Heading into the most recent offseason, many expected the Cubs to be active in the robust and expensive upper-tier free agent starting pitcher market.
Of course, the Cubs decided to go another route, avoiding costly pitchers, doubling down on the positional side, and taking a cheaper option in John Lackey. So far, so good.
But their abstinence over the winter likely means that the Cubs are still in the market for a (near) top of the rotation starting pitcher, preferably one with multiple years of team control remaining (recall, the need is as much about future seasons as it is about this one). The Cubs are pretty clearly a playoff contender, and every team that hopes to be playoff bound will need not only multiple solid starting pitchers at the top of the rotation, but also multiple solid starting pitchers at the back end. If the Cubs decide to add near the top of the rotation, someone (just who that someone will be is a discussion for another time), can move out and into the bullpen or elsewhere, serving as extremely quality depth for the inevitable missed starts that come. When a team starts as well as the Cubs have, the last thing you want to risk is having it all derailed in the second half by injury.
And, indeed, despite the very early look of the Cubs’ pitching, many now expect the Cubs to be active in the trade market for pitchers this summer, and General Manager Jed Hoyer essentially confirmed as much before yesterday’s game.
In reports at CSN and the Chicago Tribune, Hoyer indicated that the Cubs are constantly evaluating where they are what they may need in the future, saying, “We’re aware that pitching in general is something that every team needs around the deadline. And I’m sure we’ll be in that group.”
Of course, simply wanting a solid starting pitcher isn’t all it takes. A lot can happen between now and the deadline, making it nearly impossible to predict just who or what will be available and when that time will be, and Hoyer underscored that it will still take some time for the market to crystalize as teams get in and out of contention in the coming weeks.
Which makes sense, doesn’t it? The Cubs are a rare team that, even at this early stage, is clearly going to be in contention come July, and already figures to be in the market for a quality, multi-year starting pitcher. You can’t necessarily say the same for too many teams in baseball just yet.
In addition, the Cubs still have quite a collection of prospects ranging from near-MLB ready types (offered solely as examples of the Cubs’ system depth) like Willson Contreras, Dan Vogelbach, and Albert Almora, to further away, but equally polished types like Ian Happ and Jeimer Candelario to further, further away but high upside types like Eloy Jimenez and Gleyber Torres.
More importantly, aside from, well, starting pitching prospects, the Cubs can offer young players at a variety of positions, both premium and not. In that list above alone, there are two middle infielders, a big bat first baseman, a second baseman, a third baseman, a catcher, a center fielder, and a corner outfielder – each of whom are quality players. Teams looking to sell could mix and match nicely with the Cubs system, as the Cubs have done well not to empty the cupboard in about half a decade.
Once again, you can’t necessarily say the same for too many teams in baseball that figure to have a chance to be buyers.
But like Hoyer said, so much can happen between now and then; I wouldn’t expect anything to happen too soon, even if both sides were willing and getting itchy to pull the trigger. Remember, there is a lot of interplay between teams as midseason approaches. Just one team waiting on a certain player to become available can slow down their actions, and, in turn, clog up the market. Or, similarly, teams can be waiting for players to return from an injury and prove he’s still healthy and ready to go. Consider several former, but heavily-rumored Cubs trade targets (Sonny Gray, Carlos Carrasco and Tyson Ross) are all out right now with injuries. As a completely hypothetical example, the Cubs may prefer to stick with what they have until one of those guys is ready, instead of forcing the issue with someone else.
And speaking of what they have, the Cubs’ starting pitching hasn’t exactly been bad. In fact their 2.54 ERA (1st), 3.04 FIP (2nd), and 6.4 fWAR (2nd) out of the rotation is among the best in baseball, just barely behind the Mets. But even as it looks solid right now, an injury or two could really derail the entire season.* So when the time does finally come, I expect to see the Cubs heavily involved in the starting pitcher trade market.
We’re just not there yet.
*(And, as alluded to earlier, in addition to this season, the Cubs will need to brace for the future at some point, and they could look to do that via trade. After 2016, the Cubs potentially lose Jason Hammel (option for 2017), after 2017, the Cubs will lose John Lackey and Jake Arrieta. And, in 2018, Jon Lester will be 34 years old. The Cubs will need to add someone(s) soon enough, and, with a weak upcoming free agent class, the trade route is as likely as ever.)
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.