In the eyes of many Chicago Cubs fans, Tsuyoshi Wada has too many strikes against him to matter going forward. He’s 33. He has no established track record of big league success. He doesn’t throw hard. He isn’t a “prospect.” He was just a minor league signing.
But, here’s the thing: the Cubs are going to need quality pitchers as well in 2015 as they will in 2019, and it turns out that 34-year-olds can pitch. Whether Wada factors into the Cubs’ “long”-term plans doesn’t really concern me right now. Instead, I want to know whether he can be a starting pitcher – or an asset – for the Cubs at any point after 2014. Why worry about the rest right now?
Watching him mow down one of the better lineups in baseball yesterday – after doing the same repeatedly in other starts this season – it’s hard to believe Wada can’t figure into the Cubs’ plans in 2015 (or in the offseason, should another team come calling desperately).
I won’t belabor the positive indicators that existed before Wada made his big league debut, but note them only as the starting point for this discussion: Wada was among the best pitchers in Japan for nearly 10 years before coming to the Orioles before the 2012 season. Before he could throw a single Stateside pitch in the bigs, he underwent Tommy John surgery. He didn’t start pitching competitively until halfway through 2013, and didn’t start pitching well until the very end of 2013. From there, the Orioles had a $5 million option, which they declined. The Cubs picked up Wada on a minor league deal, and he pitched exceptionally well in the PCL.
That is all to say, there was reason to believe Wada could be a legit big league arm this year, his age/velocity/injury/contract notwithstanding.
Since his debut, here’s what Wada has done: 45.2 IP, 2.56 ERA, 3.55 FIP, 3.61 xFIP, 22.5% K rate, 6.0% BB rate. Those aren’t ace numbers, but no one’s asking Wada to be an ace. His .258 BABIP is low, but not necessarily unsustainable given his extreme fly ball tendencies. That’ll lead to more homers than average, but his 9.3% HR/FB rate is right around average – which means, although Wada gives up more fly balls than most (and, in turn, more homers than most, assuming an average HR/FB rate), he has so far succeeded in spite of the grievous harm that fly ball tendencies can bring.
That’s still a small sample, and he’s still got to show he can do it when teams get second, third, fourth, etc. looks at him. But, so far, he’s not just succeeding, he’s succeeding in a legitimate and sustainable way. I would expect a few more homers, and a lower strand rate (he’s leaving 83.3% on right now, which will likely come down), but the FIP and xFIP suggest Wada really could be a 3.50ish ERA guy going forward. That’s a nice back-end starter in any rotation.
If we assume that Wada, at 34 next year, can be this kind of back-end starter, the only question then is whether he’s worth the team picking up his option for 2015.
Unlike your typical player, an advanced Japanese arm like Wada isn’t going to sign a deal that permits a team to simply renew him at the Major League minimum just because he doesn’t have enough service time to qualify for arbitration or free agency. That makes sense, of course, because such a player, rather than playing in the States for $500,000 could simply go back to Japan and make quite a bit more.
Wada’s minor league deal, then, included a team option for 2015, as reported by multiple sources.* The amount of that option has not yet been reported, though I could take a pretty reasonable stab at it: $5 million. That was the amount of the 2014 team option on the original deal with the Orioles. If that’s the amount for which Wada was willing to extend his stay in the States then, it’s probably the upper limit of the option for the Cubs’, too. At least for the sake of discussion, and unless I hear otherwise, that’s what we’ll go with.
So, that’s the real question here: given what we’ve seen so far from Wada, is he worth $5 million or so in 2015?
Were his option much less than that, the answer would be obvious. At $5 million, it’s still probably a clear yes, but it’s a closer call. Ultimately, I think we’ll want to see what he does over the final month before saying for certain, but, if this really is Wada, then the Cubs will have to pick up his option and strongly consider him for the rotation entering the Spring.
Even if the rotation question isn’t clear, the option decision might be. Over 8 starts so far this year, Wada has been worth 0.7 WAR, according to FanGraphs. Playing the dangerous game of small-sample-extrapolation, and assuming Wada is the same guy next year he’s shown this year, we could say Wada could be worth 2.5 to 3.0 WAR in 2015. At $6 million per win, that’s $15 to $18 million in value.
In other words, if you believe this is Wada, and you project him to be this guy next year, he’d have quite a bit of surplus value in 2015, even at $5 million in salary. So, even if you were viewing Wada purely as an asset, rather than a clear rotation member, he’s a nice asset to have over the Winter. Once again, the option decision might be an easy one.
There’s still a lot of season left, and we’ll see what Wada shows the rest of the way. But it’s a story line to follow, particularly as the Cubs look to figure out their rotation heading into 2015.
*(After 2015, I believe the Cubs would still have control over Wada’s Stateside rights, rather than him reaching free agency. The catch, though, is that, at that point, if they tender him a contract, it would have to be for at least 80% of his current salary. So, if that salary was $5 million, the Cubs could keep him for $4 million in 2016, but you don’t actually reduce a guy’s salary if he played well (which he would have to if the Cubs wanted to keep him after 2015). This is all getting very hypothetical and academic. The essence is this: I believe the Cubs would still control Wada’s rights after 2015, but it would cost more than $5 million per year.)