One position battle which will be closely watched this Spring Training will be for the 5th starter spot vacated by the traded Jason Marquis. After a lot of off season talk about the acquisition of Jake Peavy not ever coming to roost, the Cubs have some good candidates for the 5th starter spot. For starters lets line up the candidates. The top two candidates on paper are probably Sean Marshall and Aaron Heilman. We'll start with Lou and many other Cubs fan's favorite, including mine, Sean Marshall.
Sean Marshall appeared on Cub fans radar back in 2006, when Injuries to Mark Prior and Kerry Wood left some openings in the rotation coming out Spring Training. Coming straight from Single and Double A ball, where Marshall had gone, 4-4 with a 2.74 ERA and then 0-1 with a 2.52 ERA respectively, he managed a respectable rookie season, going 6-9 with a 5.59 ERA in 125 innings. While these numbers are not remarkable, Sean Marshall definitely seemed to have the 'stuff' to be a good professional starting pitcher, a good fastball in the low 90s, and a 12-6 curve he had shown early potential to command. Sean Marshall also proved to be a good student of the game, spending obviously large amounts of time sitting next to future hall of famer Greg Maddux on the bench and trying to soak in the knowledge. It seemed to show in Marshall's following two seasons. In 2007 Sean started 19 games as a Cub and pitched in two games in relief, compiling a 7-8 record with an ERA of 3.92 while lowering his walk to K ratio from 2006 .76 to .52 in 2007. In 2008 Marshall pitched more out of the bull pen but still managed to make 7 spot starts for the Cubs, proving his versatility and compiling a 3-5 record with a 3.86 ERA . Again Sean Marshall managed to lower his already solid walk to K ration in 2008 to .39. Sean Marshall has done everything the Cubs have asked and responded with solid numbers across the board. He's is Lou Piniella's favorite for the fifth spot and there is no reason why he shouldn't be that guy.
Aaron Heilman though is something of an enigma. He wants to start, but since his career started in 2003 he has had trouble breaking into and then holding a spot in the Mets rotation. In his first two seasons starting didn't appear to be his strength, while starting 18 of the first 19 games he competed in, he posted ERAs of 6.75 and 5.46 thus earning him the move to the bull pen. In 2005 Heilman had appeard to find his niche as a swing man, he appeard in 53 games, seven of them starts and posted very solid numbers, 5-3 with a 3.17 ERA. During the next two seasons he continued his good work out of the Mets bull pen posting ERAs below 4 and 3.50 in 80+ innings of work. Walks have never been a problem for Heilman throughout his career he has posted a walk to K ratio below .50. Never the less 2008 represented a stumbling block in Heilman's career, furthering expressing his desire to be a starter Heilman failed to produce the goods. In 76 innings he posted an ERA of 5.21, giving up 10 HRs in short duty. Heilman had a solid career in the minors and at 30 years old has proven he can pitch well at the major league level, but he has no more starting experience than Sean Marshall and his numbers appeard to have declined a little in 2008 where Marshall's have been a steady incline since 2006.
Regardless both of these guys look like viable 5th starters, perhaps even 4th starters on some clubs. But what about the dark horses? We have mentioned Angel Guzman in a recent post as a dark horse, a guy who is out of options and whose primary struggle throughout his career has been health. From 2000 to 2003 Guzman posted ERAs in the minors below 3 and in some cases below 2 and then the injuries started. When Mark Prior was still in the Cubs minor league orginzation Guzman was said to be less major league ready and yet the better over all prospect. If health is no object for Guzman this year, he could be the dark horse to run away with the 5th starter spot. Or as we mentioned he could be the guy to pitch the 7th so that Marmol can close for the Cubs in '09.
Honorable mention goes to Cubs prospects Mitch Atkins and Jeff Smaradzija for the 5 starter spot. Atkins probably needs another year of seasoning as a starter at AAA and Samardzija's early success as a major league reliever no doubt means he will either start the season at AAA as a starter or that he may find himself out of necessity in the Cubs bull pen.
Even without Jake Peavy the Cubs look to have some solid options for the 5th starter spot and will again have one of the best rotations in the National league and baseball in 2009. The battle for the 5th spot will be one to watch this spring!