[Ed. - The following is another guest post from freelance reporter and ESPNChicago.com contributor, Sahadev Sharma. Have I mentioned that Sahadev and I do a podcast? We'll have a new episode for you on Wednesday, but you can check out our previous episodes - and subscribe - here.]
Early Thursday evening, the Chicago Cubs nearly pulled off one of the bigger surprises of the offseason. Reports had surfaced that they’d snagged starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez on a five year, $75 million deal. They were quickly proven to be wrong, and, by Friday morning, Sanchez had agreed to an $80 million contract with the Tigers over the same timeframe.
Regardless of who leaked what and why we at one point thought the Cubs had signed Sanchez, the fact is they aggressively pursued him, and clearly came in with a very reasonable offer. As someone who didn’t expect this type of move – and was getting a little tired of talking about players that were being signed at a great value that could be flipped for assets at the deadline – for a few hours, this move came as a breath of fresh air. I still strongly believe that the small moves, while horribly boring, are the right way for this front office to build this team. However pursuing Sanchez (in my opinion, he was the second best starting pitcher on the market behind Zack Greinke) actually made quite a bit of sense for multiple reasons.
Sanchez has made at least 31 starts, tossed no less than 195 innings and had a sub-4.00 ERA in each of the last three seasons. While that doesn’t scream number one starter, he’s proven to be durable and effective, two highly sought after attributes in this market. Sanchez’s walk rate has consistently dropped over the years, hitting a career low 5.9% last year, while his strike out rate was a solid 20.4% (after a career high 24.3% in 2011, his last full season in the National League).
The most important aspect in the Cubs pursuit of Sanchez may have been his age: he’ll enter spring training at a spry 29. That fact shows that, in all likelihood, the Cubs weren’t looking solely at 2013 with this potential move. This signing could have helped the team speed up their timetable of contention, making a surprise run in 2014 slightly more realistic.
But why would the Cubs be so aggressive in pursuing such a high-priced pitcher now when they don’t really expect to compete in 2013? Brett and I have often said that you have to go after free agents when they’re available. With the prevalence of extensions being signed in this league, it’s becoming rarer by the year for elite talent, especially pitching, to reach the open market.
There’s also the fact that the 2014 free agent market is looking particularly thin in young pitching talent. There are only two starters who will enter next offseason as free agents under the age of 30: Phil Hughes and John Lannan. Hughes very well could have a breakout season in 2013, but, if that does happen, it means that there will be a bidding war for his services. The Cubs are definitely equipped to engage in such activities if they’re genuinely interested in a player, but the situation highlights why acquiring Sanchez at a reasonable price would have been so forward-thinking. Even if we bump the age to include 30 year olds, the next free agent class – outside of the Cubs’ own Matt Garza – is filled with some big names who come with a significant amount of risk and whose best years may be behind them (Tim Lincecum, Edinson Volquez and Josh Johnson).
While there aren’t many attractive free agents heading to the market next offseason, there may be a few that will be available via trade. Buster Olney already threw out the name David Price, who would have two years remaining on his deal at that point in time. But two others who could be had – and whose contracts expire after the 2014 season – are Max Scherzer and the always discussed, but seemingly never available, Felix Hernandez. Obviously, Hernandez would be the true prize, and, by that point in time, Seattle may have a better idea what they have in their trio of top pitching prospects, Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, allowing them to decide if moving Hernandez is the right move.
These trade options will likely still be available to the Cubs next season. That wouldn’t have changed with the theoretical acquisition of Sanchez. However, it would have been more of a finishing touch to the rotation (especially if Garza were extended) rather than the first step, as the addition of an ace to a rotation already featuring Sanchez and Jeff Samardzija would have at minimum made the Cubs relevant, regardless of how far the young bats had developed.
Another benefit to adding Sanchez would have been how the Cubs would have handled Garza. Whether to extend Garza or trade him will likely be one of the bigger question facing Theo Epstein and company as we head into the 2013 season. There are strong arguments for each side, but the addition of Sanchez would have given the Cubs a little bit of leverage in the situation. As much as Garza may enjoy playing on the North Side, adding another strong, young pitcher to the staff would have reassured him that the Cubs aren’t going about this rebuilding process too slowly and given him some incentive to stick around and try to be a part of something special. The presence of Sanchez would have also provided the Cubs with some insurance if they were unable to extend Garza and were forced to move him at the trade deadline or if he departed via free agency after the season.
The fact is signing Sanchez would have made the Cubs path to future success a little less murky. It would have been the first step to adding the talent necessary to compete to the major league roster. The Cubs still have a farm system that’s rapidly improving. So much so, that if a few pitchers (Duane Underwood and Pierce Johnson, for example) have strong seasons and the bats continue to move forward, by this time next season we could be hearing about the Cubs having the top system in all of baseball. That would give fans hope for the big trade about which Olney speculated.
Not getting Sanchez is hardly a killer to Epstein and Jed Hoyer’s plan for the Cubs. Sanchez wasn’t essential to the Cubs avenue to success (it’s been reported that, while they have always planned to pursue some bigger names, they never really expected to come away with one), however, it would have made things a little easier.
This isn’t a disaster, just merely a bump in the road for the Cubs brass. The farm system is healthy and names like Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo and Samardzija give hope at the major league level. Regardless, getting so close only to come away empty handed has to sting.