You know what this frozen starting pitcher market needs? A sudden uptick in trade rumors involving other, available starting pitchers whom teams can discuss and hold off on making free agent commitments!
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) February 8, 2018
There’s a whole lot of context there in Rosenthal’s report – which he notes is unlocked for everyone today – so you’ll want to check it out for yourself.
To be sure, neither Jake Odorizzi nor Collin McHugh are reasonable proxies for Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta, or maybe not even Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn. But they are capable starting pitchers with upside and a low salary cost, so they’re going to be pursued in this market.
Even if they are mere fallback options, as Rosenthal discusses, that has the potential to affect negotiations with the free agents – if you know you can get one of those two guys without issue if negotiations fall through with a free agent, you won’t feel that push to get something done on the free agent’s terms. Sure, McHugh probably won’t outpitch Darvish in 2018, but he also will cost about 1/5 of the salary. As teams plan ahead for next year’s huge free agent class and try to stay under the luxury tax cap this year, that brings McHugh’s value much closer to someone like Darvish.
This revelation is interesting for its timing, not only because it’s unusual to see this kind of trade rumor/chatter in February – these are the kinds of trades that typically precede free agency in November and early December – but also because it makes for a convenient set of rumors to come up as free agents are preparing for a continued long standoff. “We have other options,” teams can say.
As for these particular pitchers, we know that the Cubs have long been connected to Rays starters, including Odorizzi. We also know that the Rays are reportedly going to move more salary before the season starts. And Rosenthal reports, specifically, that “[m]ost of the teams pursuing free-agent right-hander Yu Darvish consider Odorizzi a backup plan, sources say.” That certainly sounds about right for the Twins and Brewers, but maybe the Cubs, too? Or maybe the Cubs at least want that appearance out there so they have a little leverage against, say, Alex Cobb, should their pursuit of Darvish fall through?
At any rate, I’ll tell you right now that we’ve looked at Odorizzi as a trade target for the Cubs, and we came away mostly uninterested. The 27-year-old is a former top young arm who’ll make only a hair over $6 million in 2018 and comes with one more year of control, but his peripherals in 2017 were downright terrifying, and followed something of a trend line over the past few seasons. Maybe the Cubs see some correctable issues (though he’d be working with the same pitching coach he had in Tampa Bay), and maybe the trade cost would be so minimal that it’s like, “sure, why not?” Maybe after determining that the free agent options were simply not going to be reasonable from a cost perspective, then I could see a buy-low, some-upside fit here. Barring that, though, I’d rather see the Cubs make it happen with Darvish, Arrieta, or Cobb.
As for McHugh, the 30-year-old righty has been pretty solid for four years now, but the problem is that he missed the first half of last season with an elbow issue. He did come back from that injury and pitch healthily and well through the end of the year and into the playoffs, for what it’s worth.
Like Odorizzi, he’ll make relatively little this year ($4.5 to $5 million), and has one more year of control after that. The dice roll, obviously, is about your confidence in the health of the elbow – the best predictor of future injuries is past injuries and all that. For me, much of the same strategic thinking about Odorizzi applies here: maybe if he costs nothing, and maybe if the free agent approaches simply weren’t going to work out.
Rosenthal’s sources say, by the way, that the teams aren’t planning to trade these guys away for little more than salary relief. So. For what it’s worth.
In any case, whether it directly impacts the Cubs or not, an increase in trade chatter about these guys could indirectly impact the Cubs by throwing yet another wrench into the free agent market.