Sunday, March 19, 2006

Four horse race

Following a weekend that saw the Cubs lose three games, the Cactus League is past the mid-point. With thirteen days to go, the Cubs have 14 games to play. Due to this years version of "Prior/Wood-gate" four Cub minor leaguers have an opportunity to win the fifth spot in the Cubs rotation. The two candidates(Hill & Guzman) who I would have considered favorites just 2-1/2 weeks ago have struggled. Meanwhile two darkhorse(Ryu & Marshall) candidates have emerged. I'd say all things being equal, the guy that pitches the best from this point forward has a real chance at earning the fifth spot in the rotation.

For those of us who follow the organ-eye-zation the names are familiar but what do we know about the candidates?

Rich Hill
Hill is a 26 year old lefty that struggled last year when he was called up to the show. Last season Hill pitched in 10 games for the Cubs. He made 4 starts and went 0-2 with a 9.13 ERA. Hill's WHIP was a whopping 1.77. Still, he is a strikeout pitcher. Hill recorded 21 K's in 23.2 IP last season. This spring has been a real struggle for Hill. After his start on Thursday, Hill is 1-0 with a 13.50 ERA over 6 innings pitched. Still these are just spring numbers, so should we worry about Rich Hill?

A look back at Hill's minor league career shows a pitcher that had never done much outside of the Midwest League until last season. Last season it all seemed to click for Hill at Peoria, West Tenn and at Iowa. While at triple-A Hill went 6-1 with a 3.60 ERA. During this time he struckout 92 while walking only 14. His WHIP at Iowa was a solid 1.03. It looked like Hill had found his comfort zone in his 4th season in the Cub system.

Angel Guzman
They don't come any more touted than this Cub prospect. The Venezuelan native came to the Cubs in 2002 and had very good partial seasons with Lansing and Daytona. Then came Spring Training 2003. We all watched this 21 year old Venezuelan pitch out of his mind in the Cactus League. I still remember the day I watched Angel Guzman on one of those rare WGN spring telecasts. He had electric stuff. A fastball that jumped on the hitters and a Bugs Bunny curveball. Steve Stone, still in the broadcast booth at the time, raved about Guzman. The Cubs had another gem that would find his spot in the rotation alongside Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Matt Clement and Carlos Zambrano sometime in the middle of 2003. As we all know that didn't happen. Guzman would only make 15 starts for West Tenn. Since that time in 2003, Guzman has only started 17 games for the Cub organization--11 games in 2004 and only 6 last season.

This spring the Cubs often injured prospect is back. Now 24 years of age, injuries have kept Guzman from ever making a big league pitch. This spring Guzman has only pitched two innings. His ERA is a whopping 13.50. At 24 is the Cubs can't miss prospect starting to miss?

Jae-Kuk Ryu
Up until now, Ryu was known to most fans for an ugly incident with an osprey in Florida in April 2003. Now the 22 year old Korean born right hander has a chance to win a spot in the Cub rotation. Ryu has spent most of his time over the last three seasons at West Tenn. Last year he spent the whole season there and made 27 starts. He threw 169.2 innings allowing 154 hits and 49 walks, while striking out 133. Ryu's ERA was 3.34 with a 1.20 WHIP.

This spring, Ryu has pitched okay. In 4 games he's thrown 6 innings, allowing 4 hits, 1 BB and 2 earned runs(both on Saturday against the Sox) while striking out 7.

Sean Marshall
The 23 year old Marshall is a 6'6" left hander that probably had no idea he'd find himself vying for a rotation spot when he came to camp. Still with nobody grabbing the job, Marshall has an opportunity to jump from West Tenn to Wrigley Field. Marshall has been a solid performer in the Cubs minor leagues. In his 3 seasons in the organization the Virginia Commonwealth product has struck out 258 while walking 70 in 251.2 innings pitched. Last season Marshall was 4-4 at Daytona when in 12 starts with a 2.74 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP. He was promoted to West Tenn where he went 0-1 with a 2.52 ERA and .84 WHIP in 4 starts.

This spring the lefthander has opened some eyes in Cubs camp. In 3 appearances over 3.1 innings Marshall has not allowed a run. He's only allowed a hit, a walk and he's struckout two.

How will this thing shakeout?
Here's how I would handicap the race. I think Rich Hill still has got to be the favorite but his recent poor outing have got to have the Cubs wondering. Angel Guzman may have the best stuff in the group but he can't stay healthy (like our two friends who have put the Cubs in this position). Jae-Kuk Ryu might be two or three good appearances away from pulling off an upset none of us would have thought possible at the start of spring. Marshall is longshot due to his experience, still he may have a bigger upside than all of the candidates listed above.

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