying dumping a guy the Cubs might otherwise want to keep just so that they can give these one or two starts to Rusin. Instead, I think it’s likely that Rusin heads to Iowa until there’s a more long-term opening in the rotation, assuming he stays healthy and productive at Iowa (of course, even then, he could wind up competing with guys like Kyle Hendricks, Eric Jokisch, Carlos Pimentel, and Neil Ramirez, among others).
Carlos Villanueva – A fantastic swing-man, Villanueva was in this position last year when he stepped in to the Cubs’ rotation to fill in for, well, pick your injured Cubs starter of choice. On the Spring, Villanueva has an ERA near 6 over 7.2 innings, which, like, whatever. That was never going to be the deciding factor for Villanueva. Instead, he’s got at least three things going for him: (1) He’s done this job before, successfully; (2) he’s going to make the roster no matter what, so there are no extra machinations required to get him into the rotation; and (3) if he winds up starting longer-term in the first half, he could add to his potential trade value. On that third one, I tend to think Villanueva’s value is what it is at this point: he’s a great swing-guy on a very reasonable contract (he makes $5 million this year before reaching free agency). Villanueva is the safest option to fill in for Arrieta at this point.
James McDonald – The surprise starter the Cubs brought in on a Major League deal (only $1 million, though), in part because of the Arrieta injury. In that way, it seems like McDonald should be the favorite. His Spring performance has been ugly, but the number won’t decide his fate so much as what the coaching staff thinks about his stuff (which we haven’t really gotten much of a read on just yet). In McDonald’s corner, he’s actually got quite a bit going for him: (1) He’s always had good, raw stuff, and was lights out in the first half of 2012; (2) the shoulder issues, if they’re behind him, could provide a plausible explanation for the rapid downward spiral over the past year and a half; (3) he’s got a big league contract, making it slightly more painful to let him go (and if he turns things around, the Cubs would have him for another year of arbitration after this year); and (4) he’s the kind of guy who could develop meaningful flip value if he stuck in the rotation and pitched very well through July.
Tsuyoshi Wada – Probably the final competitor at this point, like McDonald, Wada’s Spring numbers have been awful. Wada was a well-liked lefty coming out of Japan a couple years ago when he was bit by the Tommy John bug, and never wound up throwing a big league pitch for the Orioles. He did pitch well at AAA last year, particularly at the end of the year, and if he’s fully healthy now, there’s reason to believe he could be a big league caliber starter. The Cubs have him on a minor league deal, so that’s probably working against him (insofar as the Cubs can stash him, rather than putting him on the roster, which would require opening up a 40-man roster spot). As with McDonald, there’s some theoretical flip value – or keep value – but it’s harder to gauge, since he’s never pitched in the big leagues.