Northside For Life

Friday, February 17, 2006

Cubs Preview: Pitching

With pitchers and catchers reporting to Mesa it's now time for me to begin my preview of the 2006 Chicago Cubs. I'll start off with what every team needs to win: Pitching.

The last couple of seasons the national perception has been that the Cubs are loaded with pitching, particularly starters. This is true, although it helps if those starters actually pitched in real games (cough Wood and Prior cough). Last year's vaunted pitching staff was just average, finishing 9th in the NL in team ERA with the only solid season coming from Big Z. Not exactly the powerhouse rotation people make it out to be. Unless you count simulated games, in which case the Cubs were among the league leaders in simulated starter ERA. Oh wait, that doesn't count for anything?

Let's take a closer look at the starters:

Z - Formerly Big Z, Carlos Zambrano came into camp a lot lighter after a Jared-esque diet. So given his new svelte frame, he'll be known as Z around these parts. Z had a solid '05, going 14-9 with a 3.26 ERA. Along with the Mad Dog, Z was a workhorse logging 223 innings. We all know and love Z for being excitable -ok, sometimes a complete spaz- on the mound but as he's gotten older the big guy has gained more control over his emotions. His stuff is awesome and he has asserted himself as the true ace of the staff. I fully expect Z to make the leap this year into elite status. 18-20 wins isn't out of the realm of possibility, as well as equal billing to the wonder that is Mark Prior. And speaking of Prior...

Mark Prior - Mark had an up and down season last year. It started in spring training with the now annual "Mark Prior Spring Training Health Issue" in which he experienced elbow inflammation that set him back in his preparation for the season. Fortunately for the Cubs, he only missed one start in April, and was ON as soon as he came back. Then in May he took a line drive off his pitching elbow that caused him to miss about a month. His first start coming off the injury was against the White Sox and he was once again ON. However after that start he was more off than anything. He didn't pitch terribly, but you could tell he wasn't himself. He did finish with 11 wins but it was an unsatisfying season, both for Mark and Cub fans. Of course, this year we're once again experiencing the annual Prior health issue, this time the issue being rumors about a bum right shoulder coupled with the fact that the Cubs have been very slow in letting Prior cut loose in spring training. Supposing Mark is ok and he starts the season on time, he should be ON. And if that's the case, the Cubs will have a very fearsome 1-2 punch in the starting rotation.

Mad Dog - Watching Greg Maddux finish out his career with the Cubs, you can't help but wonder how different things would have been had the Trib actually opened up their wallets and paid the man what he asked for (and deserved) following the 1993 season. He's back with the Cubs now, sure, adding to his impressive collection of baseball records. But to think we missed out on watching him in his prime, watching him be Greg Maddux, well that just sucks. But he's here now and given some of his comments, isn't ready to pack in just yet no matter what Dusty says. No, he's not the Mad Dog who straight up dominated with the Braves in the '90's, but he is consistent. He'll give you 200 innings and 12-15 wins. Take it to the bank. Granted, it takes him longer to get in a groove nowadays, and you can expected him to get tagged in early April. But once the weather warms up, he too is ON. And that my friends, is a good thing.

Glendon Rusch - Glen is the prototypical swingman, equally good as a starter and as a reliever - although he was quite shaky out of the pen in '05. Dusty blew it early on last year leaving Rusch in the 'pen and having Dempster start. Further proof that Dusty may be a players manager, but he can't define roles worth a damn. Once he had these two switch places, they blossomed. Now Rusch isn't going to blow you away, but he's a serviceable lefty. His career numbers (57-86 4.88) aren't anything to get a chubby over, but he's been pretty decent during his time in Chicago. I'd pencil him in for about 8-10 wins if he's kept as the starter over the course of the season.

Jerome Williams - Jerome was acquired last year from the Giants along with David Aardsma for LaTroy Hawkins. Given how horrible Hawkins was during his time with the Cubs, I'd say this trade was a steal. Even if Jerome bombs, this still was a steal. At times last season he looked pretty good, other times he would be cruising along and then give up the one big inning, and then everything would unravel. Williams has promise, after all he started a playoff game in '03 for the Giants at the tender age of 21. Weight and personal problems have affected his performance on the field but sources say all that's behind him. Remember the guy's only 24, the same age as Z and Prior. According to some he has tremendous upside. If Jerome could live up to the potential he displayed for the Giants he could be a very nice surprise for the Cubs this season.

Splintered Wood - What can be said about Kerry Wood's arm that hasn't already been said about Afghanistan? It's bombed out and depleted. Wood yet again had a season cut short due to arm problems. This winter he went under the knife to clean up his labrum. He is set to return to action in May, although its yet to be determined whether or not he'll be a starter. My money is on him being in the rotation. The effects of labrum surgery on a pitcher vary. Some say they don't successfully return to top shape until the second season after surgery. Then again, this was only for a cleanup so that timeline could be shorter. Matt Morris had the same surgery a couple of seasons back and was pretty decent upon his return. It remains to be seen how he'll bounce back, but to be honest I'm not expecting big things from him this season and I'm not expecting him to be around in '07. I'm afraid the Kerry Wood that struck out 20 in a game and handcuffed the Braves in the '03 NLDS is long gone. I think Wood can still be a successful major league pitcher, but I highly doubt he'll be as dominant as he once was.

Now the bullpen was a serious weakness on this team last year. Outside of Ryan Dempster, everyone else seemed to douse the mound in gasoline and then toss lit matches on the ground when they pitched. Despite the grumblings about a poor offseason from fans, you have to give Hendry props for going to work on the pen. Let's start off the bullpen preview by taking a closer look at Hendry's two pickups:

Scott Eyre - Signed as a free agent for a sum of money that exceeded even his own expectations, Eyre will likely share LOOGY duties with Will Ohman. Eyre has had an average career overall, although he was solid with the Giants last season, leading to the rise in his market value. Hopefully he doesn't blow up like other relievers Hendry has signed in the past.

Bobby Howry - I really liked this signing. I watched a good bit of Indians baseball late last season as they made the White Sox collective buttholes pucker during the final month or so. During that time Howry was practically untouchable. His addition should really help the Cubs pen this year.

Ryan Dempster - Ryan Dempster was surprisingly good last year in the closer role, good enough to look like the first true, reliable closer the Cubs have had since Tom Gordon back in '01. Dempster does have the tendency to walk batters frequently, not a good thing if you're a reliever, but more often than not he was able to get out of the jams he put himself into. His penchant for allowing walks does make for pretty interesting -if not gut wrenching- ends to games but he's shown he has the mental makeup and ability to get the job done in the closer role. That's more than what can be said for Hawkins and Antonio Alfonseca, two of the previous three closers the Cubs have had the last four years.

Will Ohman - Ohman was decent in '05 as the Cubs LOOGY. Outside of his one disastrous outing in Yankee Stadium, he quietly had himself a solid season. Pairing him up with Eyre should give the Cubs a good lefty combo.

Michael Wuertz - Frequently called Michael "Worst" by some of my friends, Wuertz wasn't half bad last year. He went though some rough stretches, but I think this was due more to his youth and wavering confidence than anything else. He does possess a pretty wicked slider, and with a little major league seasoning he could be an integral part of the '06 bullpen.

Scott Williamson - Williamson was coming off Tommy John surgery (again) last season, so his numbers are limited. However he looked halfway decent during his short time with the Cubs and if he returns to his previous form he could give the Cubs a championship caliber bullpen. Of course, for some reason this means the Cubs are looking to trade him. I mean its the logical choice, right? There's that old saying, you can have too many good pitchers and you have to get rid of some if that happens.....um wait....That doesn't sound quite right. Maybe in the alternate universe the Cubs' management lives in it does, but Williamson provides some much needed depth. Hopefully the Cubs will do the right thing and keep him around.

Roberto Novoa - Two things about Roberto Novoa jump out at you when you watch him pitch: He throws really hard, seems to sweat profusely at all times, and the darkness of his skin is in the Wesley Snipes category. OK that's three, but that's all I can really tell you about Novoa. He was a bit inconsistent last year, and is still relatively young so he may turn out to be a serviceable arm out of the bullpen. Or not.

Other bullpen candidates include Rich Hill (big curveball, not much else), Todd Wellemeyer (out of options and not that great) John Koronka (eh...Let's move on) and Angel Guzman (who appears to be doing his best Kerry Wood impression the last few years. Unfortunately he's doing the "Wood on the DL" rather than "Fireballin' Kerry".)

Overall the Cubs appear to have a good bit of pitching depth provided pitchers stay relatively healthy, something that hasn't happened around here the last few years. Depending on their health and availability the pitching staff could be dominant or middle of the pack just like in '05.

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