A sign of how far the Cubs have come in such a short period of time is what their “problems” are.  You’ve heard of ‘white people’ problems and ‘first world’ problems? Well, the Cubs have at least a couple of ‘first division’ problems.

1. Who’s going to be the fifth starter?

It wasn’t all that long ago that the Cubs didn’t know who any of their five starters should be, and now they have four good ones locked in in Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks.  The contenders for the number five spot included a couple of guys who have fallen by the wayside–Jacob Turner’s arm fell off, and Tsuyoshi Wada’s leg did the same–Felix Doubront looks like the bullpen or Des Moines1 is in his immediate future.  That leaves Travis Wood and fan-favorite Edwin Jackson.

Everyone will remind you that Travis Wood was an All-Star two years ago.  This is a fact, of course, but mostly it happened because somebody had to be an All-Star for the Cubs that year.  Jackson has been terrible in his two years with the team, and has two terrible years left on his contract.

While the media is distracted with the ponderous “Kris Bryant should break camp with the team or the Cubs don’t want to win” nonsense, this is the more pressing decision.  Bryant’s going to be playing for the Cubs in April, regardless.  But should the Cubs try to limp along with Edwin again, and trade Wood, or should they keep Wood and just eat the $26 million left on Edwin’s contract?

If Wood continues to pitch well this spring, he’s very tradeable.  He only has one year left and $5.6 million on his contract.  What team wouldn’t take him for that?

But here’s the problem for the Cubs.  If Wood really is back to his 2013 form, wouldn’t you want him as your fifth starter?  So what do you do with Edwin?

It’s easy for us to say, “Edwin’s a sunk cost.  Just waive him.”  But owners don’t like to eat $26 million.  They just don’t.  General managers and VP’s of Baseball Operations don’t like recommending to their owner that they eat that much money.

Maybe that’s what the Cubs should do as a special event to remind people that they reversed their stance on bringing in outside food2 and have an “Eat Edwin’s Contract Night.”  First 100 fans willing to eat a page of Edwin’s standard player contract get in for $2 off.  These ideas are free, Cubs.  Run with them!

So, while the media are fixated on a decision the Jed and Theo have to make on Kris Bryant that isn’t really a decision at all, this one really is.

You could split the difference and keep Wood in the rotation and put Edwin in the bullpen.  But while eating $26 million is hard to do, hiding it in the bullpen is probably next down on ‘undesirable things to do while running a baseball team.’  Top on that list of course, is ‘finding bail money for Milton Bradley.’ By all accounts, Edwin’s a great guy.  But a great guy who is overpaid and can’t pitch, is a great guy who is overpaid and can’t pitch.

Cubs’ pitching coach Chris Bosio thinks Wood is back to his 2013 form.  He attributes Wood’s off-season last year to a young pitcher making a mistake after the busiest workload of his career.  Bosio thinks Wood rested his arm too much, thinking that would be his best chance to have a strong 2014, but in reality never getting back to where he needed to be.  That seems pretty simplistic, but oftentimes the simplest explanation is the right explanation.3

Wood has a 1.80 ERA in three starts (10 innings) so far this spring, and he looks great.  Well, OK, he looks fine, with that awful beard he’ll never look great.

Edwin has no ERA yet, but has allowed four unearned runs in five innings.  So there’s that.  And I have no idea what that is.

I wanted Wada to win the job, for the Cubs to trade Wood and fire Edwin into the sun.  It looks like none of that is going to happen.

2. What if Mike Olt is the better option at third than Kris Bryant?

OK, hang with me for a minute on this one.  One of the underplayed angles–maybe the only underplayed angle–on Kris Bryant has been that his sore throwing shoulder has prevented him from getting many innings at third base (where we know he needs work) and from getting any innings in the outfield (where we assume he needs work).  There will be no decision to make about whether or not Bryant gets bolted into the middle of the Cubs lineup, but there may very well be a decision to make about which glove he wears when he runs out onto the field every day.

Not long ago Mike Olt was a top prospect.  He was such a good prospect that the Rangers didn’t want to trade him at all, and then when they finally decided they needed a starting pitcher desperately they were pretty much only going to trade him in 2012 for Matt Garza.  Then Garza’s arm fell off in a start in St. Louis and the Cubs couldn’t trade him.  Then Olt got hit in the head in a winter league game and went blind.  Then a year later when the Cubs wanted to trade Garza again, the Rangers still wanted him, but even though Garza’s value was less than it had been a year before (because his contract was ending) Olt’s value had plummeted so much he was just one of four guys the Rangers put in the deal.  Did you follow any of that?

Olt’s only 26.  He appears to have regained his eyesight4  He’s having a nice spring, and he’s only striking out once every three at bats instead of every other at bat.  Hey, progress!  But Olt’s an excellent defensive third baseman.  Something that Bryant likely will never be.

The Cubs have always hinted that maybe Bryant’s future is in right field instead of third base.  Bryant told our good friend Mike Ferrin at SiriusXM that he’d need “about a week” of playing outfield to be able to do it every day.

Bryant’s probably not going to play right field.  There’s a 6’4, 235 behemoth playing there now, and hopefully for the next decade or so, in Jorge Soler.

So it probably comes down to this.  Mike Olt doesn’t need to beat out Bryant to win the third base job (he could never do that).  He needs to beat out Chris Coghlan and Chris Denorfia.  He needs to play so well that the Cubs can’t conceive of taking him out of the lineup and losing his power or his glove.  If he can do that, then Bryant will just jog a little bit farther at the top of every inning at Wrigley, bypassing third base for left field.

It might actually happen.


Here are those annoying footnotes.

  1. Or, the bullpen in Des Moines
  2. Referred to as the Al Yellon baloney rule.
  3. I’m pretty sure that Friar William of Occam used to pitch for the Chicago Whales.
  4. A long underrated aspect of hitting a baseball is being able to see.