Matt Garza tossed six innings of shutout ball Thursday in a rehab start for AAA Iowa. He only allowed two hits with no walks while striking out six to pick up the W. Prior to the start, Garza was quoted as being undecided regarding the status of his return to the Majors. After the dominate outing, it appears the former Cubs staff ace is ready to go. “I don’t need another start down here,” Garza told the Chicago Tribune. “There’s no reason for me to stay in the minor leagues,” he continued. Assuming there are no ill effects with the lat muscle today or Saturday as a result of his efforts on Thursday night, Garza should be in line to return to the Cubs for his 2013 debut as early as Tuesday the 21st.
Manager Dale Sveum has been peppered with questions regarding the rotation for when Garza returns for the last couple of weeks now. At the time, with Garza’s return date still not set in stone, all Sveum could say was that it would work itself out when the time came. As boring an answer as that may have been for the media and fans, it was the plain truth. The rotation as a whole has gotten off to a great start and there was no point in messing with the positive mentality by prematurely starting to publically name the candidate or candidates that would be at risk of being bumped in favor of Garza. Even after the positive rehab outing for Garza, it would be in the best interest of the team for Sveum to hold off on a public confirmation until the day Garza is actually reinstated from the disabled list.
In the mean time, the few days leading up to Garza’s return may be a good time to seriously consider whether or not to go with a six man rotation. As mentioned above, the Cubs rotation as a whole has been a bright spot for a team that has been struggling to even be within sniffing distance of .500. Cubs starters have floated at the top of MLB all season long in terms of staff ERA. Through 40 games they have posted a 3.55 ERA, currently good for fifth behind playoff contenders St. Louis, Washington, and Cincinnati. The rotation has eaten up 248 2/3 innings, which comes out to six plus innings per start and good for sixth place in MLB. The Cubs, who have always racked up solid strikeout totals going back to the days of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, are also in the top 10 in strikeouts despite only Jeff Samardzija really being considered a power pitcher. The 89 walks issued is really the only ugly stat for this rotation, but they have combated that by having the stingiest batting average against in all of baseball at .225. Take out the rare stinkers tossed by Carlos Villaneuva and Samardzija in the past week and it gets that much more impressive.
So the consideration of going to a six man rotation needs to be a serious one, even if it is not a long term solution for the rest of the 2013 season. While not the norm in Major League baseball, six man rotations have been tinkered with in recent years and Sveum could use it himself to buy more time to sort out the rotation. Each pitcher currently on the starting staff has their case for staying in the rotation. Samardzija is the staff ace and has pitched like it despite his 2-5 record. With the Cubs front office trying to sign the former college football wide receiver to a long term extension a la Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, there is no question that The Shark will keep his spot.
Edwin Jackson has been the worst starter of the bunch so far this season, sporting a 6.02 ERA and having already issued 20 walks in just 43 1/3 innings of work. He is on pace to allow 78 free passes for the season, which is in line with his walk totals from 2007 to 2010 and will blow by the career low of 58 issued last year with the Nationals. Speaking of which, Jackson finally picked up his first Cubs win in Washington last weekend and provides hope for the weak argument that follows to keep in the rotation. That reason is the fact that Jackson just signed a $52 million four year deal to be a Cub this past off season and there is no way this team is going to pay $13 million to use Jackson as a long relief man out of the pen. While this goes against the performance based industry approach of Sveum that was mentioned when he called out Castro and Rizzo earlier in the year, it is the unfair truth. This issue alone is good reason for the six man rotation to into effect. As mentioned earlier, it buys more time to make the long term decision for 2013.
Travis Wood has been a new man this year. He already sports a 4-2 record when his career high in wins is six and he has started 2013 with eight straight quality starts. If you think his 2.03 ERA is sparkling, try looking at his sub 1.000 WHIP of .919. That WHIP is actually skewed negatively from his 17 walks issued, meaning it would be even better (if you could imagine that) if the lefty can just start cutting down on the walks (he has averaged two a game). The walk total and career history, no matter how short, leave some doubt as to whether Wood can keep this up for a full season, but now is certainly not the time to be messing with him by sending him to the pen.
If Garza had returned by late April, there would be no conversation of a six man rotation what so ever. That would be because Scott Feldman would have been the no hesitation answer as the odd man out prior to April 26th. But after sitting out 10 days to rest a less than 100% back, the righty showed signs of improvement before picking up his first win as a Cub against the Marlins. For the people that were doubting his efforts and chalking the win up to how bad the Marlins were, Feldman proceeded to pick up a complete game win one start later against the Padres. Still not good enough? Feldman blanked his former Rangers, one of the best teams in baseball, on May 6th through seven innings of work. Only a hand cramp and his pitch count prevented an attempt for back to back complete games. He then practically matched phenom Stephen Strasburg tit for tat on Mother’s Day despite the no decision. Feldman would be a candidate as the odd man out because he does have experience as a reliever, but he is the current hot hand that you do not mess with.
That leaves Carlos Villanueva as the starter yet to be spoken about. If the Cubs do not opt the six man shooter approach, he will be the most likely candidate to make way for Garza. Villanueva signed with the Cubs despite seeing the additions of Scott Baker, Feldman, and Jackson, so he certainly knew that he was facing an uphill battle for a spot in the rotation. Like Feldman, he also has experience throwing from out of the bullpen, which adds to argument of making Villanueva the odd man out. The mustached righty also did not help his cause by tossing his worst game by far of the season in his last outing against the Rockies. While he deserves credit for grinding out five innings, he allowed 12 hits and 7 earned runs against a Colorado offense that had come into Wrigley struggling. He has also looked more human in two of his three starts before the game against the Rockies, despite starting the season with four quality starts.
The six man approach really benefits Villanueva the most and would give the Cubs time to determine if the former Blue Jay can show that the start against the Rockies was just a blip on the radar. The purpose of this consideration is not to reinvent the wheel. Instead, it is to maximize the attractiveness of their assets come July. To be specific, the Cubs front office will want to maximize the trade value of arms like Feldman, Garza, Villanueva, and maybe even Jackson or Wood. To do that, these guys need to be utilized as starting pitchers. The six man approach also can help limit the innings on Samardzija’s young arm. Chicago shut down their budding ace late last season with the long term picture in mind and shaving off a couple starts in 2013 as a result of the extended rotation would be a nice by product of the whole exercise.
As well as Feldman has pitched, he is only on a one year deal. As a result, he is not necessarily in the long term plans of the Cubs and would be a prime trade candidate. While the same could be said about Wood, the fact that the lefty is under team control through 2017 makes the bearded one a candidate to be in the long term plans of the Cubs if his 2013 efforts so far are a sign that he has indeed turned the corner. Garza’s window to confirm his health and redevelop trade value is short as it is, so the Cubs might as well use the six man approach to decrease the odds of another injury set back while still being able to show other teams what Garza has got. All of these positive arguments outweigh the typical excuses against a six pitcher rotation, with the main one being that pitchers and baseball players as a whole are creatures of habit that would be all thrown out of whack by not taking the ball every fifth day.
Again, this is not meant to be a long term solution, but rather a short term out of the box approach to address the pleasant surplus of healthy and productive starting arms. That has been something of a rarity for Cubs fans to witness after a decade of dealing with injuries to Wood, Prior, Matt Clement, and even Carlos Zambrano, resulting weak rotation depth.