Miles: Cubs going to WAR with an impressive bunch

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Jon Lester, during a game with Oakland last season, had a 2.46 ERA last season.

    Jon Lester, during a game with Oakland last season, had a 2.46 ERA last season. Associated Press

  • Travis Wood is trying to win the fifth spot in the Cubs' starting rotation.

    Travis Wood is trying to win the fifth spot in the Cubs' starting rotation. Associated Press

  • Jason Hammel was 8-5 with a 2.98 ERA with the Cubs before being traded to Oakland last season.

    Jason Hammel was 8-5 with a 2.98 ERA with the Cubs before being traded to Oakland last season. Associated Press

  • Jake Arrieta stretches during a spring training baseball workout in February. Arrieta had a 5.3 wins above replacement number in 2014.

    Jake Arrieta stretches during a spring training baseball workout in February. Arrieta had a 5.3 wins above replacement number in 2014. Associated Press

  • Some of the younger Cubs pitchers have a chance to learn from newcomer Jon Lester.

    Some of the younger Cubs pitchers have a chance to learn from newcomer Jon Lester.

 
 
Posted3/8/2015 7:30 AM

Do the Cubs have the best starting rotation in the National League Central? Maybe.

The addition of Jon Lester and the reacquisition of Jason Hammel can do that for you.

 

The Cubs ended last year with a respectable rotation, even after they traded Hammel and Jeff Samardzija to Oakland on the Fourth of July.

They re-signed Hammel, and landed the biggest pitching free-agent prize in Lester, whom they signed to a six-year, $155 million deal.

Lester goes to the top of the rotation, pushing Jake Arrieta to second, followed by Hammel and Kyle Hendricks, who got his first taste of big-league action last year (7-2, 2.46 ERA).

The fifth spot may be lefty Travis Wood's to lose. Wood seeks to return to his 2013 all-star form after falling to 8-13 with a 5.03 ERA in 2014.

By one measure, the Cubs may have the best starting five in the NL Central. If you subscribe to WAR -- wins above replacement -- and assume Wood is the No. 5, the Cubs offer a combined WAR of 15 to open this season.

That's ahead of the Cardinals (11 WAR), Brewers (8.9), Reds (8.6) and Pirates (4.8), based on spring depth charts for each rotation as provided by mlb.com. We'll add the usual words of caution here: The Cubs still have to play the games, their pitchers must stay healthy and they're up against some tough aces in the division. Lester had a combined WAR of 4.6 with the Red Sox and Athletics last year. Reds ace Johnny Cueto was at 6.4, with Cardinals stalwart Adam Wainwright at 6.1.

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But having Lester adds new dimensions to the rotation, and not just by the numbers.

"Having a guy like that, someone that some of the younger guys can go to for advice, myself included, I've admired him from afar for a long time," said Arrieta, who was the staff ace after Samardzija was traded. "I look forward to seeing him in and around the team and seeing the young guys taking advantage of him being around."

Hammel seconded that notion.

"The name speaks for itself," said Hammel, who got to know Lester in Oakland last season. "It's more just experience. We do have some young guys here still. They're experienced from last year, the trials and tribulations a young guy goes through. Anytime you bring a Jon Lester aboard, your team gets better by a lot."

Here is a look at the possible starting five and a few others:

Lester: Although he says he's flattered to be called a leader, Lester says it's not a role he seeks. He was 16-11 with a 2.46 ERA for the Red Sox and Athletics last year.

"I go about my business and try to have fun doing it," he said during the early days of spring training. "And that's really it. I don't have any magic secrets or any formulas or anything like that to give these guys. I put my head down. I do my work. If that, in turn, makes guys want to follow me, then great. If it doesn't, if that program doesn't work for them, it's no big deal."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Arrieta: After missing the first month of last season recovering from a shoulder ailment, Arrieta put up a WAR of 5.3 and went 10-5 with a 2.53 ERA. He took no-hit stuff to the mound several times.

"I rarely set individual goals," he said. "The preparation in the off-season to pitch for seven-and-a-half, eight months, into October, kind of sets things up and will allow those individual goals to unfold naturally," he said. "I want to be as positive a teammate, as good of a teammate, as I possibly can and set a good example for some of these younger guys, like Hendricks, (reliever Neil) Ramirez, (reliever) Justin Grimm. Those three guys are going to be huge parts of our success."

Hammel: Hammel's 3.1 WAR was compiled with the Cubs before he struggled in the beginning with Oakland. He ended 10-11 with a 3.47 ERA (8-5 and 2.98 with the Cubs).

"If you get complacent and you don't feel like you have to come in and actually earn your job, you're not doing your job," he said. "Things have not changed for me. I'm still as competitive as they come. Spring training is time to get ready for a championship season."

Hendricks: He made his first major-league start July 10 and rarely looked like a rookie, putting up a WAR of 2.9. His stuff isn't going to wow anybody, and that can be worrisome for a right-hander, but Hendricks studies his craft and knows how to pitch.

"I tried to go in with as little expectation as I could because you hear so much about the big-league level and the hitters and how good they are," he said. "I just tried to go in there and play the same game I've been playing. After a couple of starts, it started to sink in that it really is the same game. If you go by the scouting report and know the hitters and execute your game plan, you can be successful."

Wood: He was a minus-0.9 WAR, not surprising given his record. Command is key for this lefty, as it was in 2013, when he was 9-12 on a bad team but had an ERA of 3.11. How can he get back to that?

"Just with work and getting back to the basics, attacking the zone, getting some early outs and early strikes and pitching ahead," he said.

Wood was brought in at the beginning of the Cubs' long rebuilding process. He'd like to be there at the end of it.

"Absolutely, I'd love to be here when it's time win, and it is time to win now," he said.

The rest: Edwin Jackson is back, with two years and $26 million left on his four-year deal. He was 6-15 with a 6.33 ERA after going 8-18 and 4.98 the year before. He could wind up in the bullpen, or traded.

Righty Jacob Turner and lefty Felix Doubront came via trades last year, with each making starts and providing depth for an organization whose prospects are not quite ready for the big leagues.

Lefty Tsuyoshi Wada looked good in many of his 13 starts. He's in the mix. The Cubs will watch highly touted prospect C.J. Edwards this spring along with lefty Eric Jokisch and Dallas Beeler, both of whom saw some big-league time in 2014.

bmiles@dailyherald.com

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