CHISportsNation

Three days into the All Star Break and I’m needing baseball to come back already. Eh, I guess the actual athletes need some time off. Whatever, fine. I’ve been reviewing the Cubs’ first half on the outfield and infield so far this week and today I’ll be taking a look at the starting pitching.

Who We’ve Seen So Far:

Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, Kyle Hendricks, Travis Wood, Tsuyoshi Wada, Donn Roach, Clayton Richard, Dallas Beeler

What We’ve Seen So Far:

Jon Lester’s first season of his six year contract hasn’t quite been up to the expectations of the Cubs, the fans and Lester himself. In 110.1 innings, Lester came into the break with a 3.59 ERA and a nice 3.15 FIP and 3.14 xFIP. Those numbers definitely look pretty good but still don’t seem like what Lester feels his own potential is. Some rough outings against Cincinnati, Miami and Detroit have also contributed to the “Lester is Underperforming” narrative.

Another factor not helping Lester has been his difficulty with runners on base. His well-publicized inability to throw to First appears to come back to haunt him when speedsters like Billy Hamilton or Dee Gordon get on base and mess with his flow. Nonetheless, Lester has seen his BABIP and strikeout rate rise slightly from his career average, and his walk rate drop. So, though it may come as a surprise to the Chicago media and Lester, himself, the big money ace has, in fact, been doing a pretty good job.

Jake Arrieta has just been great. He already has amassed 121.2 innings, which are good for his second highest total ever. His walk rate is way down to 1.85/9IP and his strikeout rate, while lower than last season, is higher, at 9.10/9IP, than his career average. Though Arrieta didn’t quite grab an All Star spot due to a crowded National League Starting Pitching field, his 2.66 ERA, 2.60 FIP and 2.72 xFIP certainly scream that he’s someone to continue to keep an eye on.

Another guy who has limited his walk rate is Jason Hammel whose 1.56/9IP is well below his quite good 2014 rate and his career average. His strikeout rate is also way up to 9.12/9IP from his career average of 6.95/9IP. Unsurprisingly, his 2.86 ERA, 3.07 FIP and 3.14 xFIP tell a similar story and show that Hammel thrives in a Cub uniform.

Kyle Hendricks had a bumpy start to the season, only getting through 6 innings in one of his first seven starts. But he began picking up steam in May with a complete game shutout in San Diego and only allowing one run in 7 innings against the Nationals. Hendricks ended up closing out the first half with an excellent stretch of over 22 innings without allowing a run. His strikeout rate is up from last season and his walk rate is down and he comes into the half with a 3.55 ERA, 3.33 FIP and 3.45 xFIP.

Then there’s the tricky fifth spot in the rotation. Travis Wood started the year in the role but failed to make it to the 6th inning in five of his seven starts. Wood was replaced with Tsuyoshi Wada.

Wada’s three starts in May were purposely cut short to limit the amount of times opposing batters got a look at him, but Wada was pretty good in them. He did not fare so well, however, in back-to-back starts in early June as he was pulled before the 4th twice. But Wada bounced back with a “badass” 7-inning shutout performance against Cleveland in the 17-0 blowout. Then, just when it looked like he was righting the ship, Wada was pulled in the 3rd inning of his next start with shoulder inflammation. Wada has been working his way back and missed a couple starts in the meantime but figures to rejoin the rotation soon after the All Star break.

In Wada’s place, we’ve seen three fringy major league pitchers: Donn Roach, Clayton Richard and Dallas Beeler. All three are groundball pitchers with pretty good AAA numbers. Nonetheless, Roach did not fare well in his start and has since been claimed off wavers by Cincinnati. The concept of keeping groundball pitchers as AAA depth is one that I like, but neither Richard nor Beeler are the type of pitchers who should be getting regular starts on a team with real playoff aspirations.

What To Expect in the Second Half:

The front three are pretty much set: Lester, Arrieta and Hammel. We didn’t get to see Hammel’s second half performance as a Cub but hopefully it will be more similar to his 2014 and 2015 first halves than it was to his 2014 second half with the A’s where he didn’t fare quite as well.

Although Hendricks has been performing well of late I would assume that the Cubs would prefer to turn him into a high quality fifth starter and bring in someone of a higher caliber in his place.

Looking at the Cubs’ minor league depth doesn’t really tell us too much as Iowa starters like Beeler, the injured Eric Jokisch and Pacific Coast League All Star starter Carlos Pimentel all project as fringy. Perhaps the Cubs look to Pierce Johnson who has looked good at AA Tennessee, but he certainly would not be a reliable starter during the pennant race. Plus, Jacob Turner who was expected to serve as a potential fifth starter will not return this season from a shoulder injury.

So if the Cubs want to make an upgrade, it will be through a trade. Now I really don’t think the Cubs will pursue a high priced rental like Johnny Cueto but I could see them looking at a slightly lower priced rental like Scott Kazmir of the A’s, Mat Latos of the Marlins or even Jeff Samardzija of the White Sox. Another possibility would be that the Cubs attempt to swing a deal for a starter who they would control for a few seasons past 2016. Someone like San Diego’s Tyson Ross would fit this bill but also would be more expensive.

Taking a guess, I would think that of those options, the Cubs would be most prone to go for Latos or Samardzija and then regroup in the offseason and attempt to sign a big money starter or deal for a cost-controlled one. But in the coming weeks, keep an eye on the Cubs as they have prospect depth to deal from and will almost certainly make a move to shore up the rotation for the rest of the year.

 

Next Up: Bullpen

Photo by Stephen Green.

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