Seven Men Enter, Two Men Leave: Assessing the Cubs’ Back-End Rotation Options
The Cubs looked at their rotation going into 2015 and they saw Jake Arrieta, Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood, Kyle Hendricks and a random fifth starter who may be Jacob Turner, Dan Straily or Felix Doubront. Excuse me while I take a flight to PNC Park, make my way to the Roberto Clemente Bridge, jump off and swim to safety, just to do it all over again.
Luckily for me, the Cubs shored up their rotation by adding Jon Lester and Jason Hammel, along with bringing back Tsuyoshi Wada, who I will get to later. Its a good thing, too, because the waters of the Allegheny River aren’t real nice this time of year.
Maybe I was being a bit dramatic about the Cubs’ potential rotation before the offseason began. However, now that needs are addressed–specifically the one, two, and three spots–I rest easy knowing the only question regarding the starters is who will man the back end? The Cubs have a pool of options to choose from, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Let’s dive in to the potential candidates who could fill in the remaining fourth and fifth starting rotation spots and make a case for each.
It makes me happy anytime I am able to bring up the July 4th trade between the Cubs and Athletics. Dan Straily was included in the package that brought in Addison Russell (the number-five overall prospect in baseball according to MLB.com), Billy McKinney, and what ended up being cash in exchange for Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija (ironically, they’re both back in Chicago now).
At 26 years old, Straily has MLB experience, having played in 48 games (42 starts) in three years of service. Straily had one strong year at the big league level in 2013 with Oakland, where he threw 152.1 innings and struck out 124. He made 12 quality starts, and managed a 3.92 ERA and a 4.05 FIP in 27 starts as the A’s fourth starter. He even started Game 4 of the ALDS against the Tigers and gave up three runs in six innings.
The following year Straily made seven starts at the major league level and 10 starts with Oakland’s minor league affiliate, more or less struggling in both situations. When the Cubs acquired the young right-handed pitcher, he was optioned to Iowa, where he made 10 starts accumulating a 4.09 ERA and a 1.436 WHIP. Straily made one start with the Cubs last year and got shelled, then was immediately optioned back to Iowa.
Straily features a fastball that sits at 90-92 mph and tops out at 95. He owns a swing-and-miss slider and often relies on a curveball early in the count to get ahead of hitters. He also boasts an above-average changeup that, along with the slider, acts as an out pitch.
Dan Straily has as much of a chance to land a rotation spot as any of the others out of Spring Training, but a more realistic scenario is that he lands at Triple-A to offer more rotation depth in Iowa.
Jacob Turner was a highly regarded prospect with the Tigers after he was drafted ninth overall in 2009. After three years in Detroit’s system, he was involved in a five-player trade that sent him, along with two others, to Miami for Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante.
At 22, Turner put together a nice 2013 season with the Marlins. In 20 starts the right-hander struck out 77 in 118 innings and finished with a 3.74 ERA, a 1.441 WHIP and a 4.43 FIP. Turner, along with Straily, saw many trips back and forth from the big league and minor league levels and found himself spending time in the minors in every year of his Major League career.
After appearing in 20 games (12 starts) with the Marlins in 2014, Miami decided to designate Turner for assignment to make room for none other than Brad Penny. Yes, the Marlins gave up on the once highly touted pitching prospect for the 36-year-old Penny. The Cubs jumped on this rather fortuitous opportunity and claimed him, sending over two low-level pitchers to complete the deal.
Early in Turner’s young career, scouts believed he could be a dominant, top-of-the-rotation-type arm. A lot of praise was put on the young righty, and for good reason, as a recent scouting report explains. The Cubs are all about taking on reclamation projects and Jacob Turner fits the mold well. Pitching coach Chris Bosio did a masterful job with Jake Arrieta and many believe Turner could still live up to his potential.
Turner struggled in 8 games (6 starts) with the Cubs after they acquired him, as he posted a 6.49 ERA in 34.2 innings. As Brett Taylor of Bleacher Nation notes, Jacob Turner is out of options and will likely make the 25-man roster out of Spring Training. The Cubs likely do not want to run the risk of sending him through waivers. So, a shot at the rotation is in the cards for the young talent, though he may start the season in the bullpen.
Felix Doubront is considered another reclamation project with a lot of upside the Cubs managed to take on. The 27-year-old left-handed pitcher is an Epstein guy, as he was signed by the Red Sox out of the amateur draft in 2005.
Doubront was brought in to be a strong left-handed piece for the Red Sox, but, unfortunately, was never able to put it together as a consistent rotation mainstay. He was able to stay in the big leagues in 2012 and 2013 as a starter, and in those two years he appeared in 58 games (56 starts), accumulating a 4.59 ERA with a 1.438 WHIP while striking out 306 and walking 142 over 323.1 innings.
In the four seasons prior to 2014, Doubront showed flashes of brilliance and the Red Sox were hoping he could finally put it all together last year. But again, a lack of consistency dogged him that season and he struggled out of the gate. The lefty also suffered from shoulder fatigue and was sent to the disabled list before eventually being moved to the bullpen when he got healthy again.
As a starter last year, Doubront went 2-4 with a 5.19 ERA in 10 starts and struggled even worse in relief duties, relinquishing 11 runs on 15 hits in just nine innings out of the ‘pen. Doubront voiced his frustrations with his demotion out of the rotation, which may have influenced the trade to the Cubs near last year’s deadline.
As I just mentioned, Felix Doubront believes he is a starter and he has the stuff to fill a rotation spot. He features four-seam and two-seam fastballs that range from 90-95 mph, along with a cutter, a curveball, and a changeup that is used a lot against right-handed hitters. On top of his impressive pitch repertoire is his deceptive delivery that results in hitters not being able to pick up the ball very quickly.
Maybe a change of scenery was just what this lefty needed as he approaches his prime years. Doubront is out of options, so the Cubs will likely make room for him on the opening-day 25-man roster. If he is able to put together a consistent string of outings in Spring Training, there will be a tough discussion among management as to whether he should start in the rotation or bullpen.
My guess is he will be used in the bullpen as a long reliever or late inning specialist.
Tsuyoshi Wada earned a two-year contract plus an option in 2012 with the Orioles after dominating the Japanese league the year before by throwing 184.2 innings and striking out 8.2 batters per nine innings. Unfortunately, Wada blew out his arm in his first year with Baltimore and followed up his next season with just over 100 innings for the O’s Triple-A affiliate without seeing time on the major league club. The Orioles decided to decline his option, making him a free agent following the 2013 season.
Enter Epstein and Company, who signed the veteran pitcher for the 2014 campaign with the idea that Wada could potentially get a rotation spot sometime later in the year. Well, after a good two and a half years in America, and nine years spent in Japan, Wada finally got his chance to pitch in the majors.
He looked sharp in 13 starts with the Cubs, posting a 3.25 ERA and a 1.240 WHIP while striking out 57 in just under 70 innings. In one, start he took a no-hitter into the 7th against his former Baltimore club at Wrigley (I was there!). Wada made the most of his opportunity as a starter last year and gave the Cubs no reason to remove him from the rotation. As a result, the Cubs and Wada agreed to a one-year extension worth $4 million.
Wada essentially throws three pitches: a mid-to-upper-80’s fastball, a slider, and a changeup to keep hitters off balanced. Absent overpowering velocity, the veteran lefty relies on command and movement; when that’s off, opposing batters make pretty good contact against the soon-to-be 34 year old. Last year he posted a career-best batting average against to opposing hitters at .249, along with a BAPIP (how often a ball in play goes for a hit) of .296.
As it looks now, Wada is the front-runner to win one of the two remaining rotation slots out of Spring Training.
You want to talk about impressive? This 25-year-old burst onto the scene in his rookie season with the Cubs, posting a 2.46 ERA in 13 starts. How did the Cubs land such a promising young pitcher, you ask? Well, in 2012 the Cubs were able to rob Rangers’ GM Jon Daniels of Hendricks and another talented player by the name of Christian Villanueva in exchange for Ryan Dempster.
Hendricks developed very well in the Cubs’ system and landed an opportunity with the big league club late in the 2014 season. He, like Wada, made the most of his opportunity. Of all his starts, the most runs Hendricks let up was four, and he did it only twice. As a rookie, Hendricks had more quality starts (eight) in 13 outings than Edwin Jackson did (seven) in 27.
The young righty is not one to blow hitters away, as evidenced by his modest 5.3 K/9 rate in 2014. But what stood out most was the fact that he walked only 15 batters in 80.1 innings, for an impressive BB/9 of just 1.7. His impressive command of the strike zone and movement of his pitches keep hitters guessing, as nearly half of his outs recorded were via the ground ball variety. Hendricks’ ground ball rate has a lot to do with his disappearing changeup that dips straight down out of the zone.
Baseball America put together a really nice scouting report on the Cubs’ valued arm. For my money, barring an ugly performance in Spring Training, Kyle Hendricks will fill in the remaining rotation spot next to Tsuyoshi Wada.
And now for the ugly part…
I wrote an earlier piece for Cubs Insider voicing my frustrations with the 31-year-old journeyman. At this point, the Cubs know he was a bad signing. With $26 million still owed, he puts them in a rather difficult spot because of his lack of production and dissipating value.
Do they want to give him another shot at the rotation? Even if that happens, his past two years of failure may be enough for the Cubs to look in another direction–I mean, there are several candidates just mentioned that may be better options. It will take a lot for Jackson to impress the Cubs’ staff, and at this point the only possible scenarios are a bullpen position, a trade, or just to straight-up cut him and eat the money.
The Cubs will do what they can to get the most out Jackson and that may be in the bullpen. At the very least, he could rebuild whatever value he has left as a power arm or long relief man. For what it’s worth, his strikeout rate has remained around his career average of seven per nine innings for the better part of his tenure in the majors.
Obviously, trading him would be the best option in this case, but the Cubs would likely have to eat the majority, if not all, of the remaining money. Maybe a reunion with Joe Maddon will do him good, but at this point E-Jax looks like a lost cause.
Last, and maybe least, Travis Wood is eyeing a bounce-back season with the Cubs, as I previously wrote about. His best season came in 2013, when he was the Cubs’ lone All-Star, and boy, was he fantastic.
That season is what the Cubs are banking on to be the model for what Travis Wood can be, but it may have been an anomaly in his career. He battled inconsistency a lot last season, as his ERA bounced up and down from month to month. For the most part, Wood’s 2014 was a disappointing campaign and one he would like to forget.
It certainly wouldn’t be terrible to have Wood as the Cubs’ fifth starter if he manages to channel his 2013 version. Otherwise, the combination of a high walk rate, elevated batting average against, and 5.03 ERA is not going to cut it.
Like Doubront, Wood would be a nice fit in the bullpen to fill what the Cubs are lacking in left-handed relief. However, Wood has been a starter throughout his career and I’m not too sure how well he would handle the transition to the bullpen. Reports indicate that the Cubs are at least listening to offers for the soon-to-be 28-year-old, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he was traded by Opening Night.
Seven men enter, two men leave. Who do you think wins the final two rotation spots in the Cubs rotation out of Spring Training?