With Chicago Cubs spring training set to begin Feb. 14 in Mesa, Ariz., we're taking an early look around the diamond.
Analysis: The Cubs starting staff would be hard-pressed to pitch much better than it did early last season. Ranking ninth in the National League in ERA (3.97) for the year is misleading. It rose as the season went on and the Cubs traded 40 percent of their staff in Feldman and Garza. Wood emerged as the ace and pitched his way into being a core player. Samardzija had his moments, but as the team fell way out of contention, so did his game as evidenced by an ERA over 5.00 for the second half.
Jackson needs a mulligan (8-18, 4.98) for 2013 or else he risks being one of the worst free-agent signings in recent memory. Villanueva and Rusin filled in nicely when needed, but they aren't starters on a contending team. Jackson might not be either, and if the Cubs trade Samardzija, then they'll be even thinner. But there is hope in Arrieta. At 28, his best days might be ahead of him. He has devastating stuff, but he has to start realizing his potential. Hammel is a reclamation project in the same way Feldman was in rebounding from two injury-plagued seasons.
Outlook: There's no reason not to believe Wood can repeat or even improve on his 2013 season. After that, it's a bit of a crapshoot. Samardzija has proved he can win a big game, but unless there's movement in contract negotiations, there's little chance of him finishing the season as a Cub. Jackson can't be worse than last season, so even a small uptick in performance will be a welcome sign. Hammel could end up doing exactly what Feldman did: pitch his way onto another team and get the Cubs a decent return.
The X factor is Arrieta. If nothing else happens for the starting staff other than Arrieta becoming a mainstay, then it will be a productive season. An improving Wood, a more consistent Jackson and Samardzija -- as long as he's here -- and the emergence of Arrieta are things to look for from the starting rotation if things go well. Waiting in the wings is recent Dartmouth graduate Kyle Hendricks. Not considered by many as a top prospect, he had a monster (13-4, 2.00) minor league season in 2013 and was named the organization's minor league pitcher of the year. He'll start at Triple-A Iowa, but don't be surprised if he's at Wrigley Field later this season.