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Comparing the Cardinals and Cubs rotations

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The two National League foes are set to continue their rivalry this season. Let's see how the rotations stack up.

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While it would be foolish to discount the Pittsburgh Pirates this season, the St. Louis Cardinals against the Chicago Cubs certainly draws a lot more attention. Both the Cubs and the Cardinals figure to have very good rotations, and the various subjective and objective rankings going around seem to indicate the same. Buster Olney ranked the Cardinals third and the Cubs fourth. Ken Rosenthal put the Cardinals in second and did not have the Cubs in his top-5, and the FanGraphs Depth Charts (which have incorporated Steamer, but not yet ZiPS) put the Cubs in the third and the Cardinals in seventh. We can take our own objective look at the projections, and provide some various head to head rankings of our own.

First, let's take a look at the Cardinals ZiPS and Steamer projections for the starting five.

Steamer IP ZiPS IP Steamer FIP ZiPS FIP AVG FIP
Adam Wainwright 203 156 3.48 3.10 3.29
Carlos Martinez 159 172.3 3.37 3.14 3.26
Michael Wacha 173 154 3.72 3.66 3.69
MIke Leake 201 176.7 4.01 3.83 3.92
Jaime Garcia 116 92.7 3.38 3.54 3.46
AVG/TOTAL 852 751.7 3.59 3.45 3.52

This is actually incredibly good. The only issue with these projections, for both Steamer and ZiPS is the number of innings the Cadinals are getting from their starters. With 162 starts, there are around 950-1000 starter innings to fill and the innings projections are a little light due to question marks, particularly with Jaime Garcia, but to a lesser extent Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha as well. Compare that innings situation to that of the Cubs.

Steamer IP ZiPS IP Steamer FIP ZiPS FIP AVG FIP
Jake Arrieta 208 186.3 2.94 2.87 2.91
Jon Lester 204 199 3.22 3.11 3.17
John Lackey 193 183 3.72 3.58 3.65
Jason Hammel 157 144.3 3.8 4.06 3.93
Kyle Hendricks 166 159.7 3.61 3.66 3.64
AVG/TOTAL 928 872.3 3.46 3.46 3.46

On a talent-level basis, the teams are incredibly close. If each team got 200 innings from every starter, they would be incredibly close. Jake Arrieta provides what turns out to be a slight difference between the two teams. Where the teams differ is in innings. The projections give the Cubs starters 70-100 more innings from the top-5 pitchers, which shows up in WAR.

First the Cardinals:

Steamer WAR ZiPS WAR AVG
Adam Wainwright 3.5 3.6 3.6
Carlos Martinez 3 3.4 3.2
Michael Wacha 2.5 2.7 2.6
MIke Leake 2.2 2.5 2.4
Jaime Garcia 2.1 1.8 2.0
AVG/TOTAL 13.3 14

13.7

Now, the Cubs:

Steamer WAR ZiPS WAR AVG
Jake Arrieta 5.2 5.4 5.3
Jon Lester 4.4 4.6 4.5
John Lackey 2.9 3.4 3.2
Jason Hammel 2.2 1.6 1.9
Kyle Hendricks 2.7 2.5 2.6
AVG/TOTAL 17.4 17.5 17.5

If each team meets it's projections, the Cardinals have the health issues that are expected in their projections, and the Cubs stay healthy like their projections suggest, the Cubs are likely to have the better rotation. Of course, neither of those situations are likely to come completely true, leading to depth.

We know that Tyler Lyons, Marco Gonzales, and Tim Cooney provide the Cardinals with solid depth. Steamer projections are imperfect for this exercise as they do not project all three players to get significant innings, and much of Lyons' production comes from the bullpen. That said, the Cardinals appear to have solid depth in the form of Lyons as well as prospects Cooney and Gonzales.

Steamer IP ZiPS IP Steamer FIP ZiPS FIP AVG FIP
Marco Gonzales 73 109 4.21 4.31 4.26
Tyler Lyons 15 135.7 3.16 3.90 3.53
Tim Cooney 27 130.7 4.00 4.06 4.03
AVG/TOTAL 115 375.3 3.79 4.09 3.94

Steamer is particular confusing relative to the Cubs pitchers as the three most likely pitchers to enter the rotation should an injury occur have a total of 15 innings in projected starts. Adam Warren and Trevor Cahill are projected solely as relievers.

Steamer IP ZiPS IP Steamer FIP ZiPS FIP AVG FIP
Adam Warren DNP 101.7 DNP 3.28 3.28
Travis Wood 15 135.7 3.86 3.80 3.83
Trevor Cahill DNP 115 DNP 4.26 4.26
AVG/TOTAL 15 352.3 3.86 3.78 3.79

It is difficult to tell what to make of this. Adam Warren has a very optimistic projection from ZiPS, Travis Wood can step in, but giving Cahill a lot of innings in the rotation does not seem like a very good idea. On the whole, the Cardinals depth probably has more upside. When you combine this with the very good projections of Arrieta and Lester, the Cubs rotation looks a little more vulnerable than the Cardinals given the Cubs risk of losing more production and putting in uncertain replacements.

Going solely based on the projections, the Cubs have the safer, more likely to perform well starting five, but that comes with considerable risk should the team lose a starter. Given the more pedestrian projections for players who have pitched like aces in the past and could do so again in Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, and Jaime Garcia, the Cardinals have a lot more potential to outperform their projections. When adding in the depth, and the relative drop if a starter is lost due to those pedestrian total projections, the Cardinals have a combination of upside and depth that the Cubs lack.

Going into the season, the two rotations are incredibly close. If Arrieta and Lester perform up to expectations, it will be difficult for the Cardinals to match. However, if one of the two misses time or loses effectiveness, it would be a very big blow. The Cardinals have the potential to repeat last year's success on the mound, but the team comes with question marks. Given the depth and upside, I would take the Cardinals starting staff over the Cubs, but the two are evenly matched.