Situation normal after the Chicago Cubs made the Tom Gorzelanny trade official Wednesday — they’ll likely go without a left-hander in the starting rotation.
The crowded derby for two open rotation spots in spring training supposedly will include second-year southpaw James Russell. But the odds of 1980s-vintage closer Jeff Russell’s son beating out Andrew Cashner, Carlos Silva and his $11.5 million salary and Randy Wells are just a bit short of astronomical. Besides, the younger Russell should have an inside track on the job as the third lefty in the bullpen.
Having an effective, tough lefty in the rotation — as the Cubs did with Ted Lilly for 2 1/2 seasons — and teaming him with one or even two fellow starting southpaws were rare occurrences in team history. Lilly, Rich Hill and Sean Marshall all starting at the same time in 2007 sent a few of us curious type scurrying to the record books to see when the last time the Cubs had a trio of southpaw starters.
Most of the time the Cubs have gone years in a block without a regular starting left-hander. In fact, former Cubs front office mainstay Blake Cullen once claimed the team performed a study that showed the ideal pitcher for Wrigley Field was a right-handed sinkerballer. Batters were perceived to have too good a view against lefties given the bleachers background and all-daytime schedule.
Indeed, the Cubs went 14 seasons between 1970 and 1984 without having a southpaw win at least 10 games — between Ken Holtzman’s 17 in 1970 and Steve Trout’s 13 in 1984. Trout, incidentally, was the only regular lefty, starting or relieving, on the 96-victory NL East champion Cubs. The team somehow shut down foes (until Games 4 and 5 of the NLCS against the Padres) with an all-right-handed bullpen.
The Cubs won the NL East with almost all right-handed starters in 1989. Paul Kilgus with a 6-10 record in 23 starts was the busiest southpaw in the rotation. Steve Wilson and the immortal Joe Kraemer made a grand total of nine other left-handed starts. Moving forward nine years, the Cubs made the 1998 NL wild card with just six left-handed starts from Terry Mulholland.
In 2003, the Cubs got within just five outs of the World Series with a Big Four in the rotation of right handers Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Matt Clement and Carlos Zambrano. Lefty Shawn Estes, a fine fellow, was the fifth starter with an 8-11 record, 5.73 ERA and 28 starts — but he won a key game in Cincinnati with a sterling performance down the stretch to help the Cubs come from behind to clinch the NL Central.
More often the Cubs would simply trot out an all right-handed rotation. Fergie Jenkins, Milt Pappas, Bill Hands and rookies Burt Hooton and Rick Reuschel were pretty good in 1972. Problem was, the NL East champ Pittsburgh Pirates were much better. In contrast, Reuschel, Dennis Lamp, Mike Krukow, Lynn McGlothen and a grab-bag of fifth starters were hit hard and hit often in a 98-loss 1980.
The Cubs spent much of the early and mid 2000s looking for an effective starting lefty to slow down the Cardinals’ Jim Edmonds and J.D. Drew. They never really found one. Now the Cards’ main power via Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday is right-handed. But you have the likes of Joey Votto, the newest Cubs Killer, and Prince Fielder as middle-of-the-lineup lefty hitters in the NL Central.
You can survive with five effective right handers if you have southpaw options in the bullpen, which the Cubs apparently have if John Grabow is healthy. Still, a left-handed starter always comes in handy, and GM Jim Hendry should not go a full season without trying to find one.