The title of this post is a fruitless attempt to make the 2012 Chicago Cubs pitching staff sound formidable. Outside of some quality starting pitching, it’s more than a little scary and a lot less than formidable.
The Red Sox are in town, taking over for the Tiger fans who took over Wrigleyville earlier in the week, and they’ll face what may be the worst team in baseball. Hey, it’s a battle of last place teams! But not all last place teams are equal, and there’s no comparing the AL East to the NL Central. Just ask A.J. Burnett.
Familiar foe Matt Garza will not see action this series. The Cubs will go with their most reliable veteran starter, Ryan Dempster, followed by their most reliable young starter, I can’t believe I’m typing this, Jeff Samardzija. Former Pirate Paul Maholm gets the ball Sunday night.
Red Sox fans may be seeing more of Dempster (cough Yankees cough) than Cub fans after today. He’s open to waiving his no-trade protection and spent some time chatting with Theo Epstein recently. This wasn’t some private meeting, it was in the seats during pre-game workouts. Kabuki-esque show for the media? Chit chat about hockey or soccer? Advice on good running trails in the area?
Samardzija is rumored to be virtually untouchable on a roster with 23 tradeable guys (Starlin Castro ain’t goin’ nowheres). A controversial draft pick from the prior regime, the Notre Dame wide receiver struggled for his entire career…until last year. A raw pitcher but a talented athlete, the Cubs whip-sawed The Shark from reliever to starter, big leagues to minor leagues, while trying to refine his delivery and his secondary pitches. Shocker, that didn’t work.
Somewhere around 2011, things changed. Samardzija adopted a shorter wind-up and delivery that was easier to repeat. This not only allowed him to get some command over his lively two- and four-seam fastballs, but to start getting some consistency on his secondary pitches. He’s still learning how to pitch and manage his innings, but he’s not a thrower anymore and I can no longer make jokes about him being the Cubs best third down option (that’s Matt Szczur, and he’s high-A ball).
Considering how lame my wide receiver jokes got after 2008, it’s probably a good thing for all parties.
Maholm is the wild card pitcher. A typical low-margin-for-error starter, Maholm can shut guys down by changing speeds and hitting spots. But if he’s not able to do that and falls behind repeatedly, his stuff isn’t good enough to beat most line-ups. He’s averaging just over five innings in his last four starts, after working six plus in four straight before that, so you can guess which phase of the Maholm we’re in.
Ryan Dempster: Primarily sinker (89 mph)/slider (85) most days, but will throw more four-seam fastballs (91) if the wind is blowing in. More cutters (87) this year than last, has an outstanding split-fingered pitch (83). Will miss a lot of bats. Will work quickly. Will flip his glove around in the middle of his delivery to hide his grip and distract the hitter. May even mix in a circle change-up (82) once in a while.
Jeff Samardzija: Mixes sinkers (95) and fastballs (96) based on …. who knows. Feel, scouting report, catcher preference, wind conditions …. either way he throws hard and keeps the velocity throughout the game. His secondary pitch mix also varies, choosing from his cutter (92), slider (85) and splitter (87). He’s like Dempster with power and a bigger frame. He’ll work quickly and is fundamentally a sinker/slider pitcher.
Paul Maholm: Yet another sinker (88)/slider (81) type. Maholm’s slider and cutter (84) can blur, and sometimes it’s like one pitch. He has the full starter’s kit, with a four-seam fastball (89), a pretty good curveball (73)–the only one you’ll see out of the starters–and change-up (82). No splitter! Black sheep! Black sheep!
This bullpen is scary. I’ll skip the fancy narratives and get down to brass tacks. I’ll also go in alphabetical order because I’m not ready to admit Shawn Camp is the closer.
Jairo Asencio came to professional baseball as Luis Valdez, ahem. Now using his real name and age, he’s on his way to attaining journeyman status. Originally a Brave, the Cubs got him when the Indians cut him loose. Fastball (93), change-up (86), slider (83) and a few sinkers (92).
Camp probably isn’t the closer, but he does get most of the late/high-leverage innings. Amazingly, he’s been the most reliable righty out of the Cubs pen this year. He was released by the Mariners and really his a journeyman. He slings it almost side-arm and throws both four- (93) and two-seam (92) fastballs. He has two off-speed pitches, change-up (87) and slider (83). Almost half his pitches to lefties are change-ups, he tries very hard to keep the ball off their bat and moving away.
Casey Coleman is a third generation MLB pitcher. He didn’t make the grade as a starter, but has reinvented himself has a reliever with two arm slots. He has a funky delivery–turns his back to the hitter–and has been effective since coming up from Iowa. He throws four- (92) and two-seam (90) fastballs and a breaking pitch or two. The way his arm slot has dropped, and varies, it’s hard to tell his slider and curveball apart, assuming they are two pitches anymore. Let’s say slurve (78) and move on. He’s also got a change-up (81).
Manny Corpas is back in The Show. He’s different than pre-surgery Manny. Like Coleman, he’s added a second arm angle, dropping down even lower than before. He’s also added a change-up (86). I wish he’d throw that as his exclusive off-speed pitch from the lower slot, because the slider (81) from that angle ends up being a back-up cookie. He mixes his two- (90) and four-seam (92) off his slider, which he’s throwing 2/3 of the time. That’s a lot of sliders, too many back-up cookies, and I hope he keeps working on that change-up.
Carlos Marmol’s velocity is coming back on his fastball (94 but moving up) but his slider (84) is not the same as it used to be. He shortened it up last year, maybe even cutting a fastball instead at times. Now it is lacking the horizontal movement of old. He does seem to be working on a two-seam fastball. That would give back some of the movement gap between his two speeds that made him so devastating in the past. But he won’t get back there without reverting his mechanics, and I’m afraid the new balance is (a) here to stay and (b) not all that balanced either.
Last year, James Russell was a pseudo-starter. Son of a closer, he was open about expecting to work in relief (and not as a closer). The only lefty in the pen, Russell has been far more effective since the rotation visits ended. He’s developed a solid set of pitches reminiscent of Sean Marshall’s kit. Big difference in leverage/extension of course, and effectiveness, but he’s not a two pitch guy and can handle both right- and left-handed hitters. He may be used in closing situations, too. He throws six pitches, 2/5 are the slider (81) followed by a fastball (90), sinker (89), change-up (82), cutter (87) and curveball (74).
Let me repeat: these six pitches were refined and improved after he stopped working as a starter. Do not look at that arsenal and think he should move back to the rotation. None of his pitches are good enough to handle the velocity drop and repeated viewings a starter provides his opponents.
Randy Wells is the last of the group. All journeymen or refurbished starters, Wells belongs to the latter. Like Marmol, he’s a former catcher. He’s Dempster-esque, a sinker (90)/slider (84) guy who throws cutters (87) and four-seamers (90). His off-speed pitch is a change-up (82). Wells doesn’t exactly exude confidence, but he expects a lot of himself. Strange dynamic. His stuff is alright, I like him as a starter because he is a bit of a bulldog, but he simply did not perform when given the chance.
OK, good luck. If you didn’t figure it out, I’m a Cub fan. Be nice in the comments.