So, About that Crowded Rotation: Considering the Cubs' Starting Pitching Options

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So, About that Crowded Rotation: Considering the Cubs’ Starting Pitching Options

Chicago Cubs

The Chicago Cubs have signed Scott Baker for one year and $5.5 million, Scott Feldman for one year and $6 million, Carlos Villanueva for two years and $10 million, and Edwin Jackson for four years and $52 million. All told, it’s $73.5 million for eight player years. The Tigers signed Anibal Sanchez for $80 million, and they get him for five years.

Does that make one approach better than the other? Not necessarily – quantity does not always equal quality. But if the Cubs could have only one of those two choices, considering where they are right now, I probably choose the former pretty easily. And I’m a guy who really wanted Sanchez.

I really like the deals because they give the Cubs so many options going forward, without really restricting them from doing anything they’d like. They are all fair market deals (or better), and none are so large that they will constrict the Cubs’ payroll meaningfully in future years. And these guys could prove to be pretty good pitchers, too.

I’m happy about the depth that the Cubs have added to the rotation (and the bullpen). I think the rotation stands a chance of being above average this year, all things considered. I also think the additions of Baker, Feldman, Villanueva, and Jackson all fit within “the plan” of accumulating long-term assets (and short-term, flippable pieces) for a possible competitive stretch in 2014/15/16, and beyond.

But I want to be clear about what the signings aren’t: they aren’t the moves that are suddenly going to vault the Cubs into contention in 2013. Without additions to the lineup, in particular, this is still a relatively weak team on paper. Something to keep in mind about the rotation, as you are bombarded with messages about how much better this year’s rotation now looks compared to last year’s: yes, it’s miles better than where the rotation ended up last year. But that’s not really the fair comparison, right? If you want to see if it’s truly an improvement, you’ve got to compare the 2013 rotation to the 2012 rotation as it stood when the Cubs were actually trying to be good. That rotation featured the best pitcher in the NL at the time (Ryan Dempster) and one of the hottest pitchers in the NL at the time (Paul Maholm). And the Cubs were still terrible. Is the projected 2013 rotation really that much better than the one from early 2012? Probably a little. But not as much as you might think.

With that out of the way, we can dig into the meat of yesterday’s Edwin Jackson and Carlos Villanueva signings. Namely: what does it do to the rotation, and what’s the plan for that suddenly crowded group, which also features holdovers Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, and Travis Wood?

As things stand today, it seems like the Cubs really have only three options for dealing with the (good) problem of having too many starting pitchers: (1) Trade somebody, (2) rest somebody, or (3) make difficult bullpen/roster decisions.

First, and always the sexiest option: a trade. The Cubs could look to deal Matt Garza, though, for reasons discussed earlier today, that’s easier said than done. The signing, at a superficial level, do look like they open up the possibility of dealing Garza without damaging the 2013 rotation too badly, which is great. But Garza is coming off a stress reaction in his elbow, which kept him out for the entire second half last year. Further, when healthy, he’s still probably the best pitcher on the staff. A trade, therefore, is complicated.

The Cubs could also consider shopping Jeff Samardzija, as unpopular as that might be. His value is extremely high after a breakout year, and with three years of control left by way of arbitration. It would be very hard to part with Samardzija, but as part of the rebuilding effort, he could certainly net a huge haul in return – so you have to consider it. Still, absent a deal that brings back two or more Major League ready young, very high upside arms, I just can’t see a Samardzija deal being the right move for an organization that I see standing at the ready to start a run of success beginning as soon as 2014.

Even if the Cubs dealt one of Garza or Samardzija (or Wood, if there were a buyer), they’d still have six starters for five spots.

So, how about the second option: rest someone.

Because Garza is coming off that elbow issue, and Baker is coming off of Tommy John surgery, the Cubs could elect to hold both back at the start of the year, and fill up the rotation with Samardzija, Jackson, Villanueva, Feldman, and Wood. That could work for most of April, depending on the pitchers’ progress, and perhaps by the time Garza and Baker are ready to go, something will have happened in the rotation (something always happens), and things will have sorted themselves out.

It’s possible.

But what if Garza is ready to go at the open of the season, and Baker is just behind?

Well, then there’s the third option: just try to figure it out.

Garza, Samardzija, and Jackson are locks for the rotation at that point. Feldman, given that he was very publicly promised a starting job (though I previously parsed Jed Hoyer’s language, and I could think of ways to get around the kinda-sorta promise that aren’t totally sleazy), and really does have some upside as a starter, is probably going to be in the rotation to start the year as well.

Travis Wood is out of options, so, if the Cubs tried to shuttle him to AAA to open the year, he’d first have to pass through revocable waivers. It’s possible he could clear – frequently teams don’t grab players they like on revocable waivers because they know (1) the optioning team will just revoke the waiver and keep the player, and (2) then all you will have accomplished is really pissing off the other team – but it’s a risk. I’m not sure it should be “the plan,” but it’s an arrow in the quiver if need be (there was a time (hard to remember, I know) when it seemed like there was no way that Randy Wells and Chris Volstad would clear waivers, but they did).

Otherwise, Wood probably grabs a rotation spot, too. Carlos Villanueva heads to his familiar swing role in the bullpen, and Scott Baker starts the season on the DL for a least a couple weeks. If Baker is ready to go when the season opens, maybe Wood joins Villanueva in the bullpen – there is, after all, only one lefty down there right now (James Russell). Or maybe Feldman heads to the bullpen to start the year with an understanding that, at some point, he’s going to join the rotation.

Ultimately, short of a trade, I’m thinking we’re going to see a hybrid of options two and three. Baker will probably open the season on the disabled list, and either Villanueva or Wood will open the season in the bullpen. From there, injuries will naturally occur, and the Cubs will probably be able to play things by ear until mid-season when they, depending on their record and the pitchers’ performance, may look to unload a pitcher or two. Guys who were just signed cannot be traded until June, so don’t look for a deal involving Baker, Feldman, Villanueva, or Jackson, if at all, until then.

Oh, and then when Arodys Vizcaino shows he’s healthy enough to pitch in the second half …

Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.