The Chicago Cubs totally don’t need to trade for a starting pitcher. But the Chicago Cubs totally might need to trade for a starting pitcher. And if you totally might need to trade for a starting pitcher, you better start laying that groundwork now. Heck, you might even have to just pull off the trade and deal with the fallout later if it turns out you didn’t really need to do it …
Such is the story that precedes a rumor like this, and why I do buy it, provisionally-speaking:
Hearing Chicago Cubs may have interest in LHP JA Happ @Jays
— bob elliott (@elliottbaseball) July 8, 2018
Happ, 35, may well be the best pure rental starter that comes onto the market this trade season, working on his fourth straight good-to-great season, ever since his career renaissance started with the Pirates before coming to the Blue Jays. (One of the guys credited with that career turnaround, by the way? Pitching guru Jim Benedict, who is now in the Cubs organization.)
On the year, Happ’s 4.44 ERA is a hair worse than league average, but all the peripherals statistics look more or less in line with the last few years, and it looks like he’s just kinda gotten unlucky with sequencing lately.
His last few starts – especially the last two, which torched his ERA – have looked quite ugly, but, if he’s healthy, the overall body of work is good enough and consistent enough over these past four years that there’s plenty of reason to believe he’s a great buy as a rental. A guy who figures to give you 10 to 12 solid starts in the second half, and then be a usable playoff starter.
But will the Cubs ultimately want or need a pricey rental like Happ?
Well, that’s very hard to answer as we sit here today, and Theo Epstein conceded as much this weekend (Cubs.com): “You’re always looking to fortify and add a little bit, and you always have Plan B and Plan C in case of injury or bad performance …. For us, we’re still in the mode of assessing. On the position-player front …. [i]t’s not like we’re actively looking at anything on the position-player side. With the pitching, we’ll know a lot more in the next few weeks.”
In other words, the Cubs are very cognizant of the tenuous, but also unclear, situation they face in the rotation.
In the best of worlds, Yu Darvish speeds through a recovery process, and is healthy and strong by the end of July. Tyler Chatwood figures out his command problems, and harnesses his stuff for a few dominant starts. Mike Montgomery and Jon Lester keep pitching well. Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana smooth things out. The Cubs suddenly have six very good starting pitchers internally, and the idea of spending capital to acquire a very good rental seems crazy.
… in the worst of worlds, Darvish’s season is over, but no one knows it yet. Chatwood never figures things out and keeps burning the Cubs each fifth day. Montgomery and Lester regress. Hendricks and Quintana keep bouncing back and forth between decent and surprisingly poor. The Cubs suddenly have massive problems, and the idea of NOT spending capital to acquire a very good rental seems crazy.
So what are the Cubs to do? Well, ideally, you keep trade partners on the line for as long as possible while you get as much information as you can about what’s going to happen internally with your guys.
If a can’t-say-no deal comes through on someone like Happ sooner than you were looking to make a move, well, then sometimes you just have to suck it up and pull the trigger, and then figure out how to accommodate everyone later. (Imagine the risk there: “Oh no, the Cubs have too many good starting pitchers!”) It’s always possible that someone gets hurt in August or September, or another guy deeply underperforms, etc. And then you’re gonna be relieved as heck that you went overboard.
In other words, I very much buy this Happ rumor, insofar as it indicates that the Cubs are out there letting *POTENTIAL* trade partners know that they *MIGHT* be looking to acquire a starting pitcher later this month.
From there, it’s up to teams like the Blue Jays to decide if they want to wait until later this month when the market for their assets might be broader, or if they want to take the bird in hand and pull off a trade soon. The Cubs will be far from the only team inquiring on Happ. Again, he might be the best rental starter that ultimately winds up on the market. (UPDATE: Tommy Birch reports that the Blue Jays have looked at a trio of Iowa Cubs.)
The Cubs have also been lightly connected to Nathan Eovaldi, by the way, if you missed that.