By: Omar Gobby
Here we sit, a little more than a week away from the annual flea market known as the MLB Winter Meetings. Every team is 0-0 and tied for first place, and looking for those pieces to put them over the top, and the Chicago Cubs ought to be very busy in that regard.
The 2015 edition of the Cubs exceeded all expectations by winning 97 games and advancing to the NLCS, losing to the New York Mets. The unofficial target date of 2016 to be a regular contender seems to be quite real.
Despite having the third best record in MLB in 2015, the Cubs do have some real weaknesses and needs. Last Winter Meetings in San Diego, the Cubs made a huge splash with the acquisitions of Jon Lester, Miguel Montero, and Jason Hammel (all in separate deals).
There is a large hole to fill in Center Field/Leadoff with the expected free agent departure of Dexter Fowler, and we will deal with that topic next time around. Today, I will focus on the other elephant in the room: the starting rotation.
This time around, the Cubs’ approach will likely be different. After laying a pretty big chunk of money on Lester (6 years/$155 million ) and Hammel (2/$20 million ), some have speculated that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer would look, once again, at the free agent class to fill a glaring need in the starting rotation. I’m not as certain of this. Jordan Zimmermann set the bar when signed on Sunday with the Detroit Tigers. This contract is scary. This is a guy with a grand total of 70 victories in his dossier at the age of 29. If a Zimmermann is worth $22 million a year, what will higher profile pitchers such as Zack Greinke or David Price command? I just don’t see Tom Ricketts opening up the checkbook for one of these guys with the money currently owed Lester and about to be owed to 2015 Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta. Arrieta is eligible for salary arbitration, and not set to enter Free Agency until after the 2017 season. The Cubs will try to avoid arbitration and extend his deal two years, most likely at a premium price. The money to acquire someone like Price or Greinke just is not, realistically, likely to be there. This leaves the team with three options for the starting rotation.
Option 1: Status Quo. As a whole, the Cubs’ starting rotation was third in all of MLB in ERA and first in aggregate WHIP. This was not all Lester and Arrieta, people. Hammel had a very good first half of the season, but slowed in the second as he nursed a nagging hamstring injury. Kyle Hendricks was solid in the #4 spot. There were not many bright moments out of the fifth spot, but a #5 guy is hardly the major focus for any team. With a winter to heal, Hammel should be just fine to go for 2016 and Hendricks can only benefit from his first full MLB season. A #5 guy can be found from somewhere on the roster from a group including Travis Wood, Clayton Richard, Dallas Beeler, or former Angels’ prospect Drew Rucinski.
Option 2: Mid-tier free agents. Doug Fister, Hisashi Iwakuma, Scott Kazmir, Ian Kennedy, Jeff Samardzjia, and Chris Young are some of the more significant names available. None of these come without risks. Fister seems to be an average pitcher. Kazmir has had such a bumpy roller coaster of a career, one never knows which Kazmir they will get. Kennedy excites no one. Young came to the league with a lot of fanfare, and seems to have only now “got it” at the age of 37. Iwakuma is intriguing, but he seems to be an “old” 34, having compile over 1500 innings in 11 seasons in Japan before coming to the Seattle Mariners in 2012. This brings us to Samardzjia. When the Cubs last had him, in 2014, Samardzjia rejected the Cubs’ offer of 6 years/$85 million as he was hoping to be able to cash in when he had his first chance at Free Agency after the 2015 season. Well, one pretty mediocre (at best) season on the South Side of Chicago with the White Sox later, Samardzjia seems to have settled in right at that dollar amount by most best estimates. However, having rejected the White Sox qualifying offer at the onset of free agency, any team signing him would forfeit a draft pick. With the Cubs now drafting 28th, their pick is no longer in that Top Ten protected status, and they would lose it. Knowing how much Epstein values the draft, I do not see him paying that price to bring “Shark” back into the fold.
There is one more intriguing free agent option. Hiroshima Carp standout pitcher Kenta Maeda has, by all reports, been posted for MLB free agency. Maeda also has hit that 1500 inning threshold that Iwakuma did, but it 3 fewer seasons. All that mileage, but a very slight frame (6′ and only 154#) could spell trouble over the long haul of a 162 game MLB travel schedule. This is NOT Tanaka, Darvish, et al. This is a guy who seems to be a high risk signing. Couple that with the $20 Million posting fee any team would need to put up, in addition to any contract (likely in the $12-15 Million per year range) obligations, and I do not see the Cubs entering that sweepstakes. This leads us to
Option 3. Trade Routes. Success does not come without a cost. In the Cubs’ case, this cost, most likely, would be in the form of having to give up highly rated talent in order to bolster up that pitching staff. The Cubs have a problem a lot of other teams would love to have: they have almost too many good hitters both at the MLB level and knocking on the door. Infield prospects such as Jeimer Candelario, Christian Villanueva, Gleyber Torres, Dan Vogelbach, and Wilson Contreras appear to be blocked from further advancement because of the young hitting stars already on the parent club (Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Javier Baez/Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo). While there is no “young star” currently in Contreras’ path to the Majors (Miguel Montero is the incumbent catcher), fellow young player Kyle Schwarber may be permanently moved behind the plate in the not so distant future.
In the outfield, Albert Almora and Billy McKinney seem to be closer to the Majors than not, and other prospects such as 2015 draft picks Ian Happ and Donnie Dewees and a bunch of intriguing youngsters in the lower minors all are champing at the bit. Schwarber and Jorge Soler are (for now) entrenched in left and right field for the big club. There are just not enough spots for all these guys. Something has GOT to give.
As a result, I am sure Epstein and Hoyer have been burning up the phone lines seeing what kind of deals there are to be made. There seem to be a few good matches for the Cubs to make a move for a starting pitcher:
New York Mets
This seems just so obvious a fit. The Cubs are replete with offensive prospects, and thin on top pitching candidates while the defending NL Champs seem to have a limitless resource of young arms with very little hitting punch on the horizon. Couple that with the fact that the Cubs deepest offensive spot (shortstop) is one of the Mets’ most glaring needs. All summer long, pundits mused over the potential these two clubs had to deal…and a deal never happened. That may just change before the calendar flips to 2016.
While the Indians have a very good young shortstop, they could use help pretty much anywhere else. Being an American League team, position is not the most important consideration in talent acquisition, and someone like a Javier Baez or Jorge Soler would fit beautifully for this team in return for one of their young pitchers such as Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, or 2014 Cy Young winner Corey Kluber.
This is a team in serious need of offensive oomph. Nelson Cruz hit 44 home runs, hit .302, had a OPS of .936…and drove in only 93 runs. That is not his fault. It is very hard to drive runners in who are not on base. The Cubs have a lot of players who could interest Seattle in exchange for someone like Roenis Elias or one of their pitching prospects like Edwin Diaz. The of-injured yet highly touted Danny Hultzen seems to be exactly the kind of player the Cubs love to roll the dice on, and might be worth exploring in a minor deal.
San Diego Padres
Like the Mets, the Padres are in desperate need of a shortstop. Alexei Amarista is just not an every day MLB shortstop. They did acquire former Red Sox SS prospect Javy Guerra in the Craig Kimbrel deal, but he is not quite ready. For whatever reason, the Padres seem willing to move any or all from among James Shields, Tyson Ross, and former Cub Andrew Cashner. As long as the unpredictable AJ Preller remains in charge in San Diego, other teams should continue to try to take advantage of him and strip the Padres roster clean.
If anyone has a clue as to what this team is doing, please call GM John Hart and tell him. Pretty much every move they have made in the last year and a half has made no sense. So there is no reason to squelch all those rumors that starting pitchers Julio Teheran and Shelby Miller are on the trading block. Likewise, there is no reason whatsoever that Theo/Jed shouldn’t at least kick the tires on this one.
Finally, my dark horse candidate:
The AL Central’s surprise second place team in 2015 (83-79) had a net run differential of -4 runs. They are also a team which has lost Torii Hunter (22 HR, 81 rbi) to retirement and has been actively shopping Trevor Plouffe before he hits Free Agency in 2018. They are a young team in need of some more firepower, and almost anyone of the “extra” Cubs could go a long way to filling that need. In exchange, the Twins could offer up someone like Trevor May, who has seen the luster of having once been the team’s top prospect fade. Many see May as a failure, and manager Paul Molitor even moved him to the bullpen…yet he is only 25 years old, and should still be able to be a productive starter at the MLB level.
This is hardly a comprehensive list of all the possibilities out there. And I am sure some rumors will swirl that have not been mentioned as yet. Only time will tell.