The job for the fifth spot in the Chicago Cubs’ starting rotation is down to Carlos Villanueva and Chris Rusin. While there are plenty of good reasons to slot Villanueva into the last spot in the rotation, there are equally good reasons for sending soft-tossing left-hander Rusin down to Triple-A Iowa despite his impressive Spring Training performance.
Unfortunately for Rusin, he still has minor league options and would not be subjected to the waiver process if the Cubs send him down to Triple-A to start the year. With this ability to freely send Rusin down, he will serve as solid depth in case of injury and can try to prove he belongs in the big leagues through his performance at Iowa. If Villanueva is moved from his bullpen role to the starting rotation, the Cubs can then keep a player like Alberto Cabrera, who is having a great spring, or Justin Grimm, who had success throwing nine innings out of the Cubs’ pen last year.
Alberto Cabrera’s long-term role with the Cubs is going to be as a bullpen arm, and without any options remaining, he cannot be sent down to the minors without the Cubs taking the risk of losing him. At 6-foot-4 and 210-pounds, Cabrera features a mid-90s fastball with good movement and a nasty slider that has allowed him to rack up ground ball outs while also striking batters out at a rate of 8.5 K/9 in the minors last year. He has the type of live arm that the new Cubs regime has tried to stockpile recently, and the Cubs are not going to let him walk out the door at the end of Spring Training as there is no doubt that Cabrera would be claimed on waivers.
Grimm similarly has a live arm and was able to dial his fastball up to the mid-90s when working out of the bullpen for the Cubs last year. Grimm also features a big-breaking curveball, giving him two plus pitches to attack hitters with. It was said early on this spring that Grimm would be a reliever and would not be competing for the starting rotation. While he has been hit hard this spring, his stuff would play up nicely in the Cubs’ bullpen.
Despite Rusin’s quality Spring Training results, it simply does not make sense for the Cubs to reach into the minor leagues to fill the last spot in the rotation unless that player had a reasonable chance to stay in the majors. If Rusin was the type of pitcher the Cubs envisioned being in their rotation long-term, sending him down to Iowa likely would never happen, as he has proven this spring that he deserves a chance. However, Rusin is already 27 years old, does not strike batters out and gives up too many home runs. As a location specialist without much upside, Rusin is most valuable to the Cubs as an emergency No. 5 starter.
Sending Rusin to Iowa will allow players such as Grimm and Cabrera to claim long-term roles for the Cubs, while Rusin unfortunately fills his long-term role as minor league injury replacement. Letting him pitch every fifth day at Iowa makes the most sense for the Cubs on many different levels, but the bottom line is that Chris Rusin is not a Major League caliber starting pitcher.