Las Vegas seems to think that 2016 might just be the year when Cubs fans finally celebrate a World Series win in the streets of Wrigleyville. Stacked with a potent lineup from top to bottom and arguably the best starting five in baseball, Theo Epstein’s deity status could extend westward some 850 miles come October. But while there’s no position battle in the rotation to speak of, injury concerns, like curses, are real something to write about.
John Lackey joins Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, and Jason Hammel in a formidable rotation that ZiPs projects for nearly 17 WAR. But they also enter 2016 having pitched a combined 6,674.1 career innings. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at who stands to step in should any of the Cubs’, let’s go with, seasoned starters miss some time.
Trevor Cahill started 2015 in the Braves’ rotation before moving to the bullpen full-time. He’s still a ground ball machine, in fact maybe more so than ever. His velocity increased last season due to his move to the pen and PITCHf/x still likes his sinker. But even if he finds himself starting a few games this season, there’s little to see here.
It wasn’t too long ago Travis Wood was a fantasy relevant starter, having posted a 3.11 ERA in 200 innings in 2013. But in 2014, his walk rate and BABIP spiked and his already unremarkable velocity garnered even fewer remarks. As with Cahill, his move to the bullpen brought an increase in velocity and K%.
He doesn’t have much value even if moved to the rotation, at least not in standard leagues, but he currently sits 2nd in the bullpen on the Cubs’ official depth chart. He lacks traditional closer’s stuff, for sure, but makes up for it with a starter’s arsenal. Having posted the highest velocity of his career last season, he’s a sleeper for saves. Then again, anyone in a Joe Maddon bullpen is a sleeper for saves.
If you hate strikeouts, Clayton Richard’s your man. Last year Richard struck out just 12% of the batters he faced. But he also posted the 2nd best K-BB% of his career because well, he doesn’t really walk anyone. Among relievers, his 3.9% BB% would have ranked 4th in MLB had he pitched just a few more innings to qualify. He also generated an insane 4.05 GB/FB ratio and mentally healthy but good 20.5% soft contact rate.
Changing his pitch mix worked well for him but like Cahill and Wood, it’s hard to place much stock in gains realized in relief. It’s unlikely his velocity increase would hold nor his new fastball-heavy pitch mix fool hitters over 5 or 6 innings. But due to his control and ability to limit fly balls, I like Richard the most of the three.
Adam Warren is also a candidate to step into the rotation having pitched well in 17 starts for the Yankees last year. He has a deep arsenal, decent control, and should start the season pitching the late innings. If he receives an extended shot at starting, Warren is definitely an appealing option.
The Cubs boast a deep bullpen but few fantasy studs. Hector Rondon enters 2016 as the Cubs’ closer coming off an excellent year. His 1.93 BB/9 ranked 23rd among relievers last season and his ERA 5th (2nd among relievers with at least 30 saves).
Should Rondon get hurt or spectacularly implode, Wood, Warren, Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, and Rex Brothers could all compete for saves. And that’s the problem. We’ve now seen 10 seasons of Joe Maddon Presents A Closer-by-Committee and while it’s refreshing to watch a team use its best pitchers in the highest leverage situations, it’s maddening (Maddoning?) for fantasy owners. And that’s why there likely won’t be many fantasy-relevant relievers on the North Side, unless of course you’re playing in a Holds league.
Strop and Grimm each provide ample strikeouts but their control makes both WHIP risks. If I had to choose one, I’d go with Strop because of his whiff rate, ground ball tendencies, and that he’s seen 9th inning duties before.
Somewhere along the road to Axfordtown, Rex Brothers missed his stop and ended up in Marmolville. Maybe a change of scenery and elevation will help his control but don’t be the guy in your league who finds out the hard way.
As for prospects, the Cubs are pretty durn thin at the high minors. Their top pitching prospects are a few years away and it’s unlikely any of the non-roster invitees will leapfrog their way into the rotation over more deserving candidates like Wood, Cahill, Warren, or Richard.
Rylan writes for Fangraphs and The Hardball Times. Look for his weekly Deep League Waiver Wire and The Chacon Zone columns this season.