Theo Epstein said it explicitly. The Cubs are going to seek to add to their starting rotation. And that makes sense for a lot of reasons. The biggest reason is that there is no way in the world that they can go into the 2016 season and have the possibility that Kyle Hendricks is starting game three in a playoff series. To be fair, Hendricks could go absolutely nuts next season and pitch his way into that conversation, but the odds are that we already know who he is…and it’s not a guy who should be counted on at that level.
Back at the non-waiver deadline, the Cubs acquired Dan Haren. It was a pretty anti-climactic end to the day because they were linked to some interesting pitchers. Going into the off-season, there is good reason to believe that the Cubs are in on some of those same guys again. After winning 101 games between the regular and post seasons, the young position player core showed its readiness to win at a high level right now. While the NLCS didn’t go how anyone envisioned after beating the Cardinals 3-1 in the NLDS, the Cubs are definitely in their window to win right now. And, barring anything disastrous, that window should remain open for the next five or six years.
Fortunately, the process the Cubs are about the embark on is one that Theo Epstein is familiar with. Ten years ago, while Epstein was in the brief 80 day hiatus as their general manager, the Red Sox made a trade to acquire a 25 year old Josh Beckett from the Florida Marlins. That Red Sox team was one that won 95 games, almost completely on the backs of an offense led by Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. They, too, were swept out of the playoffs, falling 3-0 to the eventual champion White Sox.
This off-season figures to be one where the Cubs follow a similar recipe. It is a very real possibility that the Cubs trade a talented young short stop to add a starting pitcher. Whether that short stop is Starlin Castro or Javier Baez remains to be seen. In addition to young major league ready talent, the Cubs also have a plethora of intriguing prospects that can be included in making a trade. In fact, the truest value of the rebuilding years was the acquisition of young surplus players that can be used to add to the major league level. While Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber are nice pieces that were gained from three years of all but intentional losing, the real value was being able to sell indiscriminately to have a very deep minor league system. This off-season will be the first where the Cubs will likely dip into that system to acquire major league pieces. Free agency is another place where the Cubs figure to be active. This winter brings one of the deepest starting pitching classes in years at all levels. The Cubs would figure to be active in free agency, but how active is likely tied to how active they are on the trade front.
In totality, there are a bounty of names to consider. It would be nearly impossible to explore all of the possible additions and trade combinations. However, the there is some knowledge about who the Cubs will seek to add this winter, either because there were explorations for trades earlier or because they are free agents who have been tied to the Cubs in the past. To that end, here are some of the names to keep at least an eye on as this winter progresses.
Winning absolutely is something you want to do. Being a part of something special is also something you want to do. You can take that to a first-place team. You could take that all the way to a last-place team like the Cubs. With the talent they have coming up they could be a very special team in a few years as well. That would probably be the coolest city to win a championship in. They haven’t done it in I’m not sure how long. To do that there that would be the coolest city to win a championship in right now.”
Since Price made those comments, he has been traded twice. And now he is a free agent. His manager in Tampa Bay is now the manager of the Cubs. And there is, at the very least, a healthy respect between Price and Joe Maddon. Price has also said, though, that the manager wouldn’t be a factor in where he ends up. That makes it pretty easy to understand what Price is looking for, actually. Based on what he’s said, he wants to win, he wants to go somewhere that makes him comfortable, and he will most certainly want to get paid. The last will not be a problem. Price figures to command a contract similar to Max Scherzer‘s, in that he will get 6 or 7 years and above the $200M mark. The Cubs are a place he’s specifically spoken about and after their run this year have shown they can win. In that regard, with respect to Price, whether or not he’s in Cubbie Blue next spring is all about dollars and cents. With Jon Lester already signed to a heavy contract, adding Price at an even higher level than Lester commanded last winter might not be what the Cubs are looking for at this juncture. Especially if they have eyes on getting an extension done with Jake Arrieta, who is about to get very expensive.
RHP Jordan Zimmerman: Last winter, there were some rumors that the Cubs were trying to acquire Zimmerman via trade from the Washington Nationals. Now that Zimmerman is a free agent, it appears likely that the Cubs will have some level of interest in adding Zimmerman again. After what was his best season in 2014, Zimmerman had a down 2015. He posted a career low 3.0 fWAR in 2015 after his career high 5.3 fWAR in 2014. That drop off came with a rise in walks and HR/9 innings and a reduced strike out rate. Although the .302 BABIP allowed was identical to 2014, the decreased in strike outs meant more balls in play…and a career high 39% went up the middle. MLBTR predicts a 6 year deal for Zimmerman at $126M. If that is the range Zimmerman falls into, he could absolutely be in play for the Cubs. And if Zimmerman can regain his 2014 form, he would be a steal at that valuation. Much remains to be seen about what the Cubs are able or willing to spend in free agency, but Zimmerman represents the low end of the high cost free agents.
RHP Mike Leake: Leake makes the list as middle to back end of the rotation depth. His career 6.06% strike out rate, 2.28% walk rate, 1.11 HR/9 and 4.21 FIP aren’t inspiring numbers. Entering his age 28 season, though, Leake does come with a reputation as a guy who takes the ball every fifth day (30+ starts each season since 2012) and will keep his team in the game. His fWAR has been between 1.5 and 2.3 in every full season of his career and his home run to fly ball ratio has never been below 11.5%. Part of that might be based on playing at Great American Ballpark until the past trade deadline. But, in general, he’s not a very inspiring addition…unless he’s slotted as a fourth or fifth starter. Then, he’s an asset. And that’s likely where he’d fit with the Cubs. His value there would be tremendous. In a rotation where the Cubs had a hard time getting 5 innings out of the bottom of the staff at the end of the year, Leake would prove to be desperately needed stability. If the Cubs manage to trade for a controllable starter to fit into the third place in the rotation, Leake is a pitcher to keep an eye on.
RHP John Lackey: Lackey is coming off a year in 2015 that saw him pitch at his highest level since 2007. Realistically, though, his peripheral numbers weren’t terribly different than past seasons. The most identifiable difference in him was that he kept the ball in the park more. Entering his age 38 season, though, Lackey would be a cheap one or two year stopgap pitcher not counted on for a big innings total. His 218 innings in 2015 were also his most since 2007. He, too, has a level of familiarity with the Cubs. He was signed by the Red Sox under Theo Epstein and pitched with the Angels when Joe Maddon was on the coaching staff. Their level of familiarity with Lackey can help develop an idea of what to expect from him…which, at this stage of his career, wouldn’t be much. Even coming off what turned out to be a fine 2015 campaign.
RHP Tyson Ross: Ross is currently with the San Diego Padres and was discussed at the trade deadline. He is under team control until 2018. And he is coming off of career highs in innings pitched (196) and fWAR (4.4). His 2015 season saw him bring his HR/FB ratio down, and although his 3.26 ERA was higher than the 2.81 posted in 2014, he saw a reduction in FIP from 3.24 to 2.98. His career has seen a steady rise in his strike out numbers, posting a career best 9.73 K/9 in 2015. He does have some issues with walks, sitting with a career average of 3.65 BB/9. Ross is the type of pitcher who fits into the middle of a rotation and can give a solid outing each time out. It is unclear what it would take to acquire Ross, but names rumored to be available at the deadline included Starlin Castro and Javier Baez. At that time, Castro was struggling and Baez was injured. Their improved performance and health may make one of them the ticket to acquire him. It may also be worth keeping an eye on former Cub Andrew Cashner. He is coming off a season where he made 30 starts for the first time. His numbers were not as impressive as they’d been in years past and comes with one less year of control as compared to Ross, but his stuff and potential have always been well regarded. His biggest concern is durability.
RHP Carlos Carrasco: The Indians were said to be gauging interest in Carrasco at the deadline and one of the teams said to be interested was the Cubs. After his last two seasons, combining for a total of 8.0 fWAR, Carrasco could be a commodity if the Indians seek to move him this winter. Carrasco would be costly, coming signed through 2018 with two team options attached to the back end, at a total cost of $37.5M plus escalators. In short, he’s good. And he’s inexpensive for up to the next five years. That’s a surplus value that Cleveland doesn’t have to move unless they are able to add significant pieces for a pitcher entering his age 29 season. His K/9 was a career best 10.58 in 2015, and although his walks ticked up slightly to 2.11 BB/9, his 2.84 FIP and 2.74 SIERA indicated that some of his 3.63 ERA may have been a little unlucky. Even as a starter, his fastball sat in the mid 90s, so his stuff was still plenty good, even though he made 30 starts for the first time in his professional career in 2015. Cleveland is said to like Jorge Soler, and it would probably cost prospects in addition to Soler to get Carrasco. And it isn’t even clear if the Indians are willing to trade him at this point.
RHP Julio Teheran: At the deadline, it was reported that the Braves were aggressively trying to move on from Teheran. They, too, are said to like Jorge Soler. Unlike others who may be traded this winter, Teheran is coming off a down year where he saw his velocity drop and his ERA jump to 4.04. His FIP of 4.40 and SIERA of 4.23 say that wasn’t really an accident either. His walks and home runs per nine innings were both career worsts for a full season from him. If the Cubs can figure out why Teheran’s performance dipped, he is also under contract through 2019 with an option for 2020. And he enters 2016 at just 25 years old. In that regard, they would be adding his prime years. Unlike Ross and Carrasco, the Braves appear to be trying to move on from him and, according to the Sun-Times report linked, may be willing to offer players in addition to Teheran to obtain Soler. He has the potential to be a buy low piece that fits comfortably in the middle of the rotation, if the Cubs are able to identify what made 2015 his career worst season and are able to fix it.
What the Cubs do not possess at the moment are ready made options in the system. However, that is not necessarily going to be the case as the end of 2016. Although his health has been an issue, Pierce Johnson figures to start the season in Iowa after making 16 solid starts in AA Tennessee last year. He has a 3.06 ERA in 24 starts (32 appearances) in AA over two years. If his health and ability to stay on the mound stabilizes, he could figure into plans late in the season. While he doesn’t bring top of the rotation type ability, he could bring depth to the rotation as the season wears on. RHP Ryan Williams, who was selected in the 10th round of the 2014 draft may also pitch himself into late season consideration. He had an excellent 2015, split between Myrtle Beach and Tennessee. He, too, should open in Iowa in 2016. At age 24, he brings a more refined approach to pitching that could also make him back end starting depth or a reliever at the end of 2016. Carlos Pimentel may also be a candidate to make spot starts in the majors in 2016. He posted a 2.95 ERA in 2015, although he had a 4.51 FIP. That difference was driven by high walk totals. If he is able to control is walks, he could be an emergency starter and add depth in the same way Dallas Beeler was relied on in 2015.
Fortunately, the Cubs move into the off-season with no shortage of options. In addition to the pitchers discussed here, there are a number of reasonable options for the Cubs in 2016. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call this winter a buyer’s market when it comes to free agency. With plenty of solid options available, the Cubs can do quite well for themselves, even if they don’t walk away with the top prize, as they did last winter. With Zimmerman and Johnny Cueto both having less than their best showing entering free agency, in addition to the long list of other free agents, there is no reason to believe that the Cubs can’t come away with both quality and quantity. It’s also apparent that the Cubs are more willing than ever to dip into their pool of talent to make a move.
As we sit today, the only two pitchers with spots locked up are Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester. While that’s a bit unsettling for a team coming off an NLCS appearance, it should come with the comfort of knowing that Jason Hammel, Hendricks, or unproven minor league players aren’t going to be necessarily be asked to carry a load disproportionate to their ability levels, as they were this year. The most significant factor working in the Cubs’ favor though is the presence of Arrieta and Lester. Having two proven top of the rotation starting pitchers only deepens the possibilities for this winter. While some teams will seek to add top of the rotation pitchers, the Cubs have the luxury of being able to opt out if the numbers get too big or beyond what makes sense. At this point, the only unknown is the names of who will fill the middle and back of the rotation. Those names, though, will almost certainly provide more stability and certainty than the Cubs had at the end of the season and in the playoffs. Coupling those names with the healthy positional depth and talent should help the Cubs maintain their place as a contender moving forward.
*Stats from Fangraphs.com, unless otherwise noted*