The Chicago Cubs have five starting pitchers in their rotation right now – Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, John Lackey, Kyle Hendricks, and Eddie Butler. But of those five starters, just two – Lester and Hendricks – are both 1) under contract for next season and 2) sure-fire starting pitchers beyond this year.
Jake Arrieta and John Lackey, of course, are becoming free agents (the latter may even retire) at the end of the season, and Eddie Butler is still just an experiment (even if he’s an exciting one!). Brett Anderson is also a free agent at the end of the year, but his time so far with the Cubs has been disappointing to say the least. Mike Montgomery could conceivably step into the rotation as well, but you couldn’t call him a sure-fire starting option just yet.
There are a couple guys from the minors who could plausibly emerge as starters heading into next season – Alec Mills, Trevor Clifton, Jen-Ho Tseng, Ryan Williams among them – but none can or should be counted on to do so.
So, needless to say, the Cubs *will* need additional starters ahead of next season, and the easiest place to get them is free agency. Fortunately, unlike last offseason’s barren class, there are actually a number of familiar, intriguing names becoming available in November, 2017.
Unfortunately, many of those names are wildly underperforming.
Here’s a few of the best potential free agents with their ages next year (via MLB Trade Rumors):
- Jake Arrieta (32 years old)
- Alex Cobb (30 years old)
- Johnny Cueto (32 years old)
- Yu Darvish (31 years old)
- Jeremy Hellickson (31 years old)
- Michael Pineda (29 years old)
- Tyson Ross (31 years old)
- Masahiro Tanaka (29 years old)
Great list, right? Here’s the thing: almost none of those pitchers are pitching well, and that could cause a problem for the market.
Let’s start with two in particular – Johnny Cueto and Masahiro Tanka.
Cueto and Tanka were, without a doubt, two of the most anticipated free-agent starting pitchers on that list (depending on where you rank Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish). But if they don’t start pitching better than they have been, they won’t be free agents at all, thanks to their contracts.
Johnny Cueto (11 Gs): 4.37 ERA, 3.94 FIP, 3.56 xFIP
Masahiro Tanka (10 Gs): 5.86 ERA, 5.18 FIP, 3.89 xFIP
If you weren’t aware, both of these players are actually under contract with their respective teams beyond the 2017 season, but could become free agents via an opt out clause. Of course, before their dreadfully slow starts to this season, both were expected to opt-out and get more money on a new contract, but now that isn’t as clear.
Is it possible for Cueto to beat the four years and $90+ million he has remaining on his contract after this season? Sure. But would any team do that right now? I’m not so sure. Same goes for Tanaka and the $67 million he’s owed over the next three years.
And to be clear: if either pitcher was pitching like their usual self, this wouldn’t even be a question. But if they don’t improve (or only improve slightly), neither guy will want to leave all that money on the table.
But what about the other two top guys who will definitely be free agents after the season? Arrieta and Darvish will become free agents at the end of this season, but both guys have issues of their own.
Arrieta, for one example, owns an ERA approach 5.00 right now (we’ll discuss him in depth later on). And while his peripherals suggest that there’s been some really hard luck baked into that (4.02 FIP, 3.59 xFIP) it’s not as though either of those numbers resemble anything close to the guy we saw from 2014-2015.
And then there’s Darvish, who’s sorta like Arrieta in reverse. While he’s technically posting one of the best ERAs of his career (2.97 ERA through 11 starts), he’s actually posting worse peripherals than Arrieta: 4.02 FIP, 3.93 xFIP. There are, of course, a myriad of problems for Darvish, but the two that stand out the most are his 25.3 K% (-4.8% against his career) and his 10.5 BB% (+1.1% against his career).
And while those numbers are trending in the wrong direction, Darvish’s ERA has been saved by a .244 BABIP (much lower than his career norm) and a ridiculous 85.2 LOB% (much higher than his career norm). In short, if this how Darvish ended the season, you’d have serious questions about handing him a multi-year contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
And then there are the remaining four names on the list:
- Tyson Ross is on the 60-day disabled list and hasn’t thrown a single pitch in 2017 following surgery for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.
- Alex Cobb recently underwent Tommy John surgery (2015), was terrible in his five starts last season (8.59 ERA), and has just a 17.0 K% in 2017.
- After posting a 3.2 fWAR season last year, Jeremy Hellickson is off to a terrible start in 2017. The big stat is his 9.5 K%, which is just unbelievable, and borderline a reason to avoid him at all costs.
- And then there’s Michael Pineda, who actually may be the best option overall. Well, that is if you think his 22.0% HR/FB ratio is a mirage. And before you say it definitely is, know that he posted a 17.0% HR/FB ratio all of last season (175.2 IP).
To be perfectly clear, there are some other names, and some of these guys will probably turn it around. But as I type right now, the previously-exciting pitching class of 2017-2018 is crumbling before our very eyes.
Here’s hoping they turn things around, or that the Cubs figure out another way to build up the rotation after 2017.