Coming into the 2010 season, the Cubs knew they had one of the stronger starting rotations in the National League. Ryan Dempster established himself as a solid front of the rotation starter, Randy Wells was coming off a stellar rookie season, Carlos Zambrano lost a ton of weight, Carlos Silva had been moved across the mound, and Ted Lilly would only be delayed a few weeks.

Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Ryan Dempster delivers a pitch to the St. Louis Cardinals in the third inning at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on August 15, 2010. St. Louis lost the game 9-7.  UPI/Bill Greenblatt Photo via Newscom

At the All-Star Break, the Cubs starting pitching was still holding their own, posting a 4.03 ERA. Ryan Dempster and Ted Lilly were rolling through their starts, Carlos Silva was shocking the world, and Tom Gorzelanny was putting together a career year. Since then the wheels have fallen off a bit, but even more concerning, the immediate future of this starting staff doesn’t look too bright.

Ryan Dempster is under contract for two more years, and he probably isn’t going anywhere. He’s the one proven commodity, having proved over the last three seasons that he is a solid number 2 starter capable of eating 200 innings a season. He’s well worth the money owed to him, and barring injury there is no reason to think he won’t replicate his numbers again next season. I see no reason he can’t be penciled in for another 3 WAR season in 2011.

Tom Gorzelanny is putting together a fine season, posting career numbers across the board. It seems that he has discovered his inner strikeout pitcher under Larry Rothschild, posting a 8.30 K/9 rate, well above his career average of 6.69. His 3.48 FIP and 3.86 tERA show that his 3.70 ERA isn’t that much of a fluke. He also isn’t getting lucky with balls in play, with a .327 BABIP. He is getting lucky with the home run ball though, his home run rate is about half of what is was last season, so is his HR/FB rate.

An optimist would say Gorzelanny is having his breakout season, and at 28 years old, is about to enter his prime years. A pessimist would say that he’s had this kind of season before, but quickly regressed and was sent to the minors the next year. For the sake of optimism, but not stupidity (I hope), let’s say that Gorzelanny has figured things out. With a normal home run rate next season, Gorzelanny will still be a good pitcher, is left-handed, and under team control. He’ll be in the starting rotation no question. I don’t think he’s a top 3 pitcher in a good rotation though, he’s more of a fourth starter.

So we have a number 2 and number 3/4 starter, not bad. Things get real dicey after that though.

Carlos Silva is under contract next season, and will be paid $11.5 million. That money isn’t going away, which means the Cubs will gamble on Silva having another good season. The problem with that is Silva’s health. After shocking the world for the first half of this season, Silva has really struggled with his health in the second half. He’s not in the best of shape to begin with, and this heart issue isn’t the kind of thing that goes away forever. While his numbers this season have evened out for the most part (his luck has balanced out, he isn’t getting terribly lucky on home runs, his ERA/FIP/xFIP/tERA are all pretty close to each other) I still question his ability to repeat what he’s done this season. His history cannot be ignored, and that history tells us he won’t be this useful again.

As the season has gone on, Silva has worn down (this over just 100 innings), and teams have started to hit him harder. He projects as a back of the rotation guy next season, and that is assuming he can stay healthy. Silva doesn’t have the talent to justify giving him a rotation spot knowing he will probably be replaced by a AAA pitcher for a portion of the season. You can take the risk with a pitcher like Rich Harden, but not a guy like Silva. If the Cubs could trade him they would, but his heart issues will prevent that, and he is probably best suited for the bullpen at this point. As a member of the starting rotation, he cannot be counted on for anything more than eating some innings.

Randy Wells was a pleasant surprise his rookie year, but has gotten hit hard throughout most of his sophomore campaign. His ERA is pretty high at 4.56, but his FIP (4.05) and BABIP (.334) suggest he’s been getting unlucky. Take a deeper look though, and we see that Wells’ ERA and eye test aren’t lying to us. His line drive % this season is 21%, which is above league average. It drives his xBABIP into the .340 range, which means he really isn’t getting unlucky, he’s just getting hit hard. Since he doesn’t have overwhelming strikeout stuff, Wells tends to produce poor results more often. Like Silva, Wells is a back of the rotation starter who probably can’t do much more than eat innings. I certainly wouldn’t want him to start a playoff game. Considering he’s still under team control, I think there would be a team or two interested in him, and the Cubs should seriously consider trading him.

Carlos Zambrano is the potential wild card, but odds are every effort will be made to remove him from the equation. It’s clear that Zambrano isn’t as durable or skilled as he used to be, and his price tag (along with his actions) have probably forced him out of town. Should the Cubs find themselves unable to move Zambrano (highly unlikely, even if it means eating every penny of his contract) he probably cannot be looked at as the staff ace any longer. He’s made a habit out of running his pitch count high early in games, and probably is no better than Tom Gorzelanny at this point.

So we’ve talked about the current starting five, or at least the guys who would make up the rotation right now if they were all healthy. We have a dependable two starter, a potentially dependable 3/4 starter, two 5 starters, and Zambrano (I won’t even try to label him). I can’t say that rotation puts any team in the playoffs. Luckily (maybe), there are other in house options.

Sean Marshall could shift back to the rotation, but given his dominance out of the bullpen, and the Cubs’ never ending struggle to fill late inning roles, I doubt they move him.

July 27, 2010 - Houston, Texas, United States of America - 27 July 2010: Chicago Cubs Pitcher Andrew Cashner (48) comes in to relieve the starting pitcher Ted Lilly.

Andrew Cashner is still the team’s best starting pitching prospect, but he’s been pitching out of the bullpen most of this season. Even if the Cubs felt that he was ready for a rotation spot, there would be growing pains (acceptable to me fwiw, but probably not if we are trying to build a playoff team), and I don’t see how Cashner could pitch 200+ innings. Plus, it’s questionable if the Cubs ever give him a shot at starting, he’s probably going to join the back end of the bullpen again.

Jay Jackson has had an up and down season in AAA, made worse by an inexplicable trip to the bullpen mid-season, but he should be able to handle the innings load. Much like Cashner, Jackson probably isn’t reliable enough to count on as more than a 3/4 starter. Like Cashner (again) I would love to see him get a shot, but that probably won’t happen after his numbers this season, and the Cubs’ proclamation of attempted playoff contention.

Chris Archer is the exciting young arm that has emerged this season, and he will get an extended look in the Arizona Fall League. With a great Spring Training he could make the team, but his command issues still need work, and they will get him in trouble with MLB hitters.

Casey Coleman just had his first successful MLB start, but he projects as nothing more than an innings eater right now. Chris Carpenter was just promoted to AAA this week, so it is unlikely he is MLB ready next year.

So the story with all these minor league guys is basically the same. A few could make the rotation, but probably not stay there all year because of their innings load, and even with them in the rotation, they probably don’t improve it over Silva and Wells (for next year’s purposes).

Finally we have three potential free agents to look at. Cliff Lee, Carl Pavano, and Ted Lilly. In a world where the Cubs aren’t broke, they would look at getting two of these three, having no regard of the future implications.

Lee would immediately become the missing ace, but at age 32 he could fade fast. The CC Sabathia level contract he will demand is also out of the Cubs’ price range, which makes him an unrealistic option.

Pavano revived his career with the Twins, and could be in line for another payday this winter. He would probably fit in with Dempster nicely at the top of the rotation, not quite an ace, but not bad at all. Of course Pavano has had this season before, and then missed four seasons in New York. Again, his signing would probably be beneficial for next season, but potentially troublesome after that.

We know all about Ted Lilly, and the Cubs have reportedly thought a lot about resigning him this offseason. He would be entering his age 35 season, coming off two straight seasons with shoulder issues, and want another significant paycheck. Like the two pitchers before him, Ted can help next year, but he is still a long term financial risk that won’t fit under the budget anyway.

So what have I gotten out of the first 1,540 words of this post?

  • Ryan Dempster is going to remain a solid number 2 starter, Gorzelanny should be a playoff 4 starter.
  • Silva and Wells shouldn’t be counted on to be more than 5 starters that eat innings, and Silva’s health probably prevents him from doing even that.
  • Zambrano won’t be here.
  • The minor league guys can’t reliably produce enough to be counted on in a playoff rotation.
  • Free agents would help next year, but would hurt long term, and are too expensive anyway.

Basically, the Cubs are going to have to sell us on hope again next year. We will have to hope Andrew Cashner and Jay Jackson can both have breakout seasons, or hope that Big Z rebounds to being an ace. Perhaps hope that Carlos Silva stays healthy, and replicates his 2010 first half for all of 2011.

Right now the Cubs 2011 starting rotation is not capable of leading a team into the playoffs without multiple unexpected performances. Jim Hendry can sell the kids all he wants, or he can try and sell Silva and Wells rebounding, either way the current options don’t seem like they will cut it next season.

1 thought on “Cubs 2011 Rotation Looks Like a Big Question Mark”

  1. Nice job. I wonder whether Hendry might hang on to Z for no other reason than the outside chance of having another No. 2-level starter is better than nothing.

    One lazy question: What is the league average line drive rate right now?

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