With the Cubs sitting at 2 games over .500 with 90 games to play, it’s been a disappointing start to the season. There are a lot of reasons why the 37-35 Cubs haven’t boat raced a mediocre NL Central, yet. The offense hasn’t been as consistently good as it was last season. The defense hasn’t been as lights out as it was last season. And the most glaring reason of all is that the starting pitching has been middle of the pack after being so dominant last season. Jake Arrieta hasn’t been the same Jake Arrieta who has been excellent since 2014.. John Lackey is showing some signs that he may be nearing the end of his career. The combination of Brett Anderson and Eddie Butler have not given the Cubs a fifth starter who inspires confidence in a winning performance every fifth day. And now Kyle Hendricks is on the disabled list, which pushed Mike Montgomery into the rotation. It’s been a bit of a mess, which isn’t to say it’s all bad. But after a dazzling 2016, this is an over-correction to the regression that should have been expected moving into 2017.
The draft is behind us. Summer has officially started. The non-waiver deadline is less than six weeks away. And the Cubs need starting pitching. Both for the remainder of 2017 and for the future. The problem is that the American League is so bunched that it limits the number of teams who may sell hard at the deadline (or increase the number of teams who look to add a pitcher at any point on the continuum of veteran innings eater to top of the rotation type) and some of the bad teams have a vested interest in not selling off to the Cubs. The White Sox don’t want to make a trade that favors their cross-town rival. The Pirates and Reds don’t want to help a division rival (although the Reds probably don’t have anything the Cubs want, anyway), and the Giants probably think they can compete again soon, so helping the Cubs win beyond this season probably doesn’t sound like an appearing option, although that’s more speculation than anything that’s been reported. The Rays are 2.5 games out of first place as we sit right now, so Alex Cobb and Chris Archer probably cost even more or aren’t available.
Who is available? The answers to those questions are probably going to get more clear over the next two to three weeks (some names were thrown about in the last Dreamcast). In the mean time, there are some traits that the Cubs are probably looking for as names and teams who are selling are less ambiguous. Primarily, control beyond the season is going to be high on the wish list (although not necessarily a deal breaker). Then, finding pitchers who fit the rest of the team behind them would make for solid additions. That is to say, induces ground balls for a strong infield defense or induces harmless fly balls. Another attribute the Cubs would be wise to look for is someone who is quick to the plate out of the stretch to help Willson Contreras out. The Cubs are terrible at holding base runners, and a great deal of that stems from John Lackey and Jake Arrieta (and, to a lesser degree than the last two seasons, Jon Lester). Everyone wants the pitchers with low walk rates and high strike out rates (because, obviously).
There is space to speculate on names that should be expected to be available or may become available in the space between now and the deadline. With a strong farm system and depth at the major league level, the Cubs should have the pieces required to add any caliber of pitcher they need.
Theo Epstein, it would seem, enjoys making deals with Billy Beane. That is actually good news for the Cubs, since Sonny Gray appears to be one of the most prominent names back on the market. And being in his first year of arbitration, he has some inexpensive control remaining to fill in the middle to back of a starting rotation. He had some top of the rotation in results in 2014 and 2015, but being limited to 117 innings last season and only 57 2/3 so far this season should at least be cause for concern. That being said, none of those injuries have been to his elbow or shoulder, so there is some positive news in that regard. And the velocity on his fastball is in line with his very strong 2014 and 2015 seasons. His HR/FB% is a little bit concerning at 15%, but half of the 6 HRs he’s allowed this season came in his first start at Minnesota, which is suddenly playing a lot more hitter friendly. At the moment, he’s allowed 1 HR in 23 June innings pitched. Sonny Gray will obviously come at an elevated cost because he is showing some signs of being the guy he was 2-3 years ago and will be among the biggest names on the market.
Another Athletics’ pitcher who I’ve speculated about is Sean Manaea. The 6’5″ lefty isn’t even arbitration eligible, yet, so he’s got a fair amount of team control available and in his 218 big league innings, he’s been a solid starter in the middle to back of the rotation. He has a 3.92 ERA and 3.89 FIP. In 2017, he’s bumped up his strike out and ground ball rates, although his walk rate has come up with those metrics (still not a terrible 3.44 BB/9). It’s pure speculation as to whether or not Manaea is even available or if he is attainable for a cost that resembles anything reasonable. There is, however, a lot to like in him and he is under team control until 2023.
Some of you out there curse the ground Jeff Samardzija walks on. “He said mean things” about the Cubs when they were not actively trying to win. Who cares? Nobody likes to lose. Why should we expect a guy on a rebuilding team to like going out and getting beat down 4-5 days each week for 6 months? “His ERA is like twenty bazillions and he gives up like 942 home runs a game?” I mean, sure, those numbers aren’t good, but look at the other numbers. “His contract is yuuuuuge!” Meh…$18M per year through 2020 isn’t too terrible nowadays for starting pitching. In fact, for a mid level starter, that’s about the going rate. Here’s the thing on Shark…the velocity is still there. His BABIP against is a little higher than his career norms and it doesn’t look like there is any good reason for it to stay that way. He’s striking hitters out at a rate healthier than he ever has, and he’s issued 13 walks all season. The Giants may be willing to sell him off to add some decent (but probably not premium Eloy type) prospects and add some payroll flexibility for the coming off-season to either try to re-sign Johnny Cueto if he opts out and/or to add pieces to get back into contention in the coming seasons. Remember, the Giants were the best team in the NL at the 2016 All-Star break. They aren’t far removed from or away from being a contending type of team. But they aren’t this year, so it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see them make moves to be back in that role next season. If he’s available at a reasonable price, there is no (valid) reason at all to be against a Jeff Samardzija reunion.
We know the Cubs are going to add pitching, and it’s getting close to the time where a move could be reasonably be expected to be made. Recall, the Jake Arrieta and Addison Russell deals were completed in the first week of July. That’s one week away. There wouldn’t be any surprise to see multiple pitchers added, either. If John Lackey’s inconsistency persists or Kyle Hendricks continues to have a slow recovery from tendinitis in his hand, two vacancies could be created in the rotation. What isn’t likely is a trade for an ace (although, it isn’t out of the question, either). But one or two middle to back of the rotation quality starters to add to a returning Kyle Hendricks and a Jake Arrieta that the Cubs need to pitch like Jake Arrieta, no matter who they acquire, should help swing the rotation upward. The truth is, the starters don’t have to be as good as they were last season. They need to pitch at a high level for the remainder of this season in line with the top rotations in the league. Once the playoffs start, none of what has happened or will happen matters, anyway. That’s when the depth and quality of the rotation will mean the most. And that’s why adding an arm to that is so important in July.