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There was a time when Brandon McCarthy looked like the most attractive free agent pitcher likely to be in the Cubs’ reasonable range of pursuit come this offseason. In fact, back in mid-August, I called McCarthy the “early favorite for rumors,” expecting that he was going to be a prime target for the Cubs. Two weeks later, McCarthy took a line drive off the head, had emergency brain surgery, and his free agency future became considerably clouded.

The Cubs, however, look to be interested in signing McCarthy, according to Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle. She says that McCarthy is drawing “immediate interest,” and lists the Cubs, together with the White Sox and Blue Jays, as among the teams that could be interested. Read together, it isn’t difficult or unreasonable to connect those dots. “Immediate interest,” presumably, is coming from the Cubs.

McCarthy has stated a preference for returning to Oakland next year (many free agents do), but the A’s have already re-signed Bartolo Colon, and had seemingly filled McCarthy’s void in September nicely with young arms.

Even after that head injury, the Cubs’ interest should be no surprise. Indeed, that may have put McCarthy even more in the Cubs’ wheelhouse, with the possibility that he could have become an undervalued asset. Whereas McCarthy seemed to be headed for a healthy three or even four-year payday before the injury (even with his past health problems), his situation now is really unclear. Physically, he seems to be on his way back fine from brain surgery, but it isn’t unfair to worry about the mental aspect – or the offseason workout routine aspect, either. McCarthy’s injury could impact his performance in 2013 in dozens of ways that have nothing to do with the physical state of his skull or his brain.

If he is back to normal, though, he’s a guy you want in your rotation. When healthy – perhaps one of the most important opening clauses in a rumor-type post you’ll ever see – McCarthy is an excellent pitcher. In his one – no, seriously, just one – mostly-fully-healthy season in the big leagues, all McCarthy did for the A’s in 2011 was put up a 3.32 ERA, 2.86 FIP, 1.131 WHIP, 4.92(!) K/BB, and 4.8 WAR over 170.2 innings and 25 starts. He was following that up in 2012 with a superb 2.79 ERA over 71 innings when shoulder trouble sidelined him for a chunk of the year. When he came back, he pitched well again until the liner off his noggin.

So what do you have in McCarthy? Well, he missed much of 2007 with a stress fracture in his shoulder blade, most of 2008 with elbow troubles, chunks of 2009 and almost all of 2010 with the same kind of shoulder trouble, and another small chunk in 2011 with the same issue. In short: he misses time thanks to injury. Worse, they are frequently large chunks of time, they are related to recurrent injuries, and they tend to orbit around his arm.

What kind of contract does someone with that litany of injury troubles – coming off a serious head injury – receive? Well, given the unquestionable talent, the repeated ability to come back from those injury troubles, and the dearth of high-end pitching talent on the free agent market, I think he gets a guaranteed deal. There’s just too much upside for a team not to blink and give him a big league deal. He might even get a multi-year deal, depending on his prerogative. He might prefer another one year “prove it” deal, and a team like the Cubs would be all too happy to oblige. They’ve got the rotation spot they can hand him, and they’ve got the ability to be patient should he need some “time off” at some point next year. Ideally the Cubs would sign him to a one-year-plus-one-option year kind of deal, but that all depends on the market for McCarthy (and his interest in coming to Chicago).

Here’s hoping the Cubs pursue him aggressively. The risk is very real, but the upside is incredible. McCarthy is just 29, and, although he could be signed as a rebound/flip candidate, he’s young enough that the Cubs could look to keep him around for a little while if everything breaks right (and nothing of his breaks).

Interestingly, Cubs GM Jed Hoyer recently discussed McCarthy (when prompted, that is) and his signing by the A’s back in December 2010. Hoyer complimented both the signing and the subsequent performance in such a way that all but confirmed the interest.

Hoyer also said, as noted in the same piece by Patrick Mooney, that one way this front office likes to attract free agents is by demonstrating sincere interest early on in the process. Hmm. What was that Susan Slusser said about the Cubs’ “immediate interest” in McCarthy?

(McCarthy might also be the best tweeting athlete, so there’s another reason to want him.)

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