As Norm ably discussed last Thursday, the Cubs only have three starters clearly lined up for 2012 in Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells. Outside of those three players, the only players who are anywhere close to semi-legitimate starting pitching candidates for the Cubs all have major question marks. Carlos Zambrano is likely to be traded in the offseason after his well documented behavioral issues. Andrew Cashner should probably be put in the bullpen for 2012 to build up his arm strength. Casey Coleman, for lack of a better way of putting it, is Casey Coleman. And Jay Jackson struggled through most of last season in Iowa with decreased velocity before having a strong last month and a half of the AAA season. On top of that, don’t forget the vital lesson from last season: you better come into the season with at least six competent pitchers who can start.
The Cubs likely need to bring at least one pitcher in via free agency or trade, but it’s unclear how much money the Cubs are going to spend on pitching this offseason. Could the Cubs find some pitchers in the bargain bin to fill roles in the starting rotation? As a reminder, to make my bargain bin list a player must: (1) have had at least one 2.0 fWAR season; (2) be age 30 or younger on opening day 2012; and (3) have fallen off due to poor performance or injury to the point he is likely to be looking for a one year contract. A few pitchers with starting experience fit my list, although none of them are likely to be All Stars next season. At best, these are players who could fill some innings competently.
Cub fans are quite familiar with two of these pitchers. Rich Harden pitched for the Cubs from the midway point of 2008 through the 2009 season, and the general story of his career is pretty well known: when healthy, Harden was great. The problem is that he has rarely been healthy. In 212 innings as a Cub, Harden put up a solid 3.9 fWAR. Since then, though, he’s only put up a total of 0.2 fWAR. He struggled greatly in Texas in 2010, but Harden’s always been an extreme fly ball pitcher. Fly ball pitchers generally do not do great in Arlington. He was better in Oakland this past season, but only threw 82.2 innings in the majors. Considering that the Cubs really need players they can count on innings from in 2012, though, Harden should be a quick pass.
Most Cub fans remember Dontrelle Willis as the pitching prospect traded to the Marlins for Antonio Alfonseca and Matt Clement in 2002 before becoming a star with the Marlins in 2003. Willis put up 16.2 fWAR over the first five seasons of his career, including a 6.2 fWAR campaign in 2005. He also threw at least 197 innings in 4 consecutive seasons from 2004 to 2007. Since then, however, Willis has struggled with injuries and control problems, putting up a total of 0.0 fWAR over the last four seasons. Willis had his first productive stint as a starter since the Bush administration last season, posting 0.8 fWAR in 75.1 innings. Willis is still young enough to turn it around if he finds his health. He’s probably never going to be what he was in Florida, but he could be a solid innings eater. Since his injury issues are much more recent than any history of throwing considerable innings, he’s probably only worth a contract near the MLB minimum. If he’s willing to sign for that, though, he is an intriguing possibility.
Scott Kazmir was one of the best young pitchers in baseball just a few years ago, leading the Rays to the World Series in 2008 and accumulating 17.7 fWAR before his 26th birthday. 2010 and 2011 have been complete disasters for Kazmir, though, as injuries sapped his velocity, which in turn made him a completely ineffective pitcher. Kazmir would be worth, at most, a minor league contract that I like to call the Ryan Dempster special. That is when the Cubs give an injured player a minor league or MLB minimum contract and pay for his rehab, in the hopes that he will eventually get healthy and be able to contribute. But Kazmir should not, under any circumstances, be signed with the idea of contributing in 2012.
Remember how pretty much every year the Pirates have a rookie pitcher come up mid-season, have an impressive half season, be named their potential ace apparent, and then never live up to that billing again? Back in 2005, Zack Duke took a turn in that role. In his first stint in the majors, Duke put up an 8-2 record (and back in 2005 more people cared about win-loss record) and a 1.81 ERA in 14 starts. Duke’s never been anywhere near that good again, but he had a respectable stint as a swingman in Arizona this past year. In 21 games, 9 starts, Duke put up a 4.93 ERA, but was probably the victim of bad defense. Duke had a 3.99 FIP and 4.27 xFIP, with the disparity in the ERA being due to a .339 BABIP. Duke would probably be nothing more than a younger, left handed Rodrigo Lopez. If the Cubs need a new, cheap long man in the pen, or a sixth or seventh starter to spend most of his time in Iowa but be ready for a call up, Duke could fill that role.
In other words, the bargain starters do not look particularly promising. I would like the Cubs to also look at Jeff Francis, but: (1) Buddy already provided an excellent analysis regarding Francis; and (2) Francis will be 31 on opening day 2012, so he does not fit my admittedly arbitrary criteria for this post.
There is one interesting reliever who meets my criteria. Prior to the 2010 season, no one would have thought that Dodgers’ closer Jonathan Broxton would be enter free agency with no arbitration status and probably looking for a one year contract to prove he’s healthy and can still be effective. From 2006 to 2009, Broxton threw at least 69 innings without ever posting an ERA above 3.13. 2010 was not as strong for Broxton, posting a 4.04 ERA, but he still made 64 appearances with a FIP and xFIP right around 3.00. As the Dodgers’ best reliever pretty much since coming up to the majors at 21 years old, there had always been rumors that the Dodgers might have used Broxton too much when he was too young. His health really suffered in 2011, as Broxton suffered both elbow and shoulder problems that limited him to 12.2 ineffective innings. If Broxton can get healthy, he could be an interesting addition to a bullpen. Considering the extent of his injuries this season, though, it’s not clear how much Broxton would be able to contribute in 2012.