The Chicago Cubs have a deep group of starting pitchers who are all capable of securing the role of fifth starter in the rotation, but the three pitchers below have the best chance of taking the job and running with it. Other contenders such as Chris Rusin, Tsuyoshi Wada and minor league pitcher of the year Kyle Hendricks should provide the Cubs with solid depth in Triple-A if they need an emergency starter.
Jake Arrieta is considered the favorite out of the gate with his 95-MPH fastball, however, his results have never been positive in the big leagues with a career 5.23 ERA, 4.84 FIP and 4.61 xFIP. Arrieta’s biggest issue is with home runs allowed at a rate of 1.08 HR/9 in 2013 and 1.26 HR/9 in 2012. While Arrieta lowered his home run rate in 2013, his strikeouts and walks went in the wrong direction. In 2012 Arrieta had an impressive 8.56 K/9 and 2.75 BB/9, but those numbers fell to 7.17 K/9 and 4.90 BB/9 in 2013. Arrieta has the potential to be effective if he can learn to induce more ground balls and allow fewer home runs, but at this point he still does not look like a productive starting pitcher.
Carlos Villanueva excelled as the fifth starter out of the gate for the Cubs in 2013 with a 2.29 ERA and 0.82 WHIP in five April starts. The wheels fell off in May, though, as Villanueva pitched 22 innings with a 5.64 ERA and 1.61 WHIP. Over the course of the season Villanueva started 15 games for the Cubs and finished with 90 innings pitched, a 4.50 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in that role. As a reliever Villanueva had much better success with a 3.03 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 38.2 innings pitched. The role of swingman seems to suit Villanueva well, and unless there are some injuries this spring he will likely assume that role again in 2014.
Justin Grimm came over from the Texas Rangers in the Matt Garza trade and has the stuff needed to be a successful member of a big league starting rotation. After the trade Grimm went to Triple-A Iowa where he pitched 42.1 innings with 8.72 K/9, 3.61 BB/9 and just 0.21 HR/9. Grimm’s ERA wasn’t pretty at 4.68, but his FIP was a sparkling 2.77 reflecting his strong ratios. While he has not allowed many home runs in the minors, the long ball was Grimm’s biggest issue in the majors last year as he allowed an ugly 1.38 HR/9 in 98 innings pitched. This was hopefully just a small sample size issue as Grimm was consistently below 0.50 HR/9 in the upper minors. While Grimm may begin the year in the bullpen, he has the opportunity and skill to impress the Cubs early and earn a rotation spot. According to Baseball America, “He pitches at 91-94 MPH while commanding his fastball to both sides of the plate. Most scouts see Grimm as a potential mid-rotation starter.”