Sunday, February 22, 2009

"Start" of Spring Training

Zambrano, Dempster, Lilly and Harden--that's all set. But who will replace the supreme averageness of Jason Marquis as the Cubs' 5th starter? Piniella is in a good position, with two solid options and a potential wild card in 24-year-old Jeff Samardzija. Though of the three, only Marshall has appeared as a starter more often than a reliever in his career.

Heilman, 30, had been with the Mets his whole career, but was traded to the Mariners in December and then quickly flipped to the Cubs in January. Heilman was traded after struggling as a reliever in '08, going 3-8 with a 5.21 ERA and 1.59 WHIP (walks + hits/inning pitched). However, he posted a 3.27 total ERA in the three seasons prior. Those numbers came mostly out of the 'pen, as he started just seven games in that time frame, all in '05. Heilman has not started since that year.

Marshall is a 26-year-old lefty who has provided versatility for the Cubs since coming up from the Minors in 2006. He has appeared in 79 games with the Cubs, 50 as a starter. Last year was arguably his best, as he posted: 3-5, 3.86 ERA, 1.27 WHIP. Marshall has generally fared better out of the 'pen (3.03 vs. 4.80 ERA).

It's actually somewhat ridiculous how similar these two pitchers are with their production. A look at their career numbers (Marshall listed first):

16-22 4.62 1.41
22-33 4.24 1.33

More food for thought: Marshall, as more of a finesse pitcher, will post fewer strikeouts, but has also exhibited slightly better control. (Marshall listed first)

K/9 IP BB/9 IP
6.18 3.6
7.90 3.7

So: both have split time between starting and relieving, and both have been better as relievers. Their career win percentages are two percentage points apart, their ERAs and WHIPs are very similar, and Heilman is likely to strike out a few more guys, while walking slightly fewer.

Well, I'm exhausted. One thing to consider is that if Marshall starts, Neal Cotts is likely to be the only lefty out of the bullpen. Did you hear that? I said: Neal Cotts could be the only lefty out of the bullpen. Add in the fact that Cotts is actually better against righties than lefties, and this could be a serious factor in the final decision.

But wait: our wild card candidate. Jeff Samardzija came up last July and appeared in 26 games. He was exciting to watch, putting up a 2.28 ERA and notching 25 Ks in 27.2 IP. However, he also walked 15, and a similar struggle with control in a starter role would severely limit his ability to go deep into ballgames. Given that Zambrano and Harden tend to struggle in that arena, I'd prefer to see a 5th starter who can eat up some innings.

To me, it seems silly to prematurely choose between Heilman and Marshall, since neither really stands out. But as I said above, this is a nice situation for Lou. Both have the ability to perform satisfactorily in the 5th starter role, and whoever ends up in the 'pen will provide a nice insurance policy when another starter gets injured or struggles. Lou has rightly declared that he'll use spring training as a forum to help answer this particular question.

I lean toward Marshall because he's had more experience as a starter, but would have no problem seeing Heilman take the ball every fifth day. Ultimately, this is just one of many reasons to be excited about spring training baseball, which starts in just three short days (vs. Dodgers, Wednesday, 2:00 CST). And by the way, Samardzija will start the first game.


  1. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'm not convinced trading Marquis was the right move. Neither Marshall or Heilman seems like a certain improvement. Assuming someone gets injured (and this being the Cubs, someone will get injured) both of these guys are likely to be making some starts. I'm not sure we have the bullpen depth to handle that. All the salary dumping this off-season and the biggest improvement is Milton Bradley? I think the Cubs would have been smart to pick up another proven starter, even if it's not Jake Peavy.

  2. For the record, Marquis' career numbers:

    79-70, 4.55 ERA, 1.42 WHIP (best record of the three, in between ERA, slightly worse WHIP)

    Marquis' ERA has been over 4.5 each of the last three seasons, while Marshall's has been under 4 the last two years, and Heilman's has been 3.9 over the last three years. Marquis benefited from great run support last year, as the Cubs scored 7.78 runs for every nine innings he pitched. It was even more ridiculous in '07, as the Cubs scored 8.76.

    Marquis will make over $6 million this year, while Heilman and Marshall will make less than $2 million combined. I think Marshall and Heilman bring enough to the table that this is a good trade-off financially, especially if you assume the Cubs considered the Marquis trade a necessary precursor to signing Bradley.

  3. I definitely didn't mean for my comment to be a celebration of Jason Marquis. That stats you provided prove he is a pretty mediocre pitcher. But, I don't know that the comparison with Heilman's and Marshall's stats are really fair. As a starter, Marshall is 14-21 with a 4.8 ERA. Heilman has started so little, we don't really know how he'll do. I know Dempster made the transition pretty smoothly last year, but he began his career as a starter and had had some success.

    Marshall does bring a lot to the table, I just think we're going to need him in the bullpen or making spot starts like last year.

    And I understand the Cubs have financial constraints, but they dumped Wood (4.2 mil), DeRosa (4.7 mil), Howry (4.5 mil) this offseason in addition to Marquis. Seems like they could have held on to him for the depth he adds while adding Bradley's 10 mil.

  4. My money is on Marshall. Everything Lou has said is that he is the "front-runner". We all know what that means. He has to say that the others have a shot and that they will test things out in March, especially since Heilman did nothing but complain about being in the bullpen in New York. Changing Lou's mind is hard to do though. Wait for Harden or Little Z to go down sometime during the year and I bet you get to see Samardzija get some starts. I think it would be wise to start the year with the Notre Dame pretty boy in AAA working to be a starter. With the money that has been spent on this team and the relevative weakness of the rest of the division, do the Cubs really need him out of the pen all year? Sure maybe move him there at the end of the year and for the playoffs, but aren't you better off getting him developed as a starter? They might even need him as a starter this year and I'm pretty sure his upside is much higher than the others for the long run.