Search This Blog

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Surprisingly Good Cubs Rotation

In 2007, a Notre Dame receiver, a receiver who was considered the best college wide out behind Calvin Johnson, decided he wasn't going to play football anymore. He decided he was going to play baseball. After college, he signed a five year deal with the Chicago Cubs. For the first four years of that five year deal, this former wide out was just a relief pitcher. Not even a closer, just a reliever. It looked like the decision not to play football was a bad one- especially considering how much Calvin Johnson was tearing up the NFL and how much money he was making. In 2012, this reliever was converted into a starting pitcher. Over the next two years, this pitcher had a 4.11 ERA throughout 61 starts. However, he did boast an impressive K/9, striking out a little over a batter an inning. This year, this pitcher is one of the best in the game. He has a 2.35 ERA, an 8.5 K/9, and is the ace of the Chicago Cubs rotation. As you have probably already guessed by now, this man is Jeff Samardzija.

Despite the Cubs having a dreadful 32-43 record, their rotation is pretty darn good. The pitchers behind Samardzija are Travis Wood, Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, and Edwin Jackson. The Chicago Cubs have the 8th best ERA in the National League, the 4th best FIP, the 3rd most strikeouts, second best batting average against, and the second best WAR. The reason for the Cubs' record is because all their hitting is currently in the minors, and their bullpen is terrible. However, their starting rotation? Not half bad. The best part is that the rotation is dirt cheap.

On June 24, 2014, Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta took a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the Cincinnati Reds. While Arrieta would give up a single to Billy Hamilton in the 7th, Arrieta had an impressive day. Through seven innings, Arrieta struck out nine batters without walking anybody while only giving up two earned runs off of three hits. It was an impressive day within an impressive season. Arrieta has a 2.05 ERA, a 2.09 FIP, and K/9 over 10.00. He's not giving up homers and his BABIP is just a tick over .300. That means Arrieta is not this dominant because of luck, he's this awesome because he's a great pitcher.

Arrieta was a top prospect in the Baltimore Orioles system, ranked as high as their 4th best prospect back in 2009 by Baseball America. In 2010, the Orioles brought up Arrieta into the majors with poor to disastrous results. In 18 games in 2010, Arrieta had a 4.66 ERA. Throughout 22 starts in 2011, Arrieta posted an even worse 5.05 ERA and a 6.20 ERA throughout 18 starts (and 24 total games) in 2012. The Jake Arrieta Experiment was clearly failing in Baltimore. In 2013, the Orioles traded away Jake Arrieta and RP Pedro Strop to the Chicago Cubs for Scott Feldman. Feldman was just a gap filler in the Cubs rotation because the North Siders needed SOMEONE to start. Feldman was only on a one-year contract, but ended up pitching so well, the Orioles thought he was the missing piece for their playoff push that year. Scott Feldman is currently on the Houston Astros while Arrieta isn't even arbitration eligible until 2015, and won't be a free agent until 2018. The Cubs turned a cheap rotation filler into a potential long term rotation guy in Jake Arrieta.

Another pitcher the Chicago Cubs acquired from the Baltimore Orioles organization was Jason Hammel. While Hammel technically got his start with the Tampa Bay Rays, the reason he's currently a starter is because of the Colorado Rockies. From 2009-2011, Hammel averaged 29 starts a year for the Rockies, where he never had an ERA under 4.33. Luckily, Hammel was traded to the Baltimore Orioles and saw a vast improvement in his numbers. Who knew not playing your home games at Coors Field could be so good to you? In 2012, Hammel posted a 3.43 ERA to go along with his 3.29 FIP. Hammel even had his best K/9 of his career striking out a little less than a batter per inning (8.62 K/9). In fact, Hammel was so good, the Orioles named him their Opening Day starter in 2013.

After leaving the Orioles, Hammel signed a one year, 6 million dollar deal with the Chicago Cubs. Throughout 15 starts this year, Hammel has 2.99 ERA, a 3.06 FIP, and a 8.50 K/9. It seems as if the Cubs are shopping Hammel the same way they shopped Feldman, and it wouldn't surprise me if they end up with a pitcher just as good as Jake Arrieta is now.

The last piece of this rotation puzzle is Travis Wood. I know there's technically Edwin Jackson, but he's the Cubs 5th pitcher, and all teams' 5th pitcher is bad. Plus, Jackson's peripherals say he's getting SUPER unlucky this year. Anyways, back to Wood. Before the 2012 season, the Cincinnati Reds traded away Travis Wood to their division rival for essentially reliever Sean Marshall. The Reds already had a crowded rotation with Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, and Homer Bailey with Bronson Arroyo and Mike Leake as gap fillers and fire-baller Tony Cingrani in the minors. Plus, the lowest ERA Wood ever posted on the Reds was 3.51 back in 2010.

During his debut season for the Chicago Cubs in 2013, Wood posted a 3.11 ERA with a 3.89 FIP. While Travis Wood currently holds a 4.55 ERA in 2014, his game log tells a different story. In 11 out of his 15 starts this year, Travis Wood has given up 3 runs or less. Now when Travis Wood is bad, he's disastrously awful and can give up 7 or 8 earned runs in two innings, but considering the actual game of baseball is not like your rotisserie fantasy baseball league, the good starts Wood gives the Cubs by far and away outweighs the bad.

Even better for the Cubs, Travis Wood first became arbitration eligible in 2014 where he earns a whopping 3.9 millions dollars and won't become a free agent until 2017. Another positive for the Cubs is that they only had to give up a reliever to acquire him. Not only are starting pitchers infinitely more valuable than relievers, good starting pitchers are much harder to find than good relievers.

As good as the Cubs rotation looks at the end of June in 2014, it most certainly won't look that way in September of 2014 and will look drastically different come Opening Day in 2015. Jeff Samardzija is most certainly going to get traded sooner rather than later for some prospects, and there's a good chance Jason Hammel gets traded to a contender by the end of the trading deadline as well. Plus, the Cubs line up is pretty dreadful, as the organization is just waiting for their top prospects to become stars and superstars within the next three years. That means this cheap yet surprisingly good rotation seems to be going to waste. However, there is one positive that Cubs fans can look forward to. If the North Siders are this good at creating a rotation when the team is terrible, imagine how good it's going to look when the team is starting to contend again.