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updated: 3/2/2014 8:49 PM

Cubs starters should be respectable, but for how long?

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  • The Cubs' Jeff Samardzija has yet to sign a multiyear contract. He cannot become a free agent until after the 2015 season, but he may be at his peak trade value now.

      The Cubs' Jeff Samardzija has yet to sign a multiyear contract. He cannot become a free agent until after the 2015 season, but he may be at his peak trade value now.
    Associated Press

 
 

Who's next to go?

One could argue that the Cubs could have a pretty good rotation had they kept Paul Maholm, Ryan Dempster, Scott Feldman and Matt Garza.

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But the management team led by Theo Epstein had other ideas and a grand plan, and the trades of veteran pitchers brought young arms the Cubs hope will be their future: Arodys Vizcaino, Kyle Hendricks and C.J. Edwards.

Time will tell whether these pitchers and the many the Cubs have drafted and traded for over the past two years will pan out. Until then, the Cubs still have to field a rotation at the major-league level.

It could well be that any two or three of the current Cubs starters could be sent packing on or before July 31. The name most prominent lately is No. 1 starter Jeff Samardzija. A member of the Cubs family since being drafted in 2006, Samardzija has yet to sign a multiyear contract. He cannot become a free agent until after the 2015 season, but he may be at his peak trade value now.

Recently signed right-hander Jason Hammel, who will fill the No. 4 spot, could wind up being this year's version of Feldman or Maholm: traded for prospects.

Until that time comes, the Cubs will run out a rotation that's respectable, if not spectacular. With some of these pitchers, you have to look past the obvious numbers to see that the top three of Samardzija, Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson are a bit better than just OK.

Samardzija, who just turned 29, was the team's opening-day starter last season, and he led the staff with a career-high 213⅔ innings.

He went 8-13 with a 4.34 ERA and a WHIP of 1.35 pitching on a team that lost 96 games. His walk rate went up, from 2.89 to 3.29, but his fielding-independent pitching (or FIP, a measure scaled to ERA) was a respectable 3.77.

Writing on fangraphs.com, Jeff Sullivan stated: "Something to establish right away: Teams like Jeff Samardzija, and that's why he's in demand. They like him because he's really good. He's not ace-good, but he's not (Kevin) Correia-mediocre. The strikeouts are there. He throws in the mid-90s with multiple secondary pitches."

Baseball Prospectus seems to concur: "Much like Edwin Jackson, Shark's inflated ERA isn't as bad as it looks and will likely go down this year. He's a solid second starter, and while that's not an ace, who would have thought it possible five years ago?"

Wood wound up being the Cubs' most effective starter last season, and he could beat out Samardzija for the opening-day start this year. He hit the 200-innings mark for the first time in his career while going 9-12 with a 3.89 ERA and a WHIP of 1.15. He also made the National League all-star team.

Wood is a flyball pitcher, but he managed to knock his home run rate down to 0.81 to 1.44, perhaps helped by some friendly winds at Wrigley Field. He also managed to pitch well to both sides of the plate, holding right-handed batters to a .226 average while lefties hit .207 against him.

Jackson was a major disappointment after signing a four-year, $52 million contract before the 2013 season.

He went 8-18 with a 4.98 ERA and a WHIP of 1.46. On very few days did Cubs fans feel confident when Jackson took the mound.

On the other side, Jackson didn't shy away from the ball, and he took accountability for his bad outings.

The Cubs likely will be satisfied if Jackson can go back to being the dependable innings-eater he's been throughout his career.

There are signs of hope. Jackson's FIP was a decent 3.79, and most of his peripheral numbers were in line with his career norms.

"We're not here to say Jackson pitched well, but his numbers last year don't point toward a player who is suddenly awful so much as a mediocre innings eater having a randomly bad year," according to Baseball Prospectus.

Hammel, 31, was 7-8 with a 4.97 ERA for Baltimore last year. He has big-league experience with the Rays and Rockies as well as with the Orioles.

The Cubs still have to fill out of the fifth spot. Right-hander Jake Arrieta has been slowed by shoulder tightness. Lefty Chris Rusin has been up the past two years. The pitcher to watch will be right-hander Hendricks, the Cubs' minor-league pitcher of the year last season. He went 13-4 with a 2.00 ERA in two minor-league stops in 2013. He could be up by summer.

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