One battles that has gone unnoticed in the grand scheme of position battles in the Cubs’ camp during Spring Training has been the battle between starting pitchers Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster for the honor of being the opening day starter. Manager Dale Sveum admitted to reporters this past weekend that he intends to name the Opening Day starter at some point this week. But the question has to be asked. Other than being the first pitcher to take the mound for the Cubs’ in the 2012 season, does the “Opening Day Starter” label have any added meaning to it?
There is meaning to the being an Opening Day starter, but it could be viewed differently from the team and player perspective. From the team’s standpoint, the Opening Day starter is expected to be the ace of the starting rotation. Lets take a look at the starting pitchers the Cubs have labeled as Opening Day starters in the past decade. Jon Lieber was the Cubs Opening Day starter from 2000 to 2002, Kerry Wood in 2003 and 2004, Carlos Zambrano from 2005 to 20010, and Ryan Dempster in 2011. For the most part, the Cubs have gone with their best starting pitcher as their Opening Day starter. Though some could question whether or not Zambrano was deserving of some of his Opening Day starts.
The only year where the Cubs really had a competition for the Opening Day starting pitcher prior to this Spring may have been last season. Before Dempster got the nod from former manager Mike Quade, the veteran starting pitcher was in competition with Zambrano and Garza for the honor. Quade opted to go with Dempster, not necessarily for his Spring performance, but because of the idea that Dempster deserved the spot because of his loyalty to the Cubs’ organization.
It remains to be seen whether or not Sveum’s decision will be based upon Spring performance or other underlying factors. If the decision is based from Spring peformances, then Dempster likely holds the edge over Garza. Dempster has allowed 4 runs on 12 hits in 8.2 innings pitched this Spring while Garza has allowed 8 runs on 9 hits in 7.1 innings pitched.
But similar to the Cubs’ organization as a whole converting from old to young, this season figures to be the season that the 27 year old Garza takes the next step and becomes the true ace that the Cubs expected him to be when former general manager Jim Hendry traded for the starting pitcher last season. There is no question that Garza has the potential to be a vocal leader in the clubhouse, and it would seem that the starting pitcher is destined to be a leader on the field as well.
Of course, whenever Matt Garza’s name is mentioned, one can not go too long before mentioning the trade rumors that have circled around Garza for most of this off-season. The rumors have since died down, and it would appear the Cubs are working on a long-term extension with the pitcher. But until that extension is signed by Garza, there will always be speculation going around that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are taking in offers for the starting pitcher. The reason the Cubs would be listening to offers for Garza is because that would accelerate the process of the turning around farm system if the team were to acquire two or three top prospects.
The Cubs’ asking price for Garza would suggest that the front office believes Garza is the team’s best starting pitcher. As I have already said, typically the team’s best starting pitcher is also the team’s Opening Day starter. If the Cubs are going to confirm their own belief that Garza is the best starting pitcher on the team, then the 27 year old should be named the team’s starting pitcher for Opening Day.