The Cubs biggest move of the offseason may have impacted the rotation, but there are still plenty of questions on how the other four players will perform. The Cubs won the Jon Lester sweepstakes, but the rest of the rotation remains intact. Even Jason Hammel can back after a brief departure to Oakland. While Hammel and Jake Arrieta have plenty of upside, the team will still have to depend on a shaky back-end. Aside from Lester, who can you really trust moving forward?
Projected Depth Chart
Lester re-established himself as an ace in 2014. Much of the credit was given to Red Sox manager John Farrell, who worked to correct Lester’s mechanics. While there may be questions about whether Lester can maintain that level of production now that he’s no longer working with Farrell, it’s important to note that his numbers stayed the same in the few months he has in Oakland. On top of that, he’ll be working with Chris Bosio, who is quickly becoming one of the better pitching coaches in the league. Bosio has helped a number of players who will be discussed in this article, and should be able to work with Lester should things go haywire. It’s hard to forget the less-than-stellar numbers Lester put up in 2012 and 2013, and that should push him down draft boards slightly. He’s not a top-10 option at the position, but he’s awfully close and should be considered a low-end No. 1 fantasy starter.
An endorsement for Arrieta is pretty much an endorsement for Bosio. Under Bosio’s tutelage, Arrieta saw his strikeout rate shoot up, his walk rate fall and his slider become a massive weapon against opposing hitters. Admittedly, it’s really tough to be better after posting a 2.53 ERA and a 4.5 HR/FB rate, so it would seem his overall numbers can’t really improve. That’s not a bad thing, though. Even if Arrieta regresses, there’s a lot to like here provided Bosio can keep him on track. Also, it’s worth noting that Arrieta threw his slider 29% of the time in 2014. That’s a bit on the high side, and it could make him an injury risk. Still, barring a complete meltdown, he has a good chance of being a top-25 fantasy pitcher.
You can take a lot of what was said about Arrieta and Bosio and multiply it by five when talking about Hammel. Hammel, like Arrieta, embraced his slider, throwing over 31% of the time in 2014. With the Cubs, the strategy worked. He posted a 2.98 ERA and the best strikeout and walk rates of his career on the North Side. Upon going to the Athletics, things changed. Hammel lost those gains, and suddenly became very homer prone again. He wisely re-upped with the Cubs so he could work with Bosio again to recreate the magic. While Hammel threw 176.1 innings last year, it is important to note that figure was his highest total since 2010. He’s not usually the healthiest guy around. He could surprise again under Bosio, but there are risks.
This is where the Cubs rotation starts to get scary. Wood may have posted the highest strikeout rate of his career (barely), but he had significant control issues, which led to a career-high walk rate. He doesn’t have the type of stuff to put guys on via the free pass, and saw his ERA jump to 5.03. He wasn’t really that bad, according to the advanced pitching rates, but he wasn’t good enough that fantasy owners should be out in full force expecting a big rebound. A little bit of BABIP luck should help, but he still lacks the upside to be considered in mixed leagues. He can eat innings, but he’ll probably give you league-average production at best.
A stellar 2.47 ERA masks some legitimate issues with Hendricks. The main problem is that he didn’t strike anyone out in the majors. Hendricks has shown stronger strikeout numbers in the minors, so there’s a chance he seems some improvement, but he’s still going to be a relatively low-whiff guy. He does do plenty of other positive things, it’s just that they don’t usually lead to fantasy success. Hendricks is really stingy with walks, and gets a fair amount of grounders. That’s good! There are some pitchers who can get by with that type of skill-set and become strong fantasy assets. The problem is, those pitchers are normally outliers. Guys like Tim Hudson or Mark Buehrle. Projecting Hendricks to be either of those guys would be foolish, even though he does some of the same things. Even if you think he’s the next coming of those guys, their upside due to lack of strikeouts is fairly low. He’s an NL-only pitcher for now.
Barring an injury, the second-highest paid player on the team will likely be relegated to a long-relief role. Jackson has long been an enigma. The stuff is undoubtedly awesome, but he can’t seem to put it all together. Plenty of pitching coaches have had a shot at unlocking the secrets of his stuff, only to produce a league-average pitcher at best. With the Cubs, he hasn’t even been that. The advanced stats seem to think he’s not as bad as his ERA, but Jackson’s turned into such a mess that it’s hard to really trust those numbers. Is his high BABIP on the North Side a result of poor luck, or is he throwing way too many hittable pitches? You can’t completely give up on Jackson given his history, but it seems unlikely he’ll begin the year in the rotation.
Wada finally reached the majors, and the results were actually pretty good. Both his strikeout and walk rates were acceptable, and, despite a fly ball-heavy approach, he wasn’t killed by the long ball. The latter could change moving forward, as Wada doesn’t have overpowering stuff. Despite the strong performance, Wada is on the outside looking in to start 2015 likely due to his lack of experience/success in the majors, and his perceived lack of upside compared to the other options on the club. There’s a chance he surprises, but it’s unclear whether he’ll get the chance at starting every five days.
Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.