Chicago Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein has said plainly that, in an ideal world, the Cubs would land a top-tier starting pitcher this offseason, presumably from among the Lester/Scherzer/Shields trio, but also perhaps in trade (Cole Hamels? A young Mets starter? Something else entirely?). Further, Epstein has indicated that, in said perfect world, the Cubs would also add a second quality starting pitcher, presumably from among the healthy second tier group of pitchers, which includes guys like Justin Masterson, Jake Peavy, Brandon McCarthy, Francisco Liriano, Ervin Santana, and Jason Hammel.
Epstein, as well as GM Jed Hoyer, has also been quick to point out that acquiring impact pitching is likely to be a multiyear process, and the projected free agent group after next season is really substantial. So, even if the Cubs can’t fulfill their ideal world this offseason, maybe they grab a couple second tier starters this year, and go full bore next year or maybe even at the Trade Deadline in 2015.
You’ll note the implicit assumption in any case, though: the Cubs figure to add two starting pitchers this offseason. And not the flyer kind. The they-are-going-to-be-in-the-rotation kind.
With Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, Travis Wood, Jacob Turner, Felix Doubront, Edwin Jackson, Eric Jokisch, Dallas Beeler, Dan Straily, and maybe even Tsuyoshi Wada already in the fold, do the Cubs really need to add two certain starters? Don’t they already have enough depth? Aren’t almost all of those guys big league caliber pitchers? Surely the Cubs can make a decent five-man rotation out of those nine or ten names, right?
Hopefully you’re shaking your fist at the screen by this point, or at least rolling your eyes. Of course the Cubs need to add pitching, And of course they have nice depth, but depth, alone, doesn’t get you where you need to be. Furthermore, adding sure-fire starters only helps the depth picture.
In a Patrick Mooney piece on the Cubs’ pitching situation (read it, folks), Epstein warmed my heart with this comment about the rotation, among many others: “We’ve seen enough to know that our pitching depth should be in pretty good shape next year. To be fair, I think there are a number of guys that had good years that we’re going to take a conservative approach [with] and look at as depth. The onus is on them to take a step forward and establish early next season that they’re more than depth.”
Epstein went on to note that, when you go out and bring in better big-league starters from outside the organization, your depth picture only looks better, because then you know you have a 6/7/8th/whatever starter who is definitely big league capable. If he proves that he’s more than that, great. But make them earn it.
If the Cubs bring in two sure-fire starters, joining Arrieta and (probably) Hendricks as presumptive rotation members to start the year, it’s fair to wonder how they fit Wood, Turner, and Doubront (as perhaps the next three, and probably in that order) into that singular fifth starter spot. But boy is that the question you want to have going into Spring Training, and not, “which of these five guys will make up the final three spots in the rotation?”
I’m just very happy to hear Epstein conceding that some of the quality young starters who haven’t yet proven it over a long period of time in the big leagues won’t be counted on as rotation members next year. If they earn it, great. But with an otherwise crowded rotation, the Cubs aren’t going to be caught with their pants down when a couple guys get hurt and a few others demonstrate they aren’t going to reach their big league ceilings. It would have been easy to point to the huge depth, and head into the offseason saying something like, “It’s clear we’ve got three spots locked down in Arrieta, Hendricks, and Wood, and with so much depth behind them in the form of guys who had solid 2014 seasons, we’re confident we can make out a good rotation next year with some competition. Maybe we consider adding one guy from the outside.” But that would have been a mistake heading into a season in which the Cubs have said they are aiming to win the NL Central.
Adding two quality starters bolsters the rotation, improves the quality and quantity of the depth, and puts the Cubs in a much better position to weather the inevitable problems that pop up when a bunch of guys start throwing baseballs really hard in February. The Cubs have been unusually healthy in the rotation over the last few years, so I’m not sure fans remember what it’s like to lose a key arm for most of the season, or to lose a couple guys for several months at a time. It’ll happen at some point, and competitive teams have to put themselves in a position not only to survive it, but to slot in another arm that gives them a nearly equal chance to win.