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With rotation, Cubs deal with fear of the unknown
By Bruce Miles | Daily Herald Staff

Chicago Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano's best year earned him 18 wins. He provided 17 quality starts last season but finished 9-7 with an ERA of 3.77.

 

Associated Press

Ryan Dempster missed three weeks with a broken right big toe and still was the only Cubs pitcher to reach 200 innings.

 

Associated Press file

Randy Wells is taking nothing for granted this spring. Wells has pointed out numerous times he spent parts of seven seasons in the minors and he's not going back.

 

Associated Press

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Published: 3/8/2010 4:05 PM

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NL's best

Where we rank the top starting pitchers:

1. Tim Lincecum, Giants

2. Chris Carpenter, Cardinals

3. Adam Wainwright, Cardinals

10. TED LILLY, CUBS

You can break down the Cubs' starting rotation into two groups: the known and the unknown.

What we know at this early date in the Cactus League season is the Cubs have only three starting pitchers assured of jobs: Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells.

The rest? Well, the Cubs have quantity in camp. Time will tell whether that quantity represents quality, too.

Fortunately for manager Lou Piniella and pitching coach Larry Rothschild, there are two scheduled off-days in the first two weeks of the regular season, which will enable them to skip the back end of the rotation until left-handed standout Ted Lilly is done with his shoulder rehab.

Let's look at the big picture:

Has Zambrano really turned the corner? Depends which one. Zambrano already had established himself as a major-league ace, winning 18 games once, 16 twice and 14 twice.

He was 9-7 with a good 3.77 ERA last year, when injuries put him on the disabled list twice. Zambrano vowed to come into camp in better physical shape, and it appears he's done that.

If he enjoys good health, there's nothing to prevent him from having a bounce-back year. Remember, Zambrano recorded 17 quality starts last year. From May 22 to July 7, when he made 9 starts, the Cubs offense scored a total of 22 runs in those games.

What about Dempster? Dempster missed three weeks with a broken right big toe and still was the only Cubs pitcher to reach 200 innings.

He went 11-9 with a 3.65 ERA, after a career year in 2008, when he was 17-6 with a 2.96 ERA.

All in all, it was not a bad year for Dempster, whose WHIP rose slightly, from 1.21 to 1.31. His walks per 9 innings fell from 3.31 to 2.93, and his strikeouts-to-walks ratio went up from 2.46 to 2.65.

Dempster signed a four-year, $52 million deal before the 2009 season. One author at fangraphs.com, a respected statistical site, wrote that Dempster, "-promptly went out in 2009 and proved to be worth it."

Another author at the same site wrote, "And he's been worth every penny so far."

Is Wells the real deal? We'll find out, but he's taking nothing for granted this spring. Wells has pointed out numerous times he spent parts of seven seasons in the minors and he's not going back.

Wells' groundout-to-flyout ratio of 1.41 was 13th best in the National League last year. If he keeps that up, he should have no trouble equaling or topping last year's record of 12-10 with a 3.05 ERA.

When is Lilly coming back? Piniella said way back at the Cubs convention that May 1 was the target date. It looks like that'll be right on as the Cubs' bulldog comes back from a shoulder cleanup.

Who's the best of the rest? Both Piniella and Rothschild have raved about the improvement in mechanics of right-hander Jeff Samardzija, who worked with Rothschild for a week after last season ended.

Carlos Silva got lit up by the White Sox the other day, and spring training will determine whether he starts or becomes an expensive middle reliever.

Piniella likes a lefty in his rotation. Sean Marshall has started and relieved but has had more success out of the pen. With any kind of a spring, lefty Tom Gorzelanny could grab himself a rotation spot, at least to begin the season.

Minor-league prospect Casey Coleman could give the Cubs something to think about for later this year with a good spring.

Also keep an eye on righty Jay Jackson in minor-league camp, along with right-hander Chris Carpenter.