Monday, February 9, 2009

Starter 5 Watch: Aaron Heilman

Pitchers and catchers report to camp in four days. What the day after Thanksgiving is to Christmas, this Friday is to Opening Day. And the big question heading into spring training is the fifth and final spot in the starting rotation.

The first four spots are decided, even if the exact order is in limbo. Carlos Zambrano. Ryan Dempster. Rich Harden. Ted Lilly. Arranged in any fashion, that quartet is enough to take the Cubs through the lowlands of the N.L. Central and into October. But as things don't always never work out as Cub fans hope or expect, the matter of the fifth starter weighs heavily on all our minds.

There are plenty of viable candidates: Jeff Samardzija, Sean Marshall, Chad Gaudin . . . or even the much-hyped and hoped-for possibility that Jake Peavy would bump one of the aforementioned Gang of Four into spot number cinco. 

But for right now, I'm instituting a daily watch over the situation and reporting what I believe to be the most likely (although not necessarily best) solution the Cubs will employ. And today, the magic 8 ball tells me, all signs point to Aaron Heilman.

The guy is a reliever, but as Steve Stone always says, inside every reliever beats the heart of a starter. There's no question, Heilman would jump at the chance to start. And I've got a hunch that Jim & Lou intend to give him every opportunity. As Tom Koch-Weser at Stats Blog explains, Heilman has three nearly unhittable pitches. Only problem last year was, when those pitches were hit, they were hit hard, they were hit far, and they were hit at the worst possible moments. 

But that doesn't point to an unreliable pitcher. It just shows that Heilman is better off as a starter. It is extremely rare that a relief pitcher will consistently use (or need) three different pitches, especially in short relief. They don't have the time to get their bearings on that many pitches in a short amount of work. The probability that they'll make a mistake is high, and the margin of error late in the game is minuscule. As a reliever, if one of your pitches isn't working, your team just lost. But as a starter, if you're struggling to locate your slider, you can still eat up a lot of innings relying on your fastball and splitter. An early mistake or two won't kill you.

So at this point, as long as the Cubs remain Peavy free, Aaron Heilman is both the logical and the probable fit for the fifth starter job. We can only hope he has as much success with the transition from bullpen to rotation as Ryan Dempster did last year.
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