Spring Training Battles: Starting Pitching
The Cubs are a little over two weeks into spring training with about three weeks before Opening Day. It's time to check in on the yearly ritual of spring training battles. What's the fun of spring training without a little competition? The Cubs have a few spots up for grabs and today I'll look at the starting rotation battle between Jon Lieber, Ryan Dempster, Jason Marquis and Sean Marshall. I won't pretend that Sean Gallagher has a legitimate chance, although I guess I am pretending that Sean Marshall does.
Unable or unwilling to trade for some of the top notch talent that was moved over the offseason, such as Johan Santana, Erik Bedard or Dan Haren; the Cubs head into 2008 with much of the same talent that was good for the second best ERA among NL starting staffs last year. Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly and Rich Hill
will anchor the staff, and if Marquis and Marshall win the jobs, you'll have the same starting five that took the mound for the bulk of last season.
That though, appears to be the least likely scenario, as Ryan Dempster is getting his wish to compete for a starting spot and the Cubs signed Lieber on a one year deal. It appears to be a bit of a logjam at the moment, but the bullpen or the trade market can alleviate that "problem" at the end of spring training.
Let's take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate after the jump...
2008 PECOTA PROJECTION: 7-7, 20 GS, 4.91 ERA, 1.54 WHIP, 1.8 WARP
After a few, ahem, adventureous years as the Cubs closer, Dempster decided that his true heart's desire lie in starting pitching. Or he saw how much money Carlos Silva just got from the Mariners, realized his contract was up after the year, and thought to himself, "Hey, I can do that!" His previous escapades as a starter with the Marlins, Reds and six brief starts with the Cubs in 2005, yielded a combined line of 51-58 in 162 games started with a 4.99 ERA, a 1.56 K/BB ratio, a 1.11 HR/9 and a 7.36 K/9 in 988.2 IP. Compare that to his reliever numbers of 8-17, 229.2 IP, 4.11 ERA, 1.74 K/BB, 0.63 HR/9 and a 7.76 K/9. Most of those reliever numbers have come in the last three seasons with the Cubs, so it's a bit difficult to differentiate if Dempster has gotten a little better or was just better at relieving. My money is riding on that he's just better at relieving.
He came into camp ready to battle; a lean, mean fighting machine that has so far not disappointed, with nine innings pitched of 3.00 ERA ball. The key for Dempster though is to keep the ball in the park and he's only given up one home run this spring. With Dempster's control problems and tendency to put runners on, he's lived by the timely double play or strikeout to kill many a mounting rally.
Dempster probably has the best "stuff" of the four candidates and either him or Marshall have the best shot to breakout this year. Both are unlikely to do so, but the talent is there. He'll need a good defense behind him, particularly in the infield, as his splitter often gets pounded into the ground by opposing hitters. If his home run rates are anything like last September (7 in one month, he had only given up 11 in his Cubbie career before that), Lou will have a few more choice words for him than he did last year in Cincinnati.
2008 PECOTA PROJECTION: 4-4, 10 GS, 4.71 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 1.4 WARP
The last 20-game winner for the Cubs will most likely not be their next. Lieber signed a one year deal with the Cubs this offseason, and despite claims that he's competing for a job, a decent spring will almost assuredly give him a rotation spot. The portly right-hander with the self-indulgent monster truck, will try to bounce back from season ending ankle surgery.
Known as a quick worker with a vicious slider, age has started to take its toll (as has KFC). Lieber had seven straight seasons of an ERA above the league average, but has been below that line the last two years with Philadelphia. Hendry claimed they brought in Lieber because the NL Central featured a number of right-handed heavy lineups. Lieber's three year averages suggest that Hendry should bookmark ESPN.com. He certainly fares better versus righties with a line of 278/315/426 (714 OPS against) than he does versus lefties, which hit 310/366/465 (831 OPS against). But it's a far cry from his career numbers against righties of 243/271/369 (640 OPS against). It don't take rocket science to notice that he's been slipping.
He's been solid in his two spring starts so far, with 6 IP, a 3.00 ERA, 5 K's and his normally excellent control; zero walks. He'll get at least two more starts before Lou makes up his mind, but odds are in his favor that he'll start the season in the rotation.
2008 PECOTA PROJECTION: 8-8, 24 GS, 5.14 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 1.7 WARP
Many a Cub fan were upset to learn that Jason Marquis was signed to a three-year deal before the 2007 season. Marquis did his best to calm Cubs fans' fears with a solid first half of 3.67 ERA baseball. The second half wasn't as kind, not with a 5.73 ERA and a trip to Lou's bad side. Many were quick to point out that this was just the old Marquis, the one that couldn't make the World Series Cardinals post-season roster and earned him tickets out of Atlanta and St. Louis. While there's some truth to that, a scan of his gamelogs from last year show that Marquis still did some good in the second half. While the overall numbers are ugly, he seemed to sprinkle quite a few good starts between some completely disastrous starts. That may have left a bad taste in the mouth of Cubs fans, but it's exactly the pitcher that should have been expected. The one who takes the mound every five days and, in the end, will be league average. The type of pitcher that gets $7 to $10MM a year under baseball's current economics.
Marquis didn't do himself any favors this spring, with his over-the-top, "I also have a family to worry about" comments. The type of nonsense that made him no friends in the Cardinals or Braves organizations. But he's done his job during spring training with two starts, 5 IP, a 3.60 ERA and plenty of reliance on his defense. If everyone comes out of spring training healthy, he's a good bet to be the one moved to the bullpen or in the trade market. And although his deal is more than reasonable for a league-average starter that takes the mound every five days (a valuable asset); the baggage, the age, the back-loaded contract and the lack of upside will make him difficult to move without taking on someone with equal amounts of baggage, age, contract dollars and lack of upside.
2008 PECOTA PROJECTION: 7-6, 18 GS, 4.78 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 1.8 WARP
Two years ago, Sean Marshall was rushed to the majors with only 10 starts above Hi-A ball. Predictably, he got beaten up by major league hitters and ended 2006 with a 5.59 ERA (83 ERA+). He entered camp in 2007 with a sore shoulder that put him behind the rest of the starters, and began the year in Iowa. He quickly got back in the groove though, and by May 23rd got his first start with the big league club. His next 12 starts were masterful, his ERA ranging from a season-low 2.12 to no higher than 3.50. But August came around, and apparently the humidity got to Marshall. A disastrous month not only for his 6.18 ERA over six starts, but because the Cubs thought that Steve Trachsel would be an upgrade. While cutting his season short will probably do wonders to his long-term health, it also did wonders to Cubs fans' ulcers.
The Cubs said Marshall would get a fair shake in the competition, and he's performed just as well as the other three with a 3.38 ERA in 5.1 IP. The reality though is that Marshall still has two option years left and if there are no injuries or disastrous performances by the other three, he's the low-man on the totem pole. It might not be entirely fair, but after years of injuries to our starting staff, it's nice to have major league talent at the ready. And I don't think there's any guarantees that Marshall would outperform any of the other three.
Let's take one last look at our contestants career numbers:
There's really not a whole lot of difference there. Lieber has the best control, Dempster will strikeout the most, while keeping the ball in the park, Marshall is the youngest with the most upside and Marquis is the most reliable, health-wise. It's natural to want and hope that the 25-year old Marshall has better days ahead, but the peripherals strongly suggest that's he just the younger version of the other three pitchers. And while he would have certainly been cheaper, he's anything but a good bet to stay healthy. So I think the Cubs were wise to not rely upon him in the rotation, but rather use his relatively cheap contract and option years as insurance for the inevitable injury or ineffectiveness that is sure to hit the team at some point.
I also want to add that this article will do double duty as the preview for our bullpen battle. With five spots already set in Marmol, Howry, Wuertz, Wood and Eyre, that leaves only two spots left. Conveniently we could very well have two starters without a job. It's certainly no guarantee that the two "losers" will end up with the bullpen spots, but if no trades go down and everyone stays healthy, that's one very likely scenario. The other is that Sean Marshall is optioned to Iowa to stay stretched out for the rotation and his spot is taken by one of the half dozen bullpen candidates, with Kevin Hart probably being in the lead for that spot. My guess on our Opening Day pitching roster is:
STARTERS: Zambrano, Lilly, Dempster, Hill, Lieber
BULLPEN: Marquis, Hart, Wuertz, Eyre, Howry, Marmol, Wood
There's quite a bit of room for negotiation there. Marquis might get dealt. Hart might get replaced with a lefty, possibly Marshall, possibly Carmen Pignatiello or Neal Cotts. There's also the case of Tim Lahey, a Rule 5 draftee, who the Cubs will have to put through waivers if he doesn't stick with the 25-man roster. If he clears waivers, he'll be offered back to the Twins who might take him back or they might make the PTBNL in the Craig Monroe trade (that's an Arizona Phil theory and one I shouldn't have scoffed at earlier in the comments...silly me). Whatever happens, it's clear the Cubs have some depth in the rotation and the pen, let's hope we just have enough talent.
Next up: The Closers