The news that the Cubs sent Adam Warren to Iowa to stretch out for spot starts wasn’t exactly a surprise. Warren has been going through some struggles, so sending him to a low stress environment to work through those issues while stretching out to serve in a spot starter’s role could help him get back on track. For the moment, the plan is to get him a spot start before the break during a 24 games in 24 days stretch and probably one start after the break.
Reality dictates that the Cubs will probably need more than a couple of spot starts over the course of the second half of this season, though. The mere fact that they have gone this far into the season making pretty regularly scheduled turns through the rotation is remarkable. It truly is. And Adam Warren is a great asset to have to be able to stretch out and use effectively in that role. He really is a Swiss army knife pitcher, of sorts. He can fill a variety of roles and excel in them. He may not be the best candidate the Cubs have for such a role, though.
Jason Hammel could turn into a true long relief and spot start ace on the pitching staff. It may feel silly to talk about pulling a pitcher out of a starting rotation that leads MLB in ERA by a wide margin less than half way through the season, so allow for some explanation.
First, Jason is due some pretty serious regression. His ERA/FIP/xFIP numbers are pretty out of whack at 2.55/3.82/4.20. His 4.21 Skill Interactive ERA meshes with his 4.20 xFIP nicely, furthering the possibility of a big regression. The percentage of runners he strands is at 84.2%, which would be, by far, a career high. His strike outs are actually down this season from years past and his walks are up. The .249 BABIP allowed is out of line from his career .300 BABIP and down from his career bests of .288 last season and .272 in 2014. All of this is to say that his results have been really good, but they don’t match his performance and at the end of the season, they probably will.
If the notion of a Jason Hammel regression based on his 2016 numbers isn’t enough, his career splits should do the trick. In the first half of seasons in his career, Hammel has a career ERA of 3.91. In the second half, it jumps to 5.15. The slash line against goes from .251/.315/.401 in the first half to .279/.344/.466 in the second half. His strikeout rate dips and his walk rate creeps up. The 3.98 FIP and 3.96 xFIP climb to 4.49 and 4.19, respectively. In terms of batted balls, the line drive percentage, and home run to fly ball ratio get worse, which should have been intuitive based on the other numbers. This is over the course of his career. And the last two seasons have had even more pronounced divisions between first and second half results and performance. From June 23 until the end of last season, Jason Hammel only completed 6 innings 3 times. And it was obvious to anybody who was watching that Joe Maddon’s short leash on him was a glaring sign of distrust.
Sliding Jason Hammel into a spot starter/ long relief role has three potential benefits. The first is that it gives the Cubs a starting pitcher in the bullpen to use for spot starts in the same fashion that they will be using Adam Warren in right now. It will allow Joe Maddon the opportunity to pick stretches without off days to insert a break between starts for pitchers like Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester, allowing them to be fresher going into the stretch run and into October. Second is insurance. Again, it is highly unlikely that the Cubs go a full season without a pitcher having to miss his turn. Having a pitcher the caliber of a Jason Hammel available to make that start is a luxury that most teams do not have. The third is the ability to prolong Hammel’s own effectiveness further into the season. Joe Maddon is the master of making opportunistic decisions to put his players into positions to succeed. So a spot start against a bottom feeder team like the Reds that saves Jake Arrieta’s arm for games against teams where his ability is more valuable or merely saves his arm could pay off as the season wears on. And if Hammel were needed for those spot starts, the hope is that the reduced workload would help Jason continue to have positive results throughout the course of the entire season.
Of course for any of this to be possible at all, it requires one of two outcomes. The simplest would be moving an in house option into the starting rotation. That probably means Adam Warren. And while Warren has been an effective starting pitcher and made 17 starts for the Yankees last season, it probably isn’t likely that the Cubs go that direction. The more complicated option that brings all of the caveats to the notion that Jason Hammel would be better in the pen is the need to acquire a starting pitcher.
With Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, and John Lackey manning the top three spots on the rotation, the Cubs would need to acquire someone with the ability to effectively fill the back end of the rotation with Kyle Hendricks. Last year, the Cubs grabbed Dan Haren in part because nobody could have ever imagined the tear that the 2015 Cubs would go on over the last two months of the season. This year, it’s fair to assume they would try to add something more than a reliable innings eater, even if the player wouldn’t need to be a high level starter with what the Cubs currently have. And with those stipulations, the player also has to be available, which should be coming more into focus as teams identify themselves as buyers or sellers.As for some current possibilities, they’re all a bit complicated.
The Padres are clearly selling and a guy like Andrew Cashner would be an attractive option if not for the simple fact that the guy can’t stay healthy. He is currently on the disabled list with a neck injury, although he did throw a bullpen session a few days ago. That could mean he’s on the comeback trail, but even when he has pitched this season he hasn’t been particularly good. And those results stretch forward from a 2015 season that was pretty disappointing for someone who looked like a potential break out ace in an injury shortened 2014. All of this may mean he comes cheap, as a rental who doesn’t need to be relied on to carry the front or middle of a rotation. That comes with the benefit of not probably not having to pull young pieces off the big league club. As a back end starter, most teams could certainly do worse. And in the playoffs, he could be used as a reliever to shorten the game. All of this, though, is rendered meaningless if he isn’t ready to return soon and make at least a few starts before the deadline.
Tampa Bay has fallen 9.5 games behind Baltimore and are in last place in the AL East. And they have a number of pitchers who might interest the Cubs with some long term value. Chris Archer hasn’t been nearly as good this season as he was last, but it would probably take a piece from the big league team to acquire him. He is on a long term, cheap control, deal. If Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer were willing to part with a piece of the big league team, like Jorge Soler and a healthy package of prospects, Archer may be a possibility. And it is fun to dream on his potential as a middle to top of the rotation starter down the line. But that is the kind of home run that’s hard to envision in this scenario. More likely is a guy like Matt Moore. He hasn’t been great for the Rays, but there is some ability there to stabilize the back end of the rotation. He comes on the last year of his contract with three inexpensive team options following this season. And like Cashner, his biggest issue has been health. But unlike Jason Hammel, he has better career second half numbers than first half. And Joe Maddon is familiar with him from their time in Tampa Bay together. He would probably cost some prospects that nobody would like to see go, but it shouldn’t be prohibitive to add a player like him and it would give them a chance at increased stability at the back of the rotation.
As you would expect, the Braves don’t come with much to discuss, other than Julio Teheran. The problem with Teheran is that he will cost a lot to acquire because he is having a bounce back season and has a long term, team friendly contract. And none of this is to mention that every team looking for a pitcher is going to ask about him, driving the cost up even more. And he comes with a risk because the split between his very good ERA and his very average FIP/xFIP suggests he may be in for a regression, which is the exact thing the Cubs would be trying to head off by acquiring him.
The Reds, Brewers, and Twins are also going to be in the seller category, but none seem to have players worth discussing here. The White Sox also aren’t worth discussing because they’re not trading Chris Sale or Carlos Rodon, Jose Quintana is going to cost a boatload, and nobody is going to give them anything for James Shields. And even though though they’ve fallen off, they’re only 1 under .500 and are by no means out of it in the AL. All of this is what makes the trade deadline so challenging.
The Cubs figure to be active at the deadline. They’re most certainly going to look to improve the back end of the bullpen because every team with aspirations of winning a championship is going to do that. There is no such thing as too many good high leverage arms. Adding a starting pitcher could make an already very good pitching staff better by making it deeper and cutting off what looks like a sure fire regression. It’s difficult to know what the odds are of a move for a starting pitcher actually are, but what is sure is that a move for a back end starter is most likely if one were to be made. While it was fun to dream on adding a Tyson Ross last summer (1 start in 2016) or Carlos Carrasco or Danny Salazar (the Indians are 3 up in the AL Central), those types of trades seem out of reach this season. And they’re not necessary. All the Cubs need is someone to make things more stable in the event of injury or the probable regression of Jason Hammel.
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