Now that the James Shields business is in the rearview, we can resume wondering about how the Chicago Cubs’ rotation is going to shake out to begin the 2015 season. Absent a shocking, extraordinarily unlikely last-minute trade for a Cole Hamels or a Jordan Zimmermann, the Cubs are likely to enter Spring Training with a front four of Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, and Kyle Hendricks.*
From there, it’s a really fascinating mix of competitors for that fifth spot. Assuming that front four is healthy and set, it’s incredible to think that the Cubs may have to choose just one starting pitcher from this huge group:
Travis Wood – As we sit here today, you’d have to call Wood the presumptive favorite, for obvious reasons. We know that his breakout 2013 season was partly the product of his own effectiveness (excellent command on both sides of the plate, mostly) and partly the product of some good fortune (although you can expect a low BABIP from an extreme fly ball pitcher like Wood, you can’t really expect him to give up virtually no homers, as Wood did). We know that his 2014 season was the precise opposite, as he was a little less effective, and he didn’t get much in the way of supernatural assistance. It remains possible that Wood is dealt before the season opens, but, if he’s not, he may get the first crack at a rotation spot. If Wood can just be the guy that the underlying metrics suggest he can be – something between the 2013 and 2014 performances – then he’d be great at the back of the Cubs’ rotation.
Edwin Jackson – Although his contract and previous stature would suggest Jackson should be among the favorites for a rotation job, we know that isn’t the case. Jackson will be battling for a roster spot in the Spring if he isn’t traded first, and, if he doesn’t make the rotation, the Cubs may have to see what he could do in the bullpen, or dump him for whatever they can get. Maybe Jackson will look absolutely fantastic in Spring Training, just to keep things interesting. And what if he somehow becomes the guy he was pre-2013? That’s a hell of a great 5th starter. Aw, crap, what did I just do …
Tsuyoshi Wada – The lefty turns 34 later this month, and he was legitimately effective for the Cubs last year in his first stint in the big leagues. It came after a protracted recovery from Tommy John surgery, and then a great stint at AAA Iowa. On a team without a half dozen quality fifth starter options, Wada would be the obvious guy here after the Cubs re-signed him to a one-year, $4 million deal. As things stand, though, you have to wonder whether Wada is a more likely candidate for the bullpen as a long man, not only because of the other guys in the rotation mix, but also because of his Carlos-Villanueva-like success the first time or two through the order … and then falling off after that. The first time through the order, Wada held batters to a .528 OPS last year. Second time through? .690. Third time through? 1.249(! – small sample, but it’s going to be a small sample if you’re getting rocked). Unless there’s something obviously correctable, Wada may be best utilized as a long man.
Jacob Turner – If you were picking the one guy you’d most want to see win the fifth starter job, it’s probably Turner, thanks to his youth (he’s still just 23 – seriously: 23) and upside. Yes, some of the shine has worn off from his top prospect days, perhaps in no small part due to the way he was hurriedly rushed to the majors. But there’s a whole lot there to like, and reasons to hope that Chris Bosio and the Cubs’ pitching infrastructure could turn him into a quality middle-of-the-rotation starter. If he can’t win a spot in the rotation, there are reasons to believe he could be good in the bullpen. The tricky thing with Turner here is that he’s out of minor league options, so the Cubs have to carry him out of Spring Training, or try to outright him to AAA Iowa by sneaking him through waivers. When the Marlins tried to do it last August, Turner got exactly two spots into the waiver ladder before being claimed. That said, it’s a little easier to pull it off in late March/early April. Turner showed flashes of effectiveness in his starts with the Cubs, but more work was needed. We’ll see if the Cubs will have had time to pull it off come the end of Spring Training.
Felix Doubront – Although a little older (27) and maybe with a little less upside, Doubront’s situation is not all that dissimilar from Turner’s. He’s had big league success in the rotation, and he could easily be a quality 4/5 for a number of years. He’s not a hard-thrower who’s going to strike out a ton of batters, so he’ll need to keep the walks down and the groundball rate up to be effective. Like Turner, Doubront could potentially work out of the pen (but that was reportedly a source of his frustration in Boston, which led to the Cubs getting him in the first place), and, like Turner, he’s out of minor league options if there isn’t a spot. The rub with Doubront is that, unlike Turner, he has the right to decline the outright assignment, even if he clears waivers, and elect free agency. The question is, if he clears waivers – meaning no team wanted him at his $1.925 million salary for 2015 – would he want to risk losing that guaranteed money and opting for the uncertainty of free agency? Or would he accept being sent down to AAA Iowa (in which case he keeps that contract, and could be a free agent after the season if he’s not returned to the 40-man roster)?
Eric Jokisch – The 25-year-old lefty didn’t get a chance to show much in the bigs last year, but he was dominant at AAA, and was regarded by many scouts as a future back-end big league starter. Given the extreme depth we’re discussing here, and given the fact that he can be optioned to Iowa, Jokisch is a long-shot to win a rotation job out of Spring Training. But that doesn’t mean he’s not a big league-caliber starter, and doesn’t have a future. It’s just a numbers game, but he’ll be a great asset to have in the minors should a need arise.
Dallas Beeler – Other than being a righty, I could say almost all of the same stuff for Beeler that I just did for Jokisch, right down to the age. He’s got big league potential as a back-end starter, he’s great to have in the organization, and he’s got options left. Eventually, the Cubs are going to have to make some hard choices with guys like Jokisch and Beeler – this is what happens to good organizations when they accumulate lots of talent – but they might be able to wait a little while, to see how things shake out over the course of the 2015 season.
C.J. Edwards – He’s on the 40-man roster, and he’s a potential quality big league starter down the road, so he’s nominally in this competition. Realistically, however, Edwards will head to the minors to begin the season after an injury-shortened 2014. I think, even if Edwards “won” a rotation spot by virtue of his performance, it would be very difficult for him to hold down the spot all year, given the innings requirements. Instead, I’d expect Edwards to start for a stretch at AAA, and, if he’s dominating, he could wind up in the Cubs’ bullpen in the second half of the season as a prelude to a possible starting gig in 2016.
Drake Britton – Given the volume of waiver-claim-turned-waiver-fodder moves this offseason for the Cubs, I’m not committing to Britton even being in the organization come Spring, let alone in the rotation competition. The 25-year-old lefty is just as likely being brought in to compete for a bullpen job, but, since he’s currently on the 40-man roster (with no options left), I’ll add his name here. He has been a starter for most of his career, but his path to big league success might be as a lefty specialist.
Non-Roster Invitees – Among the non-40-man guys coming to camp, only Pierce Johnson and Corey Black are really starters at this point (and Black’s future may yet be in the bullpen). I don’t see either as a legitimate threat to win a rotation job absent the devastating effects of a small comet visiting the weekly Wood-Jackson-Wada-Turner-Doubront-Jokisch-Beeler poker game. Donn Roach has been a starter, but the Cubs have intimated that he’s being shifted into a relief role.
*(This is a somewhat artificial exercise about the fifth starter spot, specifically, because we don’t know that the front four will definitely be that front four when the season starts. For example, I don’t think you can quite say Hendricks is an absolute mortal lock for the rotation, given his youth, but it’s certainly the expectation as we sit here today. Just as you can’t actually know in advance that all of the front four will be healthy on April 5, you can’t know in advance that a guy like Hendricks will immediately transition perfectly to the big leagues without going through any adjustment period or needing any more time at AAA. He might, and for the purposes of this exercise, we are assuming he will. I’ve just grown increasingly sensitive to not laying too many expectations at Hendricks’ feet when we wouldn’t do the same for any number of other youngsters who’ve clearly needed some time to adjust. I don’t want folks getting down on him if he doesn’t break camp posting a 3.00 ERA right out of the gate. Also, it’s worth noting that, while the Cubs have several pitchers without options whom they would stand to lose entirely if they don’t make the team out of Spring Training, Hendricks does have options left. No, that is absolutely not a reason, in isolation, to choose a Turner or a Doubront over Hendricks, but it’s worth mentioning.)