Starting pitching has been the largest issue for the Cubs this season, and will surely be one of the areas they try to improve this offseason. There are four sources the Cubs can tap to add starters: minor league system, bullpen conversions, trades and free agency. I will look at each group to see who is available and highlight good candidates to improve the 2012 rotation.
NIck Struck - He has done well in AAA, in an aggresive promotion. He could be a darkhorse to make the rotation.
Jay Jackson - He's had an up and down year at AAA, but has done well lately.
Chris Carpenter - Effective in the majors, has had worse numbers in the minors. I think the Cubs see him as a reliever now.
Trey McNutt - He has had a down season due to injuries, I think he could rebound and come up in late 2012, but is not a realistic candidate to start the year with the big league team.
Casey Coleman - He looks like a long reliever/spot starter to me.
It doesn't look like any of these guys can be relied on for 2012.
Major League Bullpen:
Sean Marshall - He has been excellent as a setup man, and has had moderate success as a starter in the past. Can the Cubs afford to move him, considering the ineffectiveness of Carlos Marmol? I think Marshall is an excellent rotation candidate, the Cubs have many other bullpen options, and he would provide a cost controlled lefty in the rotation. James Russell has pitched very well as a lefty in the pen, he could move up to replace Marshall.
Jeff Samardzija - More effective in the pen this year, its probably best to leave him in the role he's been most effective at, provided the Cubs bring him back at all.
The Braves, Twins, Rays, A's, and White Sox all have strong major league rotations and/or good pitching prospects available to replace major league starters, so they could be good trade partners. This is the hardest group to predict, so I won't list particular trade ideas, but the following players could be available.
Jake Peavy - Injury prone and expensive, but he could benefit from a return to the weaker league.
John Danks - He has been rumored to be available, and we all know Kenny Williams is an aggresive trader.
Jair Jurgens - He's had a much better year than Lowe, but he still might be available given his inconsistent past, and the better return he would command.
There are certainly good pitchers out there that are available, but the Cubs have a limited pool of prospects to deal from, so I don't see a repeat of the Matt Garza trade, but rather a deal to acquire a Derek Lowe or Scott Baker who would not cost as much in prospects.
CJ Wilson - A good pitcher, but it is fairly likely that the recently free spending Rangers resign him.
Chris Carpenter - I don't know how the Cardinals are leaning on his option, but I imagine it depends largely on the outcome of the Pujols negotiations.
Ryan Dempster - He will most likely return to the Cubs on a player option. I'm ok with this, I think he has pitched better than his numbers suggest, and keeping him on a one year deal would be good.
Edwin Jackson - The guy has been traded a ton, but he is a useful innings eater with flashes of something better.
Mark Buerhle - Similar to Jackson, but older.
Various other pitchers - Jon Garland, Joel Piniero, Aaron Harang, Paul Maholm, etc. I don't know that adding a pitcher of this group would be worth the dollars improvement over giving Coleman/Jackson/Samardzija the starts. They would certainly be a step up over the Doug Davis/Rodrigo Lopezes the Cubs have used this year.
Yu Darvish - A Japanese phenom that may be posted this offseason. I expect the cost to be prohibitive, and the Cubs reluctant to get burned on an import again.
The Cubs have Carlos Zambrano, Matt Garza, Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner under contract/team control for next year. Given Zambrano's declining skills, Randy Wells inconsistency, and Cashner's unprovenness/injury risk, I think the Cubs need to add one reliable starter next year, and probably two to provide depth.
My preference would be to bring Ryan Dempster back (very likely anyway), and to sign a Roy Oswalt/Chris Carpenter type if their options are declined by their current teams. I think Sabathia will be too expensive in both year and dollars, while Oswalt and Carpenter could hopefully be had for fewer years, even if the dollars are higher per year. A 2 years, $15M per year contract for Oswalt/Carpenter would be good if possible.
2012 rotation: Garza, Oswalt or Carpenter, Dempster, Zambrano, Cashner or Wells. Send the remainder of Wells/Cashner to AAA to wait for the inevitable injury. This isn't a world beating rotation, but its a step up. I think it makes sense to keep Z and Dempster for 2012, because their contracts expire after that season, allowing the Cubs access to the elite FA pitching crop available for 2013.