Cubs' rotation features quality, depth
If the Cubs indeed "won" the off-season, it happened late on a December night.
Word began filtering out from the baseball winter meetings that the Cubs had signed left-handed pitcher Jon Lester, the top prize of the free-agent market.
The price wasn't cheap: six years and $155 million. But it showed the Cubs were ready to compete in the National League Central and spend money to do so.
The Cubs also brought back Jason Hammel, who pitched well last year before being traded to Oakland in July.
As pitchers and catchers get set to report for spring training this week, the Cubs look to have one of the deepest and most formidable starting rotations in the NL. Here are some issues facing the starting five:
What is the Lester effect?
Signing Lester gives the Cubs a bona fide ace. Between his stays with Boston and Oakland last year, he was 16-11 with a 2.46 ERA and a WHIP of 1.10. Perhaps equally important, Lester's presence allows the Cubs to move the other starters down a slot into roles better suited for them.
That's not to say Jake Arrieta, now the No. 2 starter, didn't pitch like an ace last year. He did. Arrieta, who missed the first month of 2014 with shoulder problem, had no-hit stuff on several occasions when he came back.
He went 10-5 with a 2.53 ERA and a microscopic WHIP of 0.99. The 156⅔ innings he logged last year were by far a career high, and if he stays healthy the Cubs will be looking for 200 innings this year.
Hammel righted himself at the end of the season after a rough start in Oakland, where his home run rate spiked. He's a nice No. 3, allowing heady youngster Kyle Hendricks to build on his impressive 2014 from the fourth slot.
Who's No. 5?
If there's one place the Cubs have real competition, it's for the No. 5 spot.
Left-hander Travis Wood was an all-star in 2013, but he went 8-13 with a 5.03 ERA last year. His WHIP rose from 1.14 to a feverish 1.53.
If the Cubs don't package Wood in a deal, he should be the front-runner for the fifth spot ahead of Edwin Jackson, Jacob Turner, Felix Doubront and Tsuyoshi Wada.
What to do with Jackson?
In two years with the Cubs, Jackson has gone 14-33 with a 5.58 ERA and a WHIP of 1.54. And he has two seasons and $26 million left on his four-year, $52 million deal.
The only positive from the Jackson experience is he's a good teammate who takes responsibility for his failures. The Cubs banished him to the bullpen at the end of last season after he went on the disabled list with a lat strain.
At this point, the Cubs can hope he finds some semblance of his old form so he can spot-start or work in long relief. At worst, they can trade him and eat most of his contract or release him.
Who else will compete?
The Cubs added to their inventory last year by trading for Turner and Doubront and signing veteran Japanese lefty Wada, who led this trio by making 13 starts for the Cubs, going 4-4 with a 3.25 ERA.
Each is capable of pushing for the fifth-starter spot.
Most of the Cubs' starting depth in the organization is at the lower levels of the minor leagues. They got glimpses of right-hander Dallas Beeler and lefty Eric Jokisch (a Northwestern product) with the big club last season. Both look ticketed for the opening-day at Class AAA Iowa.
Right-hander C.J. Edwards, whose thin body barely casts a shadow, missed much of last year with a shoulder ailment. The Cubs still like his future.
The Cubs went heavily on pitchers after the first round of the draft the last three years. Right-handers Pierce Johnson and Duane Underwood, both of whom saw time with the Kane County Cougars last season, are part of this group, with the 24-year-old Johnson being more advanced at this point than the 20-year-old Underwood.
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