With Spring Training already underway, its time to look at some of the key spring battles for the Chicago Cubs, starting with the biggest battle of all, the starting rotation.
Barring any last minute trades, the first 3 spots in the Cubs rotation are pretty much set. Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm are locks to fill those slots.
Thus, the battle will be for the final two spots in the rotation, with 5 candidates vying for those spots: Randy Wells, Chris Volstad, Travis Wood, Jeff Samardzija and Casey Coleman.
After a strong rookie year, Randy Wells has seen his numbers slip each of the last two years, which has put his rotation spot in jeopardy. His ERA+ has dropped from 146 in 2009, to 99 in 2010 to 78 last year. Back in November, the Cubs indicated that they were open to trading Wells, but nothing ever materialized. If it appears that Wells is going to miss out on a rotation spot this spring, its likely that the Cubs will re-open trade discussions.
Chris Volstad, who was acquired in the Carlos Zambrano trade, is another pitcher who has been unable to repeat his rookie success. After posting an ERA+ of 151 in 84.1 IP in 2008, he has failed to post an ERA+ higher than 91 the last 3 years. He did show some signs of life at the end of last year when he posted an ERA of 4.04 in 11 starts after the All Star Break, but he needs to be more consistent.
Travis Wood, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, is another pitcher who had a good rookie year (116 ERA+ in 2010), but was unable to repeat his rookie success (81 ERA+ in 2011). One thing going against Wood is that he still has an option left, meaning the Cubs could send him to the minors to start the year. Thus, if it came down to him and say Volstad for the final spot, its likely that the Cubs would pick Volstad and send Wood to the minors.
Jeff Samardzija turned in a surprisingly good performance out of the pen in 2011, with a 132 ERA+ in 88 IP, earning him consideration for a starting role this spring. Manager Dale Sveum thinks he has a legitimate shot, saying "He might wow us -- you never know. That's a power arm, power body, obviously built to start." However, his control issues (5.1 BB/9 in 2011 and 5.3 BB/9 for his career) and his success out of the pen make it likely that he will return there for 2012.
Casey Coleman is a bit of a dark horse in this competition. With the recent acquisitions, Coleman's name rarely comes up in the discussion of who will be in the rotation, but he is someone you should definitely keep an eye on this spring. Like Volstad and Wood, Coleman has a nice rookie debut, posting a 104 ERA+ in 2010, before falling on hard times last year (61 ERA+). However, he actually improved his K/9 rate to 8.0 in 2011 from 4.3 in 2010 and pitched pretty well down the stretch (4.77 ERA in 5 September starts, including 30 K's in 26.1 IP). If he can cut down on his walks (4.9 BB/9 in 2011), as his minor league track record suggests he can (career 2.9 BB/9 in minors), he could surprise this spring.
I predict that the Cubs will go with a starting rotation of Garza, Dempster, Maholm, Wells and Volstad, at least to start the season, with Samardzija moving back to the pen and Wood and Coleman heading to AAA. The good news is that the Cubs will have some pitching depth should injuries befall the team like last year. The bad news is that none of these pitchers will strike fear in the hearts of opponents.