At the start of this off-season, the Cubs' rotation featured the rehabbing Matt Garza, back-end hurler Travis Wood, and relief-to-starting-experiment-gone-right Jeff Samardzija. These were pieces already in place that formed the base of a competent group of starting pitchers, the lack of which in 2012 helped push the Cubs to 101 losses. While the rotation began the year looking solid, the trades of Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm, in conjunction with Garza's elbow fracture, meant Chicago saw its share of awful starting pitching in the second half of the season.
General manager Jed Hoyer has added a number of options in the first two months of the off-season to avoid a repeat. First, free agent Scott Baker signed a one-year deal with a base salary of $5.5 million. Baker has spent his seven seasons in the majors with the Twins, and while he's occasionally just average, he's been brilliant nearly as often. The issue -- and the reason he was available for so little -- was that he missed all of 2012 due to elbow surgery. It wasn't an isolated incident: Baker has spent time on the disabled list three separate times for the same elbow, and missed most of the last month of 2010 as well. He's averaged just 164 innings in the last five years he's pitched, and even fewer if you throw in the zero from 2012. If his elbow is now healthy, though, the Cubs might have themselves a huge bargain.
Then came the signing of Scott Feldman, who has bounced between the bullpen and rotation for the Rangers for most of his career. While maybe not as appealing as Baker in terms of upside, Feldman is much better depth than some of what the Cubs have been rolling out the last few years. The decent punch-out rates and the occasional grounder from Feldman beats giving Chris Volstad another go, or hoping that 29-year-old Justin Germano can translate his Triple-A numbers into successful major-league pitching. Getting out of the American League West, as well as Rangers Ballpark at Arlington, should help Feldman as well.
Then came the double dose of starting-pitcher news on Thursday, when the Cubs signed Carlos Villanueva and Edwin Jackson. The former has been a swingman for much of his career, starting for the Brewers and Blue Jays when necessary, and racking up four seasons of seven with at least 100 innings because of it. Like Feldman, Villanueva isn't necessarily an attractive option to start, but he represents a significant depth upgrade. Just because Villanueva isn't well-suited for the rotation doesn't mean he can't start, and that right there explains the difference between the previous depth of the Cubs, and what they'll be able to toss out there in 2013 if and when that extra hand is needed.
Jackson, however, is the more significant signing in multiple ways. He pulled in a four-year, $52 million deal, and, while Feldman and Villanueva represent depth, and Baker is a lottery ticket with upside, Jackson is here specifically because he's a known quantity who can anchor the middle of the rotation. While $52 million might seem like a lot for Jackson, in a world where Anibal Sanchez is pulling in $80 with an extra year attached, it's not all that much.
Chicago's top pitcher, Matt Garza, is a free agent after this season. Like Dempster before him, he's unlikely to stick with the Cubs all year unless they surprise, and are legitimate competitors for a playoff spot. When Garza leaves, the Cubs are going to have a rotation full of depth pieces, back-end arms like Wood, and a pitcher in Samardzija who, while useful, isn't exactly dependable or an impact arm yet. Jackson might not be an impact arm, but he has proven dependable, and as has been discussed, the Cubs can use that, both now and later.
They lack much in terms of pitching prospects at the moment: Baseball Prospectus rates Arodys Vizcaino, acquired from the Braves for Maholm, as an eventual setup man, and places ETAs of 2015, 2017, and 2017 on the three other pitchers in the Cubs' top 10. There's no serious help coming from the farm anytime soon, and someone like Baker or Garza could be dealt next summer, depending on how the season is going. Jackson is a stable presence at a decent price, at a time when free-agent salaries continue to skyrocket. He should remain in the middle of the rotation even when most of the others assembled around him now are elsewhere, and the team is waiting for the farm to bear long-gestating fruit.
The Cubs still have a long way to go, as a consistent pipeline of talent hasn't been fully formed yet, but is in the works. In the meantime, they need to field a capable team built through trades that don't sacrifice the talent they do have, and free-agent money is one thing the Cubs do have at their disposal. Reassembling the rotation into the form it will take now that these four new arms are on board is a solid way of achieving this goal, and it leaves the Cubs' season open to myriad possibilities -- some of them even positive -- rather than just another season like the ones that brought Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer into power in the first place.