Sunday, March 26, 2006

2006 cubs: starting pitching

to continue this page's preview of 2006, it will now examine the most important component of any successful team. it might have come earlier, but it was (truthfully) delayed to see what injuries might come public before cub camp broke. then came unsurprising news of prior's shoulder, giving the sorrowful metaphysical go-ahead.

it seems to this writer that the cubs have rarely had so much experienced starting pitching under contract in recent memory. the trouble, of course, is that most of it is injured, some of it rather severely.

carlos zambrano is a dominating starter, worthy of the tag of ace, and perhaps as good right now as he will ever be. not only will his anger management become an growing issue if someone doesn't teach him how to keep from flying apart on the mound -- this writer has also rarely seen a pitcher who relied so much on his stuff and so little on precise location. z's gameplan is often seems simply to throw it down the middle. his movement is incredible, and so he gets away with it -- and that, of course, is a privilege of youth.

as he ages, he will have to follow the time-honored path of young throwers who are forced to learn how to pitch cleverly. we get a preview of that every now and again, when dusty's used him too hard, his velocity falls off a bit and his ball straightens out. that of course doesn't mean "trade him now" -- though, if you want to sell high, players rarely get higher than zambrano is now -- but it is something of a warning bell sounding about how he's being used.

there were troubling signs all last year of overuse and repetitive stress injuries. "internet elbow" in may, complete with mri. his puzzling run in june -- and that series of short starts followed by a return to form -- indicating perhaps that the kid needs to be handled somewhat less roughly. and z has, of course, accumulated more pitcher abuse points over the last two seasons than anyone but livan hernandez and jason schmidt (which, this writer is sure, had nothing at all to do with schmidt's 2005 collapse.)

this isn't to say that zambrano's head on on the block beneath the executioner's axe. but it may be something to watch for in 2006 and 2007.

greg maddux remains this club's most stalwart pitcher -- it would not at all surprise this writer to have him lead the team again in starts and innings, and perhaps add to that wins. maddux was brought to the cubs with the intention of providing an aging but still useful arm to the back of an all-star rotation; he has since been asked to all but lead this pitching staff. it's a tribute to the player and the man that he has responded to the challenge so well -- try to imagine where this team would be now if maddux was not here.

some have written of maddux's renewed vigor in this new season, of his intention to better himself from last year, which was not his best. he faces, now at 40, an ever more difficult battle simply to remain a quality starter. this page would imagine, however, that maddux is the least of this team's worries.

jerome williams made 17 starts for the 2005 cubs after coming in return for latroy hawkins and made a quite reasonable accounting of himself. just 24 years old and already having 63 starts under belt, equipped with quality stuff, he could have a very promising future. but he isn't flawless -- control has proved to be a major issue for williams, walking 45 in 106 innings for the cubs. this writer won't soon forget him painfully, terribly laboring through july and august last season -- walking as many as he struck out, slowing the game to an interminable pace, throwing far too many pitches.

this is a pitcher, it must be said, that has never thrown more than 131 innings in the majors in any year. though durability appears not to be an issue, quality sometimes is. despite his talents, the giants clearly didn't feel they were trading away their best young pitcher in obtaining hawkins; last year's dog days may have indicated why. williams remains somewhat enigmatic -- great virtues and vices -- and his season and development will be an interesting subplot to 2006.

glendon rusch, however, is less enigmatic than simply not very good. this writer finds quite troubling any rotation that might ostensibly call rusch its third starter for any period of time. eminently hittable, rusch frequently was chased early, managing just 110 innings in 19 starts -- just 5.8 innings per. he joins williams (6.1 ip/gs) to make the cubs' rotation potentially a very taxing one for any bullpen -- and particularly for one of suspect depth.

rusch is a fixture at least until some of the wounded return from hospital, though one wonders if williams won't be the first relegated with two competent lefthanders already manning the bullpen and a considerable age difference between the two. one sincerely hopes that the remediation of the injured is such that we find out this year which would be dropped from the rotation first.

much has been made in this early spring of optimism about the progress made by kerry wood and wade miller in their rehabilitations. there should be much caution here; setbacks are altogether too frequent in coming back from shoulder surgeries, and they tend to be quite regressive. but, even if (as we all hope) all goes well for them both, this writer would take issue with the presumption of either wood or miller's capability to pitch in line with their career numbers -- their coming back as they were is going to be difficult because of the severity of the procedures they underwent.

most labrum repairs seem to continue to exact a toll at least in that first year -- matt morris, for example, tossed a full half-run over his career era with a full strikeout/9 less, allowing quite a lot more contact (9.7 hits/9 vs career 8.9). that could easily be expected of wood and miller in what innings they might toss.

what could that mean, if we used morris as a model?

-- wood: 4.20 era, 7.6 h/9, 4.4 bb/9, 1.33 whip, 9.4 k/9
-- miller: 4.50 era, 9.1 h/9, 3.7 bb/9, 1.43 whip, 6.5 k/9

now, using one experience as though it represented a probability is not particularly enlightening perhaps. there's also the possibility that they will react as chris carpenter did (by becoming an all-star) or as mike sirotka and many others did (by never throwing another major-league pitch). the point is simply to note that the pitchers who return so soon after a labrum repair should not be expected to be unchanged -- some falloff in quality, even if only temporary, is only natural and should be anticipated.

mark prior and his bout of shoulder problems is an obvious source of immediate concern, but even an non-surgical improvement of his condition isn't an all-clear. the kid has had spats of elbow pain in 2004 and 2005, never had a cause diagnosed and consequently has never been treated.

this page noted last march:

the cubs have never really discovered what's wrong in there. larry rothschild can say things like "This is something he may have to learn to deal with regularly", and "... it shouldn't be a problem. Medication will calm it down" -- but he knows as much as you or i what is really going on mechanically in there, which is nothing. and how long do you imagine the cubs can or should trot the 25-y/o franchise pitcher out to the mound with consistent elbow pain -- pain debilitating enough to double his walk rate and raise his ERA by more than a run even after two months off -- of an indeterminate origin?

has anything changed since then -- except the marking of another year in which prior felt pain in that elbow?

the logic of passivity catches the cubs out too often, holding the bag on a player that has crapped out when they could've sold high or at least hedged their bets. the cubs have, for all this writer's memory, been a reactionary team, a crisis responder, unmoved and unmovable within their blissful fiscal citadel until it is altogether too late and the walls have collapsed. perhaps that is the nature of corporate management, especially where there are higher goals than building a winning ballclub. almost never does one see this club act with insight on the possibilities and probabilities of the future. they got pierre, for example, not because they had a plan to build a winning club looking forward, but because looking back patterson had been a disaster. they obtained howry and eyre not because they decided on a way to build a winning bullpen, but because hawkins and remlinger had been forced out. they halfheartedly tried and failed to land furcal because nomar had failed to pan out; they had arrived at nomar because alex gonzalez had failed; the obtained gonzalez because ricky gutierrez wore out his welcome. each move was a reaction to the recent past. never in that string, it is felt, did the cubs brain trust sit down, analyze their team and formulate a broader, deeper, multiyear plan to construct a deep, winning team through the future. all was instead reaction -- often enough, to mere fan vicissitude -- invariably, with eyes for a different kind of prize.

injury to starting pitchers was something this club should have actively hedged against -- but didn't. and some part of this year's disappointments will be a result of that passivity -- again.

on this team, given what we're discussing, it's unconscionable not to have at least one if not two more ready starters. a team with one frontline starter looking potentially at a bullpen career, another with the arm pains we are discussing endlessly and a third showing signs of overuse and repetitive stress simply cannot sit tight on a back end of maddux, williams and rusch and pray from the best. but, as is, the 2006 cubs have no hedge against the probabilities we're discussing here -- which is why they're trying to choose now between angel guzman and sean marshall to see who will be the sacrificial lamb to come north.

the cubs needed to add pitching in order to gain competitive depth. they didn't. there will be unpleasant consequences. on the whole, relying on the season-long outputs of rusch and williams -- as well as what will likely be the fogged skills of wood or miller in the pleasure of their returns -- as well as the work of only marginally qualified pitchers in their absence -- as well as the absence of prior for some indeterminate length of time -- will make it very difficult for this staff to improve significantly on their mediocre showing of last season. moreover, lacking any depth early in the year, it would not take much -- surgery for prior, setbacks for wood, any injury to either maddux or zambrano -- for this group to slip into an abyss from which the team could not recover. the margin or error will be razor thin in april and may.

part 1: payroll and expectation
part 2: the outfield
part 3: relief pitching
part 4: the infield
part 5: starting pitching

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