Around the Horn: Starting rotation

Cubs relying on starters to stay healthy

The following is the first in a series of weekly stories on examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Starting rotation.

CHICAGO -- In 2005, the Chicago Cubs used 11 different starting pitchers, including Jon Leicester and closer Ryan Dempster. The Cubs are hoping they don't need that many in 2006.

Injuries made a mess of the Cubs' rotation last year. The St. Louis Cardinals won the National League Central with five pitchers who made at least 30 starts each. The Cubs had two with at least 30 starts -- Carlos Zambrano and Greg Maddux -- and the oldest pitcher on the staff, Maddux, led the team with 35.

Mark Prior opened the year on the disabled list because of elbow problems, then missed most of June after getting hit by a line drive on his right elbow. A nagging shoulder injury limited Kerry Wood to 10 starts, and then he switched to the bullpen. After 11 relief outings, Wood was shut down and underwent arthroscopic surgery Aug. 31 to clean out his right shoulder. Wood is expected to begin his throwing program this month, but won't be ready by Opening Day.

"At this point, I don't think we realistically can [count on Wood]," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "Idealistically, I am. The guy's making great progress."

That leaves Zambrano, Maddux, Prior, Glendon Rusch and Jerome Williams as the likely starters to open the 2006 season. At least one of them should win 18 games this year.

Zambrano (14-6, 3.26 ERA) is the workhorse, and he is coming off a year in which he set career highs in starts (33), innings pitched (223 1/3) and strikeouts (202).

The animated right-hander also may have led the league in weird exits. Zambrano made his first career Opening Day start and was ejected in the fifth for arguing balls and strikes. He was ejected in another April game after hitting Cincinnati's Austin Kearns, he was pulled in May because of soreness in his right forearm (blamed on overuse at the computer and too much batting practice), he had to leave a June start because of a sprained left big toe, and lower back stiffness forced him out of a game in August.

Zambrano, 24, is eager to pitch for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic, and that may help him get off to a good start. In the second half, Zambrano admitted he felt better facing opponents because he knew them better, and his record showed that. He was 6-4 with a 3.85 ERA before the break, and 8-2 with a 2.65 ERA after. But the Cubs are not as enthusiastic about watching their ace in competitive games so early in the season.

Chicago Cubs

Maddux (13-15, 4.24 ERA) is coming off his first losing season since 1987. The right-hander, who turns 40 in April, also missed in his bid to extend his streak to 18 consecutive seasons of at least 15 wins. He is tied for 15th on Major League Baseball's all-time wins list, and is the second pitcher to win 13 or more games in 18 consecutive seasons. The only other hurler to do so was Cy Young, who won at least 13 in 19 straight seasons.

The 2005 season was another significant year for Maddux, who added to his impressive resume when he notched his 3,000th career strikeout and won his 15th Gold Glove. He totaled 225 innings -- the 17th time in the last 18 seasons he has topped 200 -- and his highest since 2001.

Heading into 2006, he doesn't have any particular milestone looming. With a typical Maddux year, he could move into the Major League all-time top 10 for wins and games started, into 11th for strikeouts, and top 20 in innings pitched. Maddux now has 318 wins. Steve Carlton is 10th with 329. Along the way, Maddux would pass Don Sutton, Nolan Ryan, Eddie Plank and John Clarkson.

Maddux has started 639 games. Roger Clemens is 10th with 671. Maddux has 3,052 strikeouts, while Fergie Jenkins ranks 11th all-time with 3,192. Maddux has 4,406 1/3 innings, and Early Wynn is 20th all-time with 4,564.

Maddux is slowing down. He may have tied for the league lead in starts, but he is a six-, seven-inning pitcher who isn't quite as precise when it comes to hitting the corners. Still, young pitchers would benefit watching Maddux when he takes the mound.

"He's not at the height of his career but there's still a lot of good games for him to pitch," Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild said of Maddux. "We talked at the end of the year about certain things he could do to return to what he's done in the past."

Rusch (9-8, 4.52 ERA) may be the most versatile of the Cubs starters. The lone lefty in the rotation, he appeared in 46 games in 2005 and made 19 starts, going 7-7 with a 4.32 ERA. Rusch may be better suited to the role of swing man but when he signed a two-year deal on Oct. 31, it was with the intent that he will be considered for a spot in the rotation.

Williams (6-8, 3.91 ERA) is the wild card. He reported to the San Francisco Giants in Spring Training 2005 in bad shape, but that was because he had spent most of his offseason caring for his sick father. His father's health has improved, and that should be enough motivation for Williams, whose sinker is well-suited to Wrigley Field.

The Cubs also have backups in youngsters Rich Hill and Angel Guzman. Hill impressed the Cubs coaching staff with his maturity as well as his curveball. Guzman missed most of the 2005 season because of a strained forearm but did well in the Arizona Fall League, and will hopefully be able to contribute to the big league club sometime this year.

Chicago pitchers led the Major Leagues with 1,256 strikeouts, the fifth straight season the Cubs have done so. But the team would prefer more innings for the starters than Ks. Prior had pitch-count problems in the second half, something Rothschild called an anomaly. Prior (11-7, 3.67 ERA) also has had to listen to offseason rumors in which his name was mentioned as trade bait. The right-hander enters his fifth big-league season eager to prove he's not injury prone, and he's worth keeping around.

Cubs general manager Jim Hendry didn't acquire another starter this offseason despite Wood's uncertain status. The team's success depends on one thing.

"Obviously, we need to be healthy," Rothschild said.

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.