The Cubs’ search for starting pitchers this offseason didn’t go exactly as planned – well, according to the standard set by some fans, at least.
Year after year, Cubs fans have expected a big trade for a young, cost-controlled starting pitcher – mostly because the front office has emphasized it as a focus for quite a while now.
And, to the extent that such a trade would come to fruition, it would likely be at the cost of one of the Cubs’ young, cost-controlled position players.
However, in 2016, the Cubs sent shortstop prospect Gleyber Torres to the Yankees as part of the package for reliever Aroldis Chapman at the Trade Deadline, and, in December, they sent outfielder Jorge Soler to the Royals for reliever Wade Davis.
The former was instrumental in the Cubs’ 2016 World Series run, and the latter is expected to be instrumental to the Cubs’ 2017 season. However, neither will be with the Cubs beyond 2017, and neither are starting pitchers. Perhaps not exactly the plan Cubs fans had in mind when they thought about “position prospects for pitchers,” but I doubt anyone is complaining too aggressively about these trades now.
Still, even as the Cubs continue their search for the white whale of young pitching, they did add to their starting depth (with an extra hint of upside) this offseason – among other ways – in the form of free agent signee Brett Anderson.
So, let’s do what we do, and get to know a new Cubs player.
The Arizona Diamondbacks selected Brett Anderson in the second round of the 2006 MLB Draft. He spent the 2007 season as a top prospect in their organization before being traded to the Oakland A’s as part of a package for Dan Haren.
In 2009, Anderson made his Major League debut for the Athletics, starting 30 games (175.1 innings), while being worth a solid 3.5 fWAR. Unfortunately, he never came close to matching that number of innings in a single season again until his 2015 season with the Dodgers (180.1 IP). In fact, despite playing in parts of eight seasons since his debut, Anderson has amassed only 685.2 innings pitched.
And herein lies the rub with Brett Anderson – he gets injured … a lot:
- April 27, 2010: 15-day DL with left elbow inflammation and forearm strain
- June 4, 2010: 15-day DL
- June 7, 2011: 15-day DL with left elbow soreness
- July 31, 2011: Transferred to 60-day DL
- March 13, 2013: 60-day DL
- May 1, 2013: 15-day DL with sprained right ankle
- June 14th, 2013: Transferred to 60-day DL
And his injuries didn’t stop in 2013 with the A’s, they followed him up until last season:
- April 13, 2014: 15-day DL with fractured left index finger
- April 25, 2014: Transferred to 60-day DL
- August 6, 2014: 15-day DL with lower back strain
- August 16, 2014: Transferred to 60-day DL
Los Angeles Dodgers:
- April 3, 2016: 60-day DL after back surgery
- August 23, 2016: 15-day DL with left index finger blister
Not every injury on the list above is of the chronic nature (if you cut your finger, you cut your finger), but at some point (and that point was probably a couple of years ago), the “injury-prone” stigma begins to become his reality. And, of course, tucked away in the DL trips of the 2011, Anderson underwent Tommy John surgery, which caused him to miss just about all of 2012.
But now that the injury past is all out of the way – well, insofar as you’ve been made aware of it – we can actually discuss Anderson, the pitcher.
In short, Anderson is a nearly 29-year-old, left-handed starting pitcher who’s achieved success when he’s actually on the field. Despite a rash of injuries and inconsistent playing time, he’s maintained a 3.86 career ERA, a 3.70 FIP, and a 3.55 xFIP.
Interestingly, Anderson’s been able to succeed in the Major Leagues despite a relative absence of strikeouts (17.5% career K-rate), by limiting walks (6.3% career walk rate) and inducing a lot of ground balls (58.2% career ground ball rate).
Actually, that doesn’t do him justice. Since his debut in 2009, Anderson is tied for second in ground ball rate (58.2%) among all pitchers with at least 600 IP. In addition (over the same set of criteria), he ranks 11th in soft-hit rate (20.7%), behind guys like Roy Halladay, Jake Arrieta, Ted Lilly, R.A. Dickey, Clayton Kershaw, and Cole Hamels.
And suddenly, his success begin to make a lot more sense. As does the Cubs’ interest.
As we know, the Chicago Cubs’ starting rotation last season was really, really good. We also know that at least some of the credit has to be given to the historically good defense the Cubs put behind them. Cubs pitchers who weren’t necessarily known for elite strikeout totals or “scary stuff” (perhaps Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester most notably) often succeeded by pitching to contact, inducing weak contact, and allowing their defense to do a lot of the work. It’s not a crutch. It’s just a good strategy.
And it’s a strategy, it seems, that Brett Anderson might benefit from immensely.
Let’s go back to 2015 – the last season Anderson threw enough innings to dissect. That year, Anderson pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who finished 17th in baseball with -2 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). That year, their 5.0 DEF scoring was 16th best in baseball.
So, not quite terrible, but slightly below average.
In 2016, the Chicago Cubs defense lapped the league with a ridiculous 82(!) DRS and finished first with a 69.0 DEF rating.
But let’s not end there. The Cubs defense in 2016 was killer, but it could arguably be even better in 2017.
Consider that Javier Baez – he of the extremely elite defensive performance at second base in 2016 – will likely take far more reps at second base this season than he did last year, at the expense of the certainly steady, but probably-closer-to-average defense of Ben Zobrist. In addition, Albert Almora will likely see increased time across the outfield, but especially in center field, where his glove projects to be quite a bit better than Dexter Fowler (who wasn’t bad in 2016, but is certainly not near the defensive talent that Almora is). Behind the plate, a full season of Willson Contreras’ glove figures to be an upgrade, and left field could approach a wash, depending on how Kyle Schwarber performs, and who else sees time out that way.
With right field (Jason Heyward), third base (Kris Bryant), shortstop (Addison Russell), and first base (Anthony Rizzo) all holding true, the Cubs’ defense in 2017 might approach or even exceed their historically good defense in 2016 – and that could be hugely beneficial to a weak contact, ground-ball, low-strikeout pitcher like Anderson.
We’ll have to hold our breath with regard to his health, but if he can make it to the mound with some regularity, he can be a really good pitcher for the Cubs – perhaps moreso than with any other team in baseball.