A competent 4th or 5th starter is not sexy.
So when a prospect is given a back-of-the-rotation grade, many fans see it as a slight. We’ve seen this most prominently with Kyle Hendricks, who has dazzled in his few MLB starts despite the dreaded “4/5 starter” label, but we’ve also seen it with pretty much every pitching prospect in the system.
Guys like Pierce Johnson and Jacob Turner have received the 4/5 starter label from scouts, who have subsequently been called out by Cubs fans. At the same time, other fans continue to make fun of the Cubs’ pitching prospects as a whole. (Fans are unhappy that they can’t tweet strangely-sexual things about 5th starter prospects, I guess. #RIPJason
If this season’s rash of pitching injuries shows anything, though, it’s that we should be pretty pleased with the back-end depth the Cubs have amassed. Major league teams have resorted to filling out their rotations with the likes of Roberto Hernandez, Kevin Correia, Franklin Morales, Eric Bedard, and countless other re-treads who have labored their way to posting high-5 ERAs this season.
Some teams have gone out and spent money to avoid those pitfalls, to find “reliable” back-end starting. The Twins (obviously) went out and paid big money to Ricky Nolasco, Kevin Correia, and Mike Pelfrey.
The Cubs gave $52 million to Edwin Jackson over four seasons. There’s real value to a guy who you think can reliably provide 180+ innings of below-average ERA ball.
The cruel reality to the situation though is that “reliable” back-end starting is largely a myth. 4/5 starters are usually missing some combination of command, control, velocity, and ability to miss bats that make a starter reliable. They’re always walking a thin line that separates them from turning into what Edwin Jackson or Travis Wood have this year.
The only way to find reliable back-end pitching, then, is to have a lot of guys who could reasonably fill that role sitting around in your bullpen and AAA. And boy, have the Cubs amassed that sort of group.
Between Hendricks, Johnson, Turner, Tsuyoshi Wada, Dan Straily, Eric Jokisch, Dallas Beeler, Rob Zastryzny, Duane Underwood, and Paul Blackburn, the Cubs have a ton of options to eat innings in a pinch. Not all of these guys will be good (in fact, likely only one or two will be), but having so many options available can save the Cubs some embarrassment and keep them in ballgames.
If your first thought after a starter goes down is “call up Johnson/Straily/Beeler/Whoever” instead of “oh CRAP what is [flips through rolodex]…aw, Christ…sigh, what is Mike Pelfry doing these days?”, you’re gonna save your team a win or two.
Back-end depth has certainly saved the team some wins already. Kyle Hendricks has pitched to a 1.91 ERA through 9 starts, Wada a 2.79 ERA through 9 starts, and even Jacob Turner, Dallas Beeler, and Felix Doubront have provided useful starts. These guys are largely the reason why the Cubs won so many games in August.
Developing back-end depth also allows you to spend money elsewhere. Take a look at the Orioles, for example. Because they’ve been able to find and develop guys like Miguel Gonzalez to fill out their rotation, they were able to splurge on Nelson Cruz this past offseason instead of spending a bunch of money on a Pelfry/Chris Young type.
Not only did their depth save them a few wins over your typical garbage free agent, but it bought them a few wins in the form of Nelson Cruz.
No, this rotation depth wont make up for a lack of elite starting pitching in the playoffs, but the handful of wins you do get out of that depth are huge. Consider the Orioles again, who have no real top-of-the-rotation pitching – they’re leading the AL East right now.
So as we get excited about seeing the future in the form of Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, and Arismendy Alcantara this September, remember that the quieter performances and development of Hendricks, Wada, Turner, and the others are going to be nearly as important in getting this team to the playoffs once again.