The Cubs’ pitching staff is rolling through the first quarter of the season. They boast the league’s lowest ERA (2.20) — for perspective, the league average in ERA is 4.01. The Cubs also have the league’s lowest opponent batting average (.200), which is 50 points below the current league average.
Springtime baseball at Wrigley field has always been breezy due to the lake effect, but with the rate opponents are swinging and missing, the nickname “Windy City” seems to have taken on a whole new meaning.
Jake Arrieta hasn’t skipped a beat from last year as he tries to defend his Cy Young crown. Jon Lester has settled in nicely, the addition of veteran John Lackey is paying dividends, and 33-year-old Jason Hammel is nearly unrecognizable so far in 2016. He’s been brilliant. Kyle Hendricks' (2-4) record isn’t indicative of how he’s actually pitched — his 1.06 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) and 3.30 ERA are both above average for a fifth starter. He doesn’t have flashy stuff — he can’t blow you away with crazy heat or a sweeping slider — but he gets the job done. Bottom line: the staff is deep, and they have been excellent thus far.
So, there’s nothing to worry about. Right?
Well, maybe not. Unlike the Cubs’ lineup, which has struggled with injuries to key contributors, the pitching staff has stayed perfectly healthy to start the season. But what happens if one of these five goes down? Not to mention, the question must be raised: is their current success rate sustainable? Likely not.
Arrieta has been nearly perfect since the middle of last season. Decades of baseball analytics would suggest that he will eventually cool down. That’s not to say that he’ll start to look human any time soon — because his nasty curveball, hard slider, and ground-ball inducing sinker aren’t going anywhere. But it will be difficult to keep up the pace he’s at right now. It’ll also be interesting to see if veteran pitchers Hammel and Lackey can continue to pitch as well as they have.
Even if the staff continues to mow down opponents left and right, what will the Cubs do if one of their big guns does go down?
First, the team has to look at what they’ve got in-house. Their farm system is light on arms — and that’s an understatement — so, manager Joe Maddon would first turn to his bullpen. The Cubs’ pen has a number of names with big league starting pitching experience. Travis Wood, Adam Warren, Clayton Richard, and Trevor Cahill would all be competing for that crucial fifth spot if someone went down.
Let’s take a quick look at each option.
Wood doesn’t have strike-out stuff. He’s got a below average heater (91 MPH) that he pairs with a decent cutter. Besides that, he occasionally mixes in a slider and change-up, but that’s it. His best year was 2013 when he made 32 starts with the north siders and had a career-low ERA of 3.11. Wood struggled mightily in 2014 and was moved to the bullpen in 2015 to serve as a middle reliever. He made the occasional spot start in 2015, but has only come out of the pen so far in 2016. His 5.03 ERA in 31 starts in 2014 brings a possible return to the rotation into question.
Warren has been primarily a bullpen guy throughout his short MLB career — he started just 20 games between 2012 and 2015 with the Yankees. He seems to have the stuff to make it as a starter. He relies heavily on his four-seam fastball, but mixes in a hard slider and strong sinker to keep the ball on the ground. He has a nice change-up and 12-6 curve ball that keep hitters off balance as well. Right now, it’s difficult to say whether or not Warren could step into a starting role. While he has all of the ingredients to be a solid starting pitcher, his lack of experience makes it difficult to predict how he would fare as a starting pitcher. We’ve seen how good his stuff can be for an inning or two, but his longevity is still unknown.
The Richard-starter-experiment went awry in San Diego in 2012. He started 33 games but was terribly inconsistent throughout the year. His 3.99 ERA was nothing to write home about, and he also allowed league-highs in hits and home runs. That’s concerning. Since then, he has always served as a bullpen guy while occasionally being used as a spot starter. His inconsistency is troubling and makes it difficult to justify any return to a starting role.
Cahill was awful in 2014 and to start 2015, but his trade to Chicago seems to have revitalized his career to some extent. He’s a sinker ball pitcher — he throws his sink on over 53 percent of his pitches according to Brooks baseball. It’s a real worm killer, it induces a ground ball on 60 percent of balls put in play and has been key to his turnaround in Chicago. Before his time as a bullpen pitcher, between 2009 and 2014, he served as a below-average starting pitcher with an ERA that hovered around 4.00. His 2010 season seemed to be a statistical fluke — he won 18 games with a sub-three ERA which earned him a spot in the Summer classic. He’s never been able to return to that all-star caliber player since. It’s doubtful that Cahill could recapture the magic he had in 2010, and considering his last stint as a starter was abysmal, it’s unlikely that he would step up into a starting role once again.
On paper, it seems the Cubs have a number of legitimate options to fulfill a starting spot if someone were to suffer an injury. After taking a deeper look at the numbers, these four pitchers may not have what it takes to fill a starting spot on a title contending team. That’s yet to be seen.
Although Theo Epstein (President of Baseball Operations) and Jed Hoyer (General Manager) were timid about making a move at last year’s trade deadline, expect more activity this year. While the deadline is still two months away, the Cubs are a hot tub slip away from making phone calls about a possible trade. Real Cubs’ fans will remember, and cringe at that reference.