theo epstein and jed hoyerWith the Cubs now 11.5 games back in the NL Central thanks to a sweep in St. Louis (had the Cubs swept, the deficit would have been just 5.5 games – huge swing), it’s reasonable to argue that they no longer have a realistic shot at winning the Central. Thus, their best path to the playoffs is a Wild Card spot, which inherently comes with a 50/50 shot of going home after just one game.

To my mind, that pushes in favor of only two kinds of pitching acquisitions in-season this year: (1) players under control for more than one year (a range of talent levels and costs make sense for the Cubs, since they’ll help this year and in the future); (2) less expensive middle-or-back-end rentals.

I am excluding, then, the highest end of the rental market – the Johnny Cueto types – because, although a pitcher like that would certainly help keep the Cubs in the Wild Card race and could thereafter help in the playoffs, the risk of a one-and-done in exchange for giving up an elite prospect (or more) is too great.

Being that the two-team Wild Card is relatively new, and being that the Cubs have never had a real chance at it in the past few years, these kinds of musings are new to me. I’m open to being convinced that I’m wrong.

If I’m not wrong, however, then that leaves a slightly diminished market for the Cubs, and a semi-gray one; is Scott Kazmir too pricey of a rental? Jeff Samardzija? Will Cole Hamels’ price tag be pushed up too far by teams that can get more value out of him in 2015 than the Cubs?

These are questions that will be sussed out over the course of the next month, but, the broader point remains: I don’t see the Cubs going after the priciest rental arms on the market, and that strikes me as the correct approach.

Buster Olney has written about the Cubs’ efforts to get pitching, and he similarly sees a tricky market, but for different reasons. I don’t want to get into the particulars too much, as it’s a premium article, but I do want to respond to a couple points he makes.

For one thing, Olney sees the Cubs as having difficulty putting together deals with other teams in the NL Central, because of the obvious stickiness associated with improving a competitor. I’m not sure I see it the same way, at least with respect to rentals – if the Reds (or the Brewers) decide to sell off soon-to-be free agents and not compete in 2015, why would they care if they were extracting their value from (and depleting long-term) a divisional foe? The Cubs and Reds previously got together on the Sean Marshall-Travis Wood trade, you’ll remember, and it was precisely this kind of deal (Marshall was a free agent after the upcoming season – one in which the Cubs knew they would not be competitive).

For another thing, Olney sees the large divisional lead for the Cardinals as a reason the Cubs will eschew rentals altogether, instead focusing on deals involving players under control for more than one year. Olney mentions Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner from the Padres, specifically as interesting guys in that mold who could become available.

As I said above, I do think multiyear players make the most sense for the Cubs (that’s almost always true for any team at any time), but a quality mid-rotation rental could still be of enormous value to the Cubs. Maybe the Wild Card game is a one-and-done, but maybe it isn’t. And, even if it is, being able to sell the story of “going to the playoffs” with such a young team and then building upon that in the offseason would be a really great thing.

Either way, the Cubs have to get there first. And, with a loaded farm system, the Cubs will have the assets to pick up a rental arm without severely harming themselves for 2016 and beyond.

It’s going to be an interesting month, because there are a variety of directions the Cubs could still go.