A few days ago, I wrote about how the new Chicago Cubs offense had been showing some promise and giving fans reason for optimism. While the offense is not overly impressive and comes and goes, scoring an average of four runs a game, they are not the main concern for the team thus far into the season. That could fall into one of two areas, either the defense or the pitching staff. Breaking things down even further, the pitching staff can be separated into the bullpen which as usual gives the dedicated fans heart failure every time they take the mound, and the starting rotation. The starting five is where I will be spending my time today.
Twice through the rotation, fans are starting to get a feeling about what our starting rotation is all about and what they can do for the team. Some pitchers have given the fans reason for hope, while others have already started to give the fans ulcers. You would be hard pressed to find a fan with a complaint about the top of the rotation. After all Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza and even Jeff Samardzija have done all they could to get the Cubs a win. They have pitched their butts off and have done all they could in order to keep the Cubs in every game they have pitched in.
Dempster has pitched well enough to win both of his starts, only to see Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol do all they could to lose his first outing, while the offense was unable to scrap together enough wins to prevent him from getting the loss after only giving up two in his second start of the year. Perhaps tonight in the heat of Miami, he will pitch well enough for a win with the bullpen and offense not letting him down again.
Garza, much like Dempster, has pitched well enough to win both of his games instead of sitting on only one win so far for the season. Also like Dempster, Wood and Marmol combined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when they came into the game to close out what should have been their second chance at their first victory. After allowing only two runs in six innings, the eighth inning was a disaster with five runs crossing the plate courtesy of the two villains from opening day. His second time out, Garza once again shined as he came within one out of pitching a complete game before handing off the ball to the bullpen. To his, and everyone else’s relief the bullpen was able to get the final out and give him his first win of the season.
Samardzija is the only Cubs starter to win every start of the season and sits with a record of 2-0. His first start he came within one out of pitching a complete game before an error followed by a home run left his fate in the hands of the bullpen which always sends shivers down the spines of the fans, but they came through and secured his win. While he was roughed up a bit in his second start of the year, the offense came through to bail him out after he gave up five runs in his five innings of work, with the bullpen pitching four innings of two hit shutout ball securing Samardzija’s second win on the year.
With the way these three have pitched for the Cubs, they should easily be 6-4 instead of a measly 3-7. In their 42.2 innings of work they have only given up 29 hits and 11 runs for an ERA of 2.34. That is simply amazing work out of the top of the rotation, leaving you wonder how a team that is currently scoring an average of four runs a game has not been able to win every start these three have made. However, as I said the offense comes and goes, and this year apparently Dempster will be the pitcher on the staff who gets little to no run support as his team has only scored one run in each of his starts.
Chris Volstad, who comes fourth in the rotation, has not been horrible, just not nearly as good as the previous three pitchers. Looking at his 0-2 record and his stat line, you can make the argument that he is part of the reason we are losing when he pitches. With his ERA of 4.91 on the season, you would be hard pressed to say he has done a good job, though looking at game stats he has done more than enough to get the job done and put the team in position to win both of his starts as well. He has only given up three runs in each of his starts, first one in five innings of work then again in six. While he does give up hits, he does not walk many batters and he has struck out 10 men in his 11 innings of work. Volstad is getting a bad rap from the Cub fans, which I think he is undeserving of at the moment. Could he pitch better while lasting longer into games so you did not have to depend on the bullpen? Of course he could, every pitcher in the majors could pitch better and last longer. Give me a starting pitcher who only gives up three runs a game and I will show you a pitcher who puts his team in a good position to win.
With the top four pitchers pitching as well as they have, yes all four, the Cubs could realistically be 8-2 if the offense was able to come through on a consistent basis. But alas, if any offense was able to be consistent many teams would win a lot more than they normally do. Volstad may very well be the lesser of the top four pitchers in the rotation, but he deserves to be credited for pitching well enough to win both his games instead of taking a no decision and a loss in his two starts.
The problem with the Cubs rotation comes in when looking at the final pitcher in the rotation, Paul Maholm. He has struggled beyond belief in his two outings so far, leaving the team very little chance to contend in those games without a surge of offense to counter act the poor pitching. Sure, we have seen the Cubs pound great pitching this year in Adam Wainright and Zack Greinke, but they are not an offense that can score enough runs to counter the outings Maholm has had. Sadly, he has lasted only four innings in each of his two starts giving up six runs each time. Kind of hard for you to win a game when the day’s starting pitcher gives up six runs before the game is even official.
When fans see Maholm blow up game after game, the initial thought is to demote him to the minors and call up either Travis Wood or Randy Wells. However, there are two problems with this thought process. The most obvious is that the Cubs cannot demote Maholm without his permission. That is what happens when you reach veteran status, you can void any attempt to send you to the minors. The only option the club would have is to give him his outright release. By doing so, the team would be eating practically his entire $4.75 Million contract. Things are made easier with due to next year being a team option, but with a $0.5 Million buyout. Total cost to release him would be $5.25 Million. Not a lot, but not exactly a drop in the bucket either.
The other problem, neither Wood nor Wells are exactly lighting up the minor leagues either. While Wells performed well in spring training, the small sample size that we have on him from Mesa does should not make you overlook how poorly he pitched last year. Take all that into consideration and I cannot see how you can have much more faith in him leading the Cubs to a win than Maholm.
While I would not mind calling either one up and letting them develop their craft in games that actually matter, I would rather both Wells and Wood remain in the minor leagues until they get some confidence and get their careers back on track. Bringing them up to the big leagues where there is much tougher competition while they are struggling in Triple A is a sure fire way to ruin a career. Let them figure things out first, then decide what to do with Maholm.