Baseball preseason is winding down and the 2007 Cubs will start the season with a combination of new faces and old faces on the pitching staff. Carlos Zambrano will be the ace of the five-man starter staff, once again. How much longer he remains the ace could be a problem, as Cubs GM, Hendry, had still not worked out a long-term contract for Zambrano (one of the best pitchers in baseball) as of this writing. Zambrano is on record as wanting a new contract before the start of the season on Monday.
Listed as the number two starting pitcher on the Staff is newcomer free-agent acquisition Ted Lilly. Lilly is a soft tossing left-handed fly-ball prone pitcher who has career wise, traditionally given up a lot of walks and homeruns during the season. And he will be pitching in a division that hits a lot of homeruns and with most of the division’s ballparks designed to make homeruns easy. In my opinion, Lilly as the #2 pitcher does not bode well for this 2007 team. The Cubs face a lot of power hitting teams within their division that score a lot of runs. But the Cubs plunked down major cash to sign this guy in the off-season and he is here to stay. Still I would consider him at best a # 4 pitcher not the #2 pitcher he has been elevated to. I hope he proves me completely out of whack but I will not hold my breath waiting for that proof when he faces the Cardinals, Reds and Astros.
New manager, Lou Piniella (I am not going to start bitching this early about what I think of his signing), wanting to keep right-left-right-left starting pitcher rotation has penned another off-season free agent pickup Jason Marquis as the #3 pitcher. I am trying to understand this move. Marquis is a St. Louis Cardinal castoff. In my observations over the seasons the Cardinals have often been very good at evaluating pitchers. And the Cardinals traditionally score a lot of runs thus a pitchers propensity to give up scores of runs is not as worrisome for them as it is for most teams. Last season the Cardinals cut him from the playoff squad for poor performance. And during the off-season they were not gangbusters about resigning him. That makes his real value a reason to be a concern in my view. Marquis is going to give up a lot of runs over the course of a year. But in baseball theory, he is an innings eater. He will go out, give up runs yet usually keep you in the ballgame for six or seven innings. That is something the Cubs have had problems with since the Kerry Wood and Mark Prior injuries reduced the innings consumption of the starting staff the last few years. No one has ever stepped forward other than Zambrano as a consistent quality innings eater. The only reasons I can seem him elevated to a #3 pitcher in the rotation is the right-left rotation theory (which I think is a load of bull puckey) or the worry they may need a sacrificial lamb in the middle of the rotation; that can eat up a lot of innings to save the bullpen strength, by him pitching in the #3 position and hoping the bats will carry him to victory.
The #4 pitcher, Rich Hill, might be better than the guys pitching #2 & #3. He has been a potential star pitcher for the Cubs that has spent a long time in the minor leagues. Like Lilly, he is another soft tossing lefty who cannot afford to give up walks or hits at the start of an inning. That has been his destruction for several years. He has a tremendous curveball that is an awesome strikeout pitch. He has dominated minor league hitters for years with his knee buckling curveball. But every time he has been called up to the major he struggles and gets in trouble when his curveball is not working. One of his biggest problems is that his fastball is not good enough to get him out of trouble with the good hitters he has had to face at the major league level. His control and pitches “have to be working” and in the strikezone enough to force hitters to chase his curveball, which is his best outpitch and that often falls out of the strikezone towards the end of its arc. Last year he was called up when the Cubs pitching woes turned into an all out disaster and performed very well. If the Rich Hill that pitched the last half of the 2006 season shows up on the baseball field instead of the old Rich Hill, I would guess by the end of the season he will have been moved up possibly as high as the #2 slot in the rotation.
There was stiff competition for the final and #5 spot on the starters rotation. In the end former Astro pitching star Wade Miller won the position. The Cubs signed him after he injured himself and they have been nursing him back to health the last couple of years. That seems to be a Hendry specialty, to pick up injured pitchers and rebuild and reclaim their service for a much smaller fee than a typical free agent. Sometimes it looks good other times it does not seem to work out. I am hoping that he pitches well enough to pick up the slack I feel Marquis will create with his outings. (As you can probably tell I am not a Marquis fan or excited about him on this Cubs team.)
I am not going to go in depth about my thoughts on the bullpen. I thought it was the strongpoint of the 2006 team especially when you consider how overworked it was. Left-handed Scott Eyre and right-handed Bobby Howry will return as the hold guys attempting to get the game into the hands of closer Ryan Dempster. Eyre and Howry were studs when called into the games last year and I hope for a repeat performance. Dempster like all the Cubs’ pitchers last year struggled with control issues and got into trouble a lot. Supposedly Piniella has been pushing throwing strikes with the whole pitching staff; let us hope we see a change for the better. Dempster has the stuff and the attitude but he needs to execute well. Also returning will be veteran pitchers RH Michael Wuertz and LH Will Ohman who will also see considerable time as short relievers. Both have good stuff and have previously proven they can pitch well but those are often mixed in with a considerable amount of lackluster performances. The newcomers in the pen are RH Angel Guzman and LH Neal Cotts. They will be used in long relief. Guzman has been on the most highly praised Cubs’ starting pitcher prospects for the last several years. But, like Rich Hill, he has never been able to make the final jump to the big league level when given the chance. This will be his best chance to prove he belongs. Cotts is a veteran the team traded for from the cross-town rivals, the Black Sox . I am not sold on this acquisition either. Cotts has spent four years on the Black Sux (Another recurring intentional misnomer, could it be pangs of WS jealousy?) team and has one good year, 2005. The rest are not that great. I think the team gave away a future pitching stud in David Aardsama to get this guy. He better perform or I am going to whine like there is no tomorrow. (Not that Cubs’ ownership would even give ten cents to know about my whining!)
The biggest wildcards in the pack will be often injured superstars Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. Prior will once again start the season rehabbing this time in AAA Des Moines. It has been said that genetic body design plays a part in both his pitching success and often-injured status. He will probably have some tough decisions to make about his future in baseball. If he comes through and gets his act together someone in the starting rotation becomes expendable or Prior becomes trade bait. It will be hard to determine which until the season is well under way. Wood is experiencing muscle fatigue from his rehabbing and will start out on the DL; but once back he will be moved to the bullpen and could make a strong bullpen look even tougher. He has previously pitched in relief and when his shoulder is not bothering him he has the right-stuff to overpower any hitter in the league. Also waiting for a chance is Roberto Novoa who has been up and down between the majors and AAA. His fastball tops out near a hundred mph but he has control issues. (Can you say Kyle Farnsworth clone.) Also another kid who looked good in spring training was unheralded Rocky Cherry. (Got to love that name!) They do have pitching options if needed. However I have noticed that for some strange reason pitchers that can never seem to make it to the Cubs major league level often go elsewhere and have success. Bad management can be the only real answer for that.
In summary the bullpen should offer another strong performance this year. But the judge and jury are still out on the pitching staff starting rotation. A lot of “ifs” are in the pitching mix. They are going to need every run on offense they can manufacture unless the starting staff (especially Lilly, Marquis and Hill) really steps up and scuffs the shine off the old baseball. Perhaps it is time for the staff to be taught that George Frazier Sneaky-Slurpy-Super-Slider. (Hopefully with better results than his.)
Opening day: Mon., April 2, 1:10 p.m. CT
TV: WGN, ESPN2 / Radio: WGN- AM 720