The biggest question mark for the Chicago Cubs going into the 2010 season is the focus for today. If you were to look over his statistics since he was signed back before the 2007 season, many of you might be wondering how I could possibly be calling Ted Lilly the biggest question mark for the Cubs this year. You could argue that he has not only been the most consistent starting pitcher the Cubs have had these past three years, but also the most reliable. So how could this even be a considerable topic for a pitcher who has proven his worth time and time again, year in and year out? The easy answer to the questions of why and how, is based solely on his injured shoulder and how he performs when he returns to the rotation. If Lilly did not need to undergo surgery to fix his injured shoulder, then this wouldn’t even be an issue. Unfortunately for the Cubs, this is all too real of a concern.
No Cubs pitcher has collected more wins over the past three years than Lilly, so losing him for any amount of time is going to hurt the club; even if he only misses tow or three starts at the beginning of the year. That, however, is another issue all together with Lilly. At the moment, there is no clear cut date on when he will make his triumphant return to the starting rotation, and the date has been changed more often than a Chicago White Sox fan’s diaper when he realizes the Cubs are still the number one team in the town. The original date had Lilly being able to return in the middle of April, until he had to take a few days off due to a sore knee, which ironically took place a few days after an unnamed source stated that Lilly would not return until June. When the sore knee came up, that looked like more of a reality than a rumor. Thankfully, the knee turned out to be fine, but he had fallen behind to rest the knee. Because of that rest, the new date to return was now penciled in at the end of April or the beginning of May. Better than the June date, but still a later return than anyone could want. Now that some more time has passed, Lilly is now ahead of schedule, and is penciled in to return by sometime in the middle of April. When that will be, is still to be decided, and who you listen to, Lilly or Cubs Manager Lou Piniella.
Regardless of when Lilly will actually be returning, he will still be looked upon as a much needed fixture in a shaky Cubs starting rotation. He will need to pitch like he has since he first put on his Cubbie Blue pinstripes. The question remains though as to how his shoulder will react in a real game situation. As of this writing, Lilly has been limited to throwing in a simulated game and throwing batting practice. Neither one of those situations allowed him to give his arm the workout that is needed to see how well his shoulder has recovered. Lilly as stated that his arm feels great, and he is ready to get into a Spring Training game, but Piniella isn’t so sure. While Lilly wants to get into two Spring Training games before the Cubs leave camp, Piniella does not want to push him too far too fast, and risk losing him for a longer period of time. I can see both sides of this very clearly; the question though is who do you put more trust in?
Piniella knows that Lilly is a Bulldog and will pitch through the pain even if he is limited with what he can do. Lilly on the other hand knows his body and how far he can push things better than Piniella, and says he is ready to get into some game action. If Lilly isn’t quite ready yet, and he goes out to pitch in a real game situation too soon, he could be out a lot longer than anticipated. In this case, I have to side with Piniella. While both situations would have Lilly out until the middle of April, Piniella’s will take just one extra trip through the rotation. Even with the thought of having one of the lesser qualified pitchers who are trying to win a spot in the rotation in Lilly’s place, I think I would much rather have one extra start from them if we could ensure that Lilly was ready. Even with one of them making an extra start, while every game is important, should not hurt the team that early in the year. If he comes back too early and has a lengthy setback, this team will not be able to recover. Piniella’s better safe than sorry look at the Lilly time table is the route to take.
When he does return though, if he is anything close to what he has been, the Cubs rotation could be rounding out quite nicely. Lilly has all the tools to be a very successful pitcher once again, and prove that he is one of the better pitchers on the Cubs staff. Despite missing roughly seven starts in 2009, Lilly had what could be considered the best year of his career. His 3.10 ERA and his 1.056 WHIP (Walks and Hits by Innings Pitched) are both career records for him. His 22 Home Runs allowed are also a career best for him, in seasons when he was a full year starter. While he may not be an overly dominating pitcher who can throw the ball through a wall, he knows how to pitch to batters to get them out. There is no reason to believe that he will not be able to continue pitching this way if he is fully healthy, and that is what I will use while making my predictions for him for 2010.
Lilly will only miss three starts, so he will be limited to just 31 games. In those 31 starts, I see him going 15-10 with an ERA around 3.30. As your number two or three pitcher, those are acceptable statistics, especially with out having pitched the full 34 games he would have gotten in a full year,