Scouting Pitchers: Chicago Cubs & Radar Love: First-start fastballs for No. 2 starters
Cheer up, Cubs fans. I think this club will be very competitive in 2010. I donít blame the Wrigley faithful for gnashing their teeth at how things have gone thus far. Carlos Zambrano was shifted to the bullpen by Lou Piniella despite pitching well (six innings, two runs, nine strikeouts) on April 20. Fox News called this a desperation move, adding that a scout thought the right side of the Cubsí bullpen belonged in the minors. When I first heard of the Zambrano move, I thought it was nuts as well. I think it would be silly to keep him in the bullpen for more than two months, but I acknowledge a certain method to the madness. Iíll address the Zambrano issue more later.
While the Cubs certainly have problems Ė Alfonso Soriano needs to continue his rebirth, while Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee need to get it going Ė one strength lost in the shuffle has been the starting pitching. The Cubs rank 10th in the majors in ERA (3.62), but rank second (to Minnesota) in strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.54) and fifth in strikeouts per nine innings (7.83). While itís conceivable that Carlos Silva and Tom Gorzelanny will regress, they have shown some encouraging signs. Meanwhile, Ted Lilly made a good return from last fallís shoulder surgery on April 24, although he was at 85-88 mph (see below). Randy Wells has also thrown very well, as he plagued the Brewersí hitters last weekend with a 90 mph fastball and an 83 mph change. Wells could be the next Jon Lieber, as I speculated in my NL season preview a month ago.
The Cubsí starters have been the most efficient of any clubís. Each of their starters has been average or well above-average in their pitches per inning (P/IP). Dempster is at 15.9 P/IP, Silva 13.0, Wells 15.3, and Gorzelanny at 15.5. Zambrano is the odd man out at 20.2. Hereís where Piniellaís logic may work out: perhaps Zambrano will become more aggressive when he throws the seventh and eighth innings. Closer Carlos Marmol has even joined the trend, using just 16.3 pitches per inning this year after using 19.8 last year.
Hereís a link to an ESPN table that breaks down how many pitches per inning the 120 pitchers who have thrown at least 20 innings have used. The Cubsí starting four all rank in the top 45. What this means for the club is more innings in which the Cubsí starters are throwing strikes, trusting their defense, and moving back into the dugout. If this were football, it would be time of possession.
Chicago also has right-handed prospects Jay Jackson and Andrew Cashner on the way. Jackson was a ninth-round pick in 2008 out of Furman University, and he is currently 2-2, 2.35 at Triple-A Iowa. He threw eight shutout innings on April 19. Jackson throws in the low 90s with a slider and curve, and he has a nice motion, as you can see here. Cashner is 1-1, 3.33 at Double-A Tennessee, with 29 strikeouts in 24 innings. His short-armed delivery makes me think he will end up in the bullpen, but the Cubs can certainly use the help there. Perennial prospect Jeff Samardzija was sent back to Iowa on April 24, but he was at 93-95 during his appearances with the Cubs this month, and still has a major league future. Similar things can be said about Esmailin Caridad, who throws 94-96 but is still working on his breaking stuff. Caridad might be activated soon from a forearm strain.
With super-prospect Starlin Castro lighting up Double-A (.377 with power), it wonít be long before heís in Chicagoís middle infield picture. His arrival this summer, along with the quiet resurgence of Geovany Soto, will give the club the jolt of energy it needs.
Will the pitching hold up? Wells, Silva and Gorzelanny donít miss many bats, so the Cubs are going to need to score more runs than they are now on the August days when the balls are bouncing off the ivy. Iím not saying this rotation will carry the team to the playoffs, only that it might. Zambrano is still throwing hard and is a quality pitcher. Dempster is very solid, and Lilly will be effective if he regains his velocity.
When you look at the NL Central, the Cubs have a shot. With their pitching problems, the Brewers are obviously going nowhere this year. Cincinnati will need Edinson Volquez and Aroldis Chapman before they make their move, and Pittsburgh is still putting their pieces together. Houston has become mostly old and boring. Iíd give the Cardinals a 60% chance at the division, with the Cubs a 40% chance.
Radar Love: Fastball velocities for #2 starters:
Baltimore: Jeremy Guthrie: 92-95 in Boston on April 23.
Boston: Jon Lester: 91-96 against Baltimore on April 23.
Chicago White Sox: Jake Peavy: 87-92 in Cleveland on April 17.
Cleveland: Fausto Carmona: 90-94 in Oakland on April 24.
Detroit: Rick Porcello: 89-94 in Los Angeles on April 20.
Kansas City: Luke Hochevar: 94-97 against the Twins on April 24. Wow. Where did this come from? Pitching coach Bob McClure has been working with Hochevar on his mechanics, but still - I donít remember him having this velocity in 2009.
LA Angels: Joe Saunders: 88-92 against the Tigers on April 22.
Minnesota: Nick Blackburn: 91-94 in Kansas City on April 24.
NY Yankees: A.J. Burnett: 94-96 in Los Angeles on April 23.
Oakland: Dallas Braden: 85-89 against the Yankees on April 22, as he called out Alex Rodriguez for crossing his mound.
Seattle: Ryan Rowland-Smith: 86-89 in Chicago on April 23.
Tampa Bay: Matt Garza: 91-95 against the Blue Jays on April 23.
Texas: Rich Harden: 87-90 against the Tigers on April 23.
Toronto: Ricky Romero: 88-92 in Tampa Bay on April 24.
Arizona: Edwin Jackson: 90-95 in getting pummeled by Colorado on April 27.
Atlanta: Jair Jurrjens: 86-92 in New York on April 24.
Chicago Cubs: New ace Ryan Dempster: 91-93 in Milwaukee on April 23. #2 Ted Lilly: 85-88 in Milwaukee on April 24. Lilly cracked 90 just once.
Cincinnati: Mike Leake: 88-91 against the Dodgers on April 22.
Colorado: Aaron Cook: 89-92 against the Marlins on April 24.
Florida: Ricky Nolasco: 89-92 in Colorado on April 24.
Houston: Wandy Rodriguez: 89-92 on April 24 against the Pirates.
LA Dodgers: New ace Clayton Kershaw: 92-94 in Washington on April 24. #2 Chad Billingsley: 90-94 in Washington on April 25.
Milwaukee: Randy Wolf: 86-90 against the Pirates on April 27.
New York: John Maine: 86-90 against Atlanta on April 23. Maine will make his next start on 4/28 after experiencing left elbow spasms.
Philadelphia: Cole Hamels: 89-92 on April 23 in Arizona.
Pittsburgh: Paul Maholm: 87-91 in Houston on April 23.
St. Louis: Adam Wainwright: 89-91 in San Francisco on April 24.
San Diego: Kevin Correia: 86-89 in Cincinnati on April 23.
San Francisco: Barry Zito: 84-87 against the Cardinals on April 24.
Washington: Craig Stammen: 87-89 against the Dodgers on April 24.
Article first appeared 4/28/10