Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer drew skeptical reactions over the offseason when they publicly mentioned that the 2014 Cubs would have a chance to contend in the NL Central. It does not take a rocket scientist to conclude that the North Siders will need to make significant strides in all aspects of the game if they are to even come close to backing up those comments. It is well known that any thoughts of success has to begin with quality and productive pitching.
With Carlos Villanueva freshly being named the fifth starter, the Cubs rotation to start the season is set. As a unit, the starting staff will need to vastly improve their win loss records if the 2014 Cubs are serious about distancing themselves from the previous two 90 plus losing seasons. None of the starting pitchers that played the full season featured a record of .500 or above. This is mainly due to the fact that a pair of the productive arms in Scott Feldman and Matt Garza, were actually dealt away thanks to their productivity. But the ace of the staff (Jeff Samardzija) and the highest paid free agent starting pitching acquisition both failed to crack .500 as well as double digit win totals.
The silver lining is that the starting staff really has no where to go up. Below is a rundown of the rotation and what level of production will need to be seen for the Cubs to a) improve on 2013 and b) be considered an honest contender.
Shark was an ace by rotation order in 2013. The majority of the news surrounding Samardzija this offseason was the contract extension stalemate and resulting trade rumors. The former Notre Dame wide receiver may want to focus more on achieving his first double digit win season before turning his attention to a multimillion dollar annual salary, regardless of which team will end up being the one to issue the paychecks. Control issues were noted for Samardzija in 2013, as evidenced by increases in his walks (78) and hit batters (8) totals and the fact that he tended to have one bad inning end up costing him the game. The good news is that the strikeout rate remains consistent and even a slight improvement control displayed would easily see Samardzija getting into the 10-12 victory range with this Cubs team.
For the North Siders to achieve true contending status, Samardzija will really have to grow into the true definition of a staff ace. Coming from a legendary college football program, he certainly has the experience and characteristics to be a leader. There are no noted issues with him the clubhouse either. So it will be a matter of leading by example for him to really develop into a true ace. This means at least a 15-win season out of righty while going up against the top of the rotations of the opposing teams and also being the guy to snap losing streaks. Such success would be reflected in improved WHIP and ERA numbers, 1.348 and 4.34 respectively in 2013. Specifically, we are going to want to see these figures drop closer to the 1.100 and 3.00 marks.
An interesting choice as the number two starter for two reasons. Cubs fans have not quite forgotten already that last year’s biggest free agent splash tallied 18 losses. The other is that both the pitcher and new manager Rick Renteria seemed to start off on the wrong foot this spring when contradicting quotes were made in regards to Jackson strictly throwing fastballs in his first Cactus League outing. Regardless, with such an ugly loss total in 2013, the bar is set pretty low in terms of measuring improvement in 2014. The $46 million dollar signing actually had a track record of double digit win totals five seasons in a row before the disaster in 2013. Seeing Jackson join Samardzija in the 10-12 wins range would be a solid bounceback effort, something that is well within his capabilities, as he featured a 70-71 career record prior to his first season as a Cub.
Jackson earned 14 and 13 wins respectively in 2008 and 2009 for playoff contending teams. He will have to replicate that feat for the Cubs to contend in 2014, doing so against the top of the rotation starters on the opposing teams. He does not feature consistent quality WHIP and other statistical measurements within his successful seasons, which suggests that Jackson will need a fair share of help from his defense and the Cubs’ still-developing offense to overachieve in the win column.
3) Jason Hammel
The latest Epstein and Hoyer injury bounceback project has earned the third spot in manager Renteria’s rotation. As with any player coming off health issues, Hammel’s success will depend on his ability to avoid the disabled list. While the former Oriole obviously does not have 2013 Cubs numbers to compare off of, the right-hander will automatically be judged as the 2014 version of Feldman. A reasonable expectation out of the Cubs third starter would be at least 10 wins, something Hammel achieved twice in the thin air of Denver for the Rockies a few years ago.
A healthy and successful Hammel merely remaining on the Cubs past July would be a signal that the North Siders are in fact contending.
4) Travis Wood
The 2013 All Star and one of the few bright spots from last year’s campaign interestingly finds himself penciled in as the fourth starter under Renteria. After a breakout season that saw career highs in innings pitched (200 even) and strikeouts (144) to go with his career best 3.11 ERA, the Cubs will be seeking more of the same out of the lone lefty in their rotation for 2014. While some of the deeper statistical analysis predicts Wood’s productivity to regress back toward his career averages, a successful season from Wood means proving 2013 was no fluke. The southpaw will also look to join Samardzija and Jackson in the 10-12 win club.
A contending Cubs team would see the former Reds second round selection matching or even besting his 2013 output. Wood could have registered 15 wins last year just on better run support alone. As a result the lefty could contend for the team lead in victories this season while cementing the notion that he may have turned the corner on his career.
The veteran swing man is a tricky case to project. Just as he did last season, the righty breaks camp as the final arm in the rotation, but it remains to be seen just how long number 33 holds that role down. As we saw in 2013, his rotation job security does not depend on his performance alone. Villanueva was actually the better performing of the two pitchers between him and Feldman in April before accepting a move to the pen in mid May. Should he stick as a starter, his goal as the fifth man in the rotation would be a record hovering around .500. Despite the inability to overpower opposing hitters, Villanueva has enough control and mix of pitches that can find him success against the back of the rotation starters coming out of the opposite dugout.
The Cubs would benefit from keeping Villanueva in the rotation. The former Blue Jay is in the contract year of the deal he signed in 2013 and like Hammel could follow the footsteps of Feldman in 2013 as a trading chip should the North Siders fall out of contention by the end of June.
Unlike Hammel, remaining a Cub past July does not necessarily mean the team is within grasp of a playoff spot. However a contending Chicago club would like to see Villanueva shooting for 10 wins while keeping the likes of Chris Rusin and Jake Arrieta out of the rotation. In other words Villanueva would be the known veteran quantity over the still uncertain arms of Rusin and Arrieta while in the midst of a playoff race.
While playoff contention is a bit of a stretch at this point, as evidenced by the 60 to 1 odds I got in Vegas when placing a $5 bet for the Cubs to win the 2014 NL Central title, what Cubs fans will want to keep an eye on is an improvement by the rotation as a whole. This year’s ballclub will certainly fall somewhere between being short of a true contender and taking a noticeable step in the right direction of distancing themselves from two terrible campaigns in 2012 and 2013.