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2006 Team Previews: Chicago Cubs, Pitching

Here is the Cubs' pitching preview, written by author of Cub Town, Derek Smart. Cub Town is one of my favorite baseball blogs around, so be sure to check it out. You'll get a good feel for Derek's writing style in this preview...Enjoy!

The Cubs might have the only rotation in baseball that's slated to be deployed in waves, and much like troops storming a well fortified beachhead, those given the "first responder" duties are likely to take a beating. With five games against Cincinnati, six against the Cardinals, and three more versus the Brewers, that's 14 of the first 23 contests against offensive units that are likely to be above average - not to mention, in the division. It could get ugly early, but if that initial unit can hold on, there's help on the way.

Wave I: Cannon Fodder

  1. Carlos Zambrano - Okay, so not everyone taking the hill in April is likely to be shrapnelized. As I noted in December, there is one man in the Major Leagues over the last three seasons who has managed to pitch 200 or more innings in each campaign while sporting an ERA under 3.50, and that man is Big Z.

    Even if injuries had not depleted this group from the start, Zambrano has clearly emerged over the last few seasons as the club's ace, and the competition's not even close. If there's a point of concern, it's the significant bump in his HR-rate last year (from 0.60 per nine to 0.85 per nine), but since he also held essentially steady on his BB- and SO-rates, while greatly reducing his H-rate (from an excellent 7.47 per nine to an ridiculous 6.85 per nine), I don't think it's truly an issue. As long as he doesn't fall to what felled his rotation-mates, he should be in for another dominant year.

  2. Greg Maddux - Steady. He might get rocked every once in a while, and he's certainly become a human bomb-threat, but he doesn't hand out freebies, and most days he'll give you six solid innings and a shot at victory. He hasn't been dominant since 2002, but since 1988 he's had exactly one year where he failed to pitch 200 or more innings - and his 199.3 innings that singular season were close enough, in my book.

    That he's throwing his 200+ at a level that's just a hair above league average might not conjure images of recent iterations of Roger Clemens, but it certainly has value, particularly considering what arguably equal or lesser pitchers are getting on the market these days. Maddux won't save this team, but his contributions could go a long way toward keeping it salvageable.

  3. Glendon Rusch - The thing about scrap-heap finds is that, more often than not, they eventually succumb to the siren call of their former home. Rusch hasn't reverted to the truly awful form he showed during his final season in Milwaukee, but last year helped make clear to most observers that his career ERA+ of 90 (ie: 10% below league average) wasn't cobbled together in some misguided attempt to lull hitters to sleep before a spectacular three-year run of superstardom at the end of his career. An evil genius he is not.

    Considering the Cubs' continuing issues with pitcher injuries it's difficult to call Rusch's two-year deal a horrible mistake, but clearly, the fact that he can reasonably be called the team's third starter at the season's inception is cause for concern. He doesn't have great stuff, so he has to live on the corners and hope his fielders can cure what ails him, which has led to consistently high hit-rates over his career (not coincidentally, his only season with fewer hits than innings pitched was his 2004 effort, which got him his current contract in the first place). The good news is the Cubs will likely sport a better defensive crew this year. The bad news is, it may not matter.

  4. Jerome Williams - He'll only be 24 in 2006, so there's still plenty of room to improve, but Williams desperately needs to figure out how to not walk 4 men per 9 innings, because he simply can't get away with it. His career K/BB of 1.68 just isn't very good, and since he doesn't have the stuff to see a sudden increase in his K-rate, it's his penchant for passes that'll have to give. Fix it, and he's a solid third starter. Don't fix it, and he's waiver meat.

  5. TBA - The competition as I write this is between Rich Hill, and Sean Marshall, with the wind of the chattering class being in Marshall's sails at the moment - although Jerome Williams is falling far enough out of favor for the club to consider leaving him behind. However, assuming the choice is, in fact, between these two, the pros and cons go something like this:

    • Marshall: Very poised, very inexperienced
    • Hill: Tremendous curve, tremendous control issues

    I think the nod goes to Marshall, and while there are some legitimate concerns about his lack of innings above A-ball, what I've seen of him looks good. He has a nice curve, good control over all his pitches, and best of all, he seems to know how to pitch. I don't know if that will translate into success right away, but we're likely to get a chance to find out.

Wave II: The Reinforcements Come

  1. Mark Prior - Try this for kicks:

    • Capture a fly
    • Purchase lightweight fishing line
    • Fashion into lasso
    • Cover fly's body with industrial lubricant
    • Grab fishing line lasso
    • Dose fly with crystal meth
    • Blindfold self
    • Release fly
    • Capture

    Were I given a choice of tasks, the successful completion of which would save my life and the lives of my family, I would take my chances at the Greased Meth-Fly Rodeo rather than attempt to predict Mark Prior's status on a given day.

    Prior's story is quickly beginning to exhibit eerie similarities to that of Kerry Wood - a tale of exorbitant yet partially justified expectations dashed on the shore of Dusty Baker's usage patterns. Neither pitcher has been the same since they were ridden like cracked-up ponies down the stretch of 2003, and with Prior's case in particular, the results have echoed through the organization, from results on the field, to the dissolving trust of the fanbase.

    Sadly, we've seen what Prior can do when all is well - in my estimation he's clearly a top-ten starter when right - it's just that it's impossible to know when, or if, all will ever be well again.

  2. Kerry Wood - It's strange, and for me, both exhilarating and terrifically disconcerting to know that the pitcher in Wave II most likely to emerge as some sort of savior - assuming, of course, that there is something to be saved - is Kerry Wood.

    Even, or perhaps especially, considering his recent knee surgery, the reports of Wood's progress have been universally sunny and optimistic which, for a team that has spent a lot of time in recent years hedging its bets when discussing injury recovery, is unusual enough to glean some significant hope for good things to come.

    Of course, a lot of the possibility for a happy outcome rides on how Wood responds once placed in a competitive environment, and more importantly, how he holds up as the season drags on. Even last year we saw some dominant work in his first return from the injury, so the real test won't be happening in late-April or early-May when he'll likely make his debut, so much as it will in August and September when we see whether his recovery has legs.

  3. Wade Miller - Whatever the club's final record at season's end, when the post-mortem on the 2006 campaign is performed, the offseason move that will have clearly returned the most value will be the signing of Miller. For a team that began the winter with rotation question marks, and is heading into the start of that season with more of them, having this type of cheap, high-upside insurance is vital. Let me put it this way: it is perfectly conceivable that from mid-May on, Wade Miller's performance will be equal to, or better than, that of A.J. Burnett. I'm not saying it will happen, but I don't think it's crazy to say that it could, and that possible upside alone makes this deal a steal for the Cubs, and a necessary one, at that.


  1. Ryan Dempster - He has what tends to be thought of as a classic closer's temperament - which is to say, he's a nutjob. Thankfully, he's whacked in the style of your buddy in college who put an entire bottle of Tobasco in his milkshake just to see who would win the epic battle between capsaicin and casein, and not in the Julian Tavarez, clear your home of sharp objects and firearms oeuvre.

    Unfortunately, umpire's strikes and batter's failures don't come to pass because you're a kick in the pants at parties, which isn't to say Dempster's bad, just that he's not as good as his contract and newfound status might suggest. What made him so effective last year was his ability to get strikeouts and not give up homers (he coughed up but one in his 58.1 relief innings), which served to mitigate his flagrant abuse of the strikezone. The problem is that while he's always gotten K's, he's never been that stingy with the bombs. Return to a more normal rate in that regard and the Cubs could quickly start to regret giving this man a deal for three years and over $15M based on the best 60 innings of his life.

  2. Scott Eyre and Bobby Howry - I mention both of these gentlemen together because they were purchased from the same Sam's Club barrel, where the sign that said "Ace Relievers" obscured the manufacturer's label that read "Security Blankets."

    Accusations of sub-conscious organizational thumb-sucking might be a bit over the line, but the fact is these two pitchers, while being perfectly serviceable, are not likely to see their on-field contributions justify their paychecks, so there has to be something else to it, and that something else is blue, fuzzy and warm.

    Here's the gist: in order to continue to use a player after witnessing a scene of their abject failure, Dusty Baker must have some institutional memory to fall back on in order to retain the ability to trust that player again in a key situation. He must have a security blanket. It's something that men like Wuertz and Novoa don't come with, but since Howry and Eyre both had excellent seasons last year, they're well equipped in that regard. They are too expensive, and they won't be as good as they were in 2005, but they do provide a degree of Dusty-proofing - which in this case means significantly reducing the manager's thought process by providing players with pre-prescribed roles - and as long as Baker's in the driver's seat, that sort of thing will have value.

  3. Scott Williamson - Meet the most potentially dominating reliever on the club. Despite the signings of the aforementioned pair of binkies, if we're basing bullpen roles on ability, Williamson should be the one seeing the most action in dangerous situations. There are still some questions about his recovery from his most recent Tommy John surgery, but I'd expect those to be put to rest early on and for his performance to earn him the lion's share of close-and-late opportunities.

  4. Will Ohman - The journeyman lefty had himself a nice looking year in 2005, but while his ERA of 2.91 was impressive, his PERA (defined by Baseball Prospectus as a pitcher's ERA as estimated from his peripheral statistics) was 4.68 - meaning he was the beneficiary of some luck, as well as some help from his friends. The good news is, he has a healthy strikeout rate (9.35 K/9), but if you want to feel good about him, don't look at his walk rate (4.99 BB/9) or home run rate (1.25 HR/9). Those are clearly issues, and if he wants to be anything beyond a decent fifth or sixth man out of the pen, he needs to get a handle on both.

  5. Michael Wuertz - Well, look who had his bacon saved. With the team dealing Todd Wellemeyer to the Marlins, Wuertz just might go north after all, despite spending his Spring as the pitching equivalent of an aerial firefighter who's filled his tanks with gasoline. He could still lose his job after the convalescence of Roberto Novoa, but at least he'll have a little more time to get himself together.

    Wuertz is one of those odd pitchers who works backward, using his slider to set up his fastball, rather than the other way around. When it works, it works well, but when he doesn't have the feel for Mr. Snappy, his whole game falls apart. He also has some hellacious control problems, so when things go badly, they're near apocalyptic.

The Cubs find themselves, once again, leaning extremely heavily on their arms for their opportunity to enter the postseason. Clearly, they have the talent, but with much of it being unavailable for long stretches, the team looks to have dug themselves another pre-season hole that will take a miracle to get out of. I, for one, will be praying daily in the Church of Baseball.

Once again, this preview was written by Derek Smart. Be sure to check out Jeff Sackmann's Brewers preview, as well as the A's and Rangers previews I posted yesterday. Busy week.