Predicting the Chicago Cubs’ 2014 Starting Rotation

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Chicago Cubs: 2014 Starting Rotation Prediction

Jeff Samardzija
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Cubs have seen their starting rotation go through many changes recently as the team has traded away 40 percent of its starting rotation in each of the past two years. In 2012 it was Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm who were sent packing and last year, it was Scott Feldman and Matt Garza who the Cubs cashed in for prospects. In all, the prospect haul the Cubs have compiled is impressive given the low cost to acquire Mahlom and Feldman, and the pending free agency of both Garza and Dempster.

The prospect bounty the Cubs acquired for these four pitchers includes current major leaguers, top prospects as well as Spring Training hopefuls such as C.J. Edwards, Justin Grimm, Mike Olt, Neil Ramirez, Arodys Vizcaino, Kyle Hendricks, Christian Villanueva, Pedro Strop, and Jake Arrieta. To say the Cubs made out like bandits in these deals is an understatement, as many of those players will be counted on in 2014 and in the future.

The 2014 version of Paul Maholm and Scott Feldman is starting pitcher Jason Hammel who was signed to a one year, $6 million deal. As recently as 2012 Jason Hammel had a 3.42 ERA and 3.29 FIP in 118 innings pitched, though he regressed mightily in 2013. Hammel is a question mark entering 2014, but he has the upside to be a highly sought after target at the trade deadline, especially given his modest contract.

Along with Hammel, Jake Arrieta was assumed to round out the starting rotation. However, shoulder tightness has delayed his return to the mound this spring and he may not be ready to start the season. With the Cubs saying early this spring that Justin Grimm will likely be used out of the bullpen, the best candidates for the fifth spot in the rotation are swingman Carlos Villanueva and the recently signed James McDonald.

The following is a prediction of what the Chicago Cubs starting rotation will look like this April.

Kyle Johansen is a Cubs writer for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylejohansen and add him to your network on Google.

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1. Jeff Samardzija

Jeff Samardzija
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff Samardzija is the ace that isn’t. He’s the ace of the Chicago Cubs by default, and the rest of baseball is waiting to see if Samardzija can become a legitimate No. 1 starter in MLB. It’s clear to anyone who watches Samardzija pitch that he has the stuff and makeup to grow into the role of an elite pitcher. Samardzija has an electric fastball that averages 95 mph, in addition to a devastating split-finger, hard slider and a cutter. Samardzija induced more ground balls last year but saw his walk rate go in the wrong direction and he continues to give up home runs at a less than desirable pace. If he can become more consistent, Samardzija can truly become the ace of the Chicago Cubs ... assuming he is not traded at midseason.

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2. Travis Wood

Travis Wood
Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

Travis Wood is one of those pitchers that cannot be accurately quantified by advanced statistics. In three of his four MLB seasons Wood has caused opposing hitters to have a below average batting average on balls in play, recording BABIPs by year of .259, .324, .244 and .248 in 2013. It appears that Wood is particularly adept at inducing poor contact from the opposition. When Wood combined this skill with a low walk rate and acceptable strikeout rate, the result was the best season of his young career in 2013 as Wood threw 200 innings with a 3.11 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. Whether or not Wood can continue to prove the advanced statistics wrong will be one of many interesting subplots to the 2014 season.

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3. Edwin Jackson

Edwin Jackson
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

While advanced statistics predict regression for Travis Wood, these same statistics tell the opposite story for Edwin Jackson. Jackson put up an unsightly 4.98 ERA in 2013, a far cry from his respectable 3.79 FIP and 3.86 xFIP. What the advanced statistics are saying is that Jackson was unlucky on balls in play (.322 BABIP) and batters that reached base, frequently came around to score at a rate (36.7 percent) higher than the league average (28-30 percent). Jackson has the ability to be a middle of the rotation starter, but Cubs fans will believe it when they see it.

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4. Jason Hammel

Jason Hammel
Getty Images

Jason Hammel is a cheap upside play for the Cubs who will adequately fill the fourth spot in the rotation and has the skill to be a desirable trade commodity at the deadline come late July. After an impressive 2012 campaign Hammel regressed significantly in 2013 as his ERA rose by a run and a half up to 4.97 in 139 innings pitched. Hammel complained about an elbow strain after the season and Cubs fans will have to hope that his injury explains away his poor performance. Hammel is a wildcard, but he is also a good bet to provide stability at the back of the rotation.

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5. James McDonald

James McDonald
Getty Images

James McDonald had back to back seasons throwing exactly 171 innings with a 4.21 ERA between 2011 and 2012, although no one could have predicted the way his 2012 season would turn out given how well he pitched in the first half. Through his first 110 innings pitched, James McDonald began 2012 season on a Cy Young pace, compiling an ERA of 2.37 with a 0.97 WHIP before the wheels fell off in the second half. In his final 61 innings James McDonald limped to the finish line with a 7.52 ERA and 1.79 WHIP. The key for McDonald is simply hitting the strike zone. When he has command, he can be a very effective starting pitcher. Without command, he is nearly useless. Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio will have his work cut out for him in 2014, but the upside is there for James McDonald to be a steal for the Cubs.

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