Perhaps the most interesting position battle for the Chicago Cubs this spring will be the fight for the fifth starter spot.
Barring injury, Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks are all guaranteed spots in the starting rotation on Opening Day. Hendricks, who had a 2.46 ERA in 13 starts as a rookie last season, had been rumored to be competing for a spot, but Joe Maddon named these four as starters already. So with Hendricks in, just one spot to go.
There are four key contenders who will battle it out for the last spot in the Cubs’ rotation in Spring Training. Travis Wood is probably the favorite, but after he had a very disappointing 2014 season, Edwin Jackson (because of his contract), Jacob Turner (because of his upside) and Tsuyoshi Wada (because of his impressive 2014 season), are also very much in the conversation.
Felix Doubront, Dallas Beeler and Eric Jokisch are all technically in the competition as well, but it would be a massive surprise if any of these guys actually landed an Opening Day gig in the starting rotation.
With so many contenders, and only one spot in the rotation up for grabs, it is likely that some of these guys end up being bullpen options for the Cubs. Wada in particular seems like an intriguing bullpen option who could have a lot of success in a bit of a swing role.
Wada is a 34-year-old left-handed pitcher who was a dominant performer in Japan for a long time. He came state-side before the 2012 season when he signed a two-year contract with the Baltimore Orioles. Wada never threw a pitch in the big leagues with Baltimore after under-going Tommy John surgery in 2012.
The Cubs took a chance on Wada late last off-season on a minor league deal. He did not make his major league debut until the Cubs called him up to start a game in a doubleheader on July 8th. In his big league debut against the Cincinnati Reds, Wada pitched five innings, and only allowed one unearned run.
He was a part of the Cubs’ rotation for a majority of the season, finishing with 13 starts. He ended the year with a 4-4 record and a 3.25 ERA, while striking out 57 batters and walking 19 in 69.1 innings of work. The Cubs re-signed Wada to a one-year, $4 million contract this off-season.
While the bullpen as a whole is very strong, their best relief arms are right-handed. The Cubs do not have any proven left-handed bullpen options. Zac Rosscup, Joe Ortiz and Drake Britton will likely battle it out to be the lefty specialist in the Cubs’ pen.
Simply being left-handed would make Wada more valuable to the Cubs than some others as the long-man in the bullpen. Rosscup, Ortiz and Britton are all very unproven pitchers, and it would be great for the Cubs to have another left-handed pitcher available out of the bullpen.
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As a starting pitcher last season, Wada seemed to do much better the first time through the order. He is a soft-tossing lefty who relies heavily on deception in his delivery. It seemed that once a batter saw Wada a couple of times in a game, he would get a much better read on him.
Brett Taylor of Bleacher Nation shows that the numbers back this up. According to Taylor, “The first time through the order, Wada held batters to a .528 OPS last year. Second time through? .690. Third time through? 1.249.”
Now, those numbers are staggering. As Taylor mentions, small sample size needs to be considered, but opposing batters clearly had much more success against Wada after seeing him a couple of times. However, early in his starts, the deceptive delivery appeared to work very well as Wada baffled his opponents.
As he would be likely to only face an individual hitter once per game, Wada could be a dangerous weapon out of the bullpen for the Cubs in 2015.
Wada’s success as a starter last season makes him an obvious candidate to be the Cubs’ fifth starter. But with so much competition for that spot, it is far from a guarantee that he will land the job. Of all of the candidates, Wada appears to be best suited for a bullpen transition, making him very valuable, and extremely likely to be on the Opening Day roster one way or another.