Heading into the offseason the Cubs were an attractive target for pitchers looking to establish, or reestablish, themselves as a starter. The Cubs finished the season with Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija as the only locks on a rotation spot. An added bonus for those buy-low reclamation guys is that the Cubs would have more patience with them since the 2013 Cubs are unlikely to be in a playoff hunt. The Cubs took advantage of this situation by signing three of those types in Scott Feldman, Scott Baker and Carlos Villanueva. The opportunity to start was clearly on each of their minds when the Cubs added them.
This plan was thrown into flux with the Cubs’ pursuit of Anibal Sanchez and eventual acquisition of Edwin Jackson. The Cubs added a solid innings eater for the middle of the rotation on a 4 year deal in Edwin Jackson. This gives the Cubs three locks for the starting rotation, and now 3 pitchers for 2 spots. Add in Travis Wood who was relatively solid during 2012 and is out of options in 2013. The Cubs now have 7 starting pitchers for five rotation spots.
The Cubs have tremendous depth, and perhaps more depth in the starting staff than at any point in the past several decades. This is a problem that many teams would love to have, but the issue for the Cubs is the promises that were made to the recently acquired. All of the pitchers that have been added have said the right things in terms of doing whatever they are asked to do, but if all three don’t receive opportunities to start it will damage relationships with players and their agents. While that might not matter to fans in the present, it will certain effect the Cubs long term when they seek to acquire players down the road through free agency.
Scott Baker returning from Tommy John Surgery allows the decision to be postponed a bit longer. Baker will start the season on the DL which removes one of the seven options from the outset. Scott Feldman has essentially been named the fourth starter at the outset, which leaves only rotation spot available. The Cubs could play this very traditionally and most likely will. The traditional approach would be to give the fifth rotation spot to Travis Wood, and when Baker returns bump Wood back to the bullpen. Villanueva gets a chance to start when injury, ineffectiveness, or trades deplete the starting rotation as will inevitably happen.
The Cubs though have a unique opportunity with this surplus to maximize the talent they have and utilize the strengths of their roster. They should name Travis Wood and Carlos Villanueva the fifth starter. This radical approach has been used for a long time in the minor leagues and is known as piggybacking. More famously the Rockies tried to use an 8 man staff last year with two sets of starters each pitching 75 innings. The Cubs don’t need to go that extreme, but by being more creative than rolling five guys the Cubs might maximize the talent and slim chance to be relevant in 2013 they have.
Here is the career numbers for Travis Wood and Carlos Villanueva as they go through the lineup each time.
As you can there is a dramatic jump in numbers as Carlos Villanueva faces a lineup for the third time in a night, and while the jump isn’t quite as dramatic for Travis Wood there is a significant decline in performance. Carlos Villanueva has serious questions about his ability to start effectively that was discussed at Fangraphs. Carlos Villanueva as a traditonal starter is likely to be a below average starter, and Travis Wood wasn’t much better. Travis Wood last year managed to put up a 4.26 ERA and a 4.84 FIP. Carlos Villanueva put up a 4.16 ERA and a 4.71 FIP. However, if we limited each starter to their numbers the first two times through the order that combined pitcher would have a FIP of 4.52 and average over 8 innings a game. That is using Carlos Villanueva’s career numbers as a starter. If you include his numbers as a reliever the FIP drops to 4.20.
Like platoons, it is unlikely that they will perform in tandem as well as the numbers here suggest, but a fifth starter that is capable of giving you 8 innings with a league average FIP is something most teams would kill to have. The other advantage is the problems this arrangement of having a righty and lefty starter paired together presents to the opposing manager for lineups. Wood and Villanueva could flip roles at Sveum’s discretion, and if any pitcher goes down with injury both pitchers have remained stretched out to fill in the starter’s role.
Scott Feldman is another swingman that has been penciled into the fourth spot. It is understandable why he has been essentially handed a starting role due to the promises that have been made to him. It was clear that signing with a club that gave him a starting role was important, and on a one year deal Feldman is looking to maximize his value before going on the market again. However, looking at Feldman’s numbers suggests similar problems as Villanueva when facing a lineup for the third time.
Scott Baker is also less than 12 months removed from Tommy John Surgery, but is also on a one year deal. Baker has been an effective starter and would be a fine option to hand the ball to every fifth day. However, the track record of guys coming back from Tommy John surgery suggests that he won’t be able to handle the usual workload right away. Add in the fact that command and feel of his pitches are likely the least to come back for him. If Feldman struggles as a traditional starter than making him the caddy to Baker as he eases back into the rotation makes a lot of sense.
I am not going to try to project the numbers because Feldman has had a lot of variance in performance and predicting what you will get from a guy coming back from Tommy John is even harder. That said it should be clear that Feldman is more effective the first two times through the order and having him caddy for Baker should help on days when Baker struggles without overly taxing the bullpen. And the odds of getting 7 innings or more out of those two starters is higher than the odds of getting 6 or more from one guy. That would make the back two “starters” leaving only a couple of innings for the bullpen to take care of two days.
The obvious question is what does to do to the Cubs pitching staff as a whole. Scott Baker starting on the DL means that the Cubs would have six starters with Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, Scott Feldman, Travis Wood and Carlos Villanueva. Carlos Marmol remains the closer until he is traded and your setup men are Fujikawa and James Russell. Then you have rubber armed veteran Shawn Camp as a middle reliever, and that would leave two spots at the start of the season for a 12 man staff. Michael Bowden and rule 5 pick Hector Rondon are the favorites for those last two spots since neither can be sent down with risk of losing them for nothing. Rafael Dolis might be in a similar situation with many sources stating he is out of options. AZ Phil, however, has stated that Dolis has an additional option year which would make his chances breaking camp with the big league club a lot smaller. NRIs like Corey Wade and Hisanori Takahashi, my personal favorite to give the team a second lefty reliever, have a shot at those last two spots. One of those guys in the last two spots would lose their job when Baker is ready to go, but with a seven man starting staff it would leave a closer, two setup man and two middle relievers. That is a lot lighter in the bullpen than most teams like to go today with seven being the most common used today, but with the starters being able to go longer the need for those additional relievers goes down a lot.
This approach is unorthodox, but I truly think it is maximizing the potential of the Cubs 25 man roster. The Cubs have three traditional starters for a solid starting staff, but have four guys that combined could handle the back two spots. This is similar to the Cubs situation in the outfield where they only have one true everyday outfielder, but by mixing and matching they could actually get above average production from the outfield as a whole. The seven headed hyrda could actually be a well above average staff and maximize those slim, 12.5% according to Baseball Prospectus, of playing meaningful baseball in October.