I know that you’re weary of the free agent process this year, which has dragged out in previously unseen ways. We can’t do much about the market at a macro level, but at least we can be heartened that the Cubs clearly recognize a critical need, are targeting it both aggressively and thoughtfully, and are taking the time that the market affords them.
Within the context of the Cubs’ Yu Darvish pursuit, Craig Edwards takes a look at how the Cubs stand vis a vis the other teams in the NL Central and the powerhouses of the NL overall. I think he points out some accurate, if uncomfortable, realities about the Cubs’ 2018 club, including the many bounce backs that the projections are suggesting (not everyone bounces back), and a number of assumptions about pitcher effectiveness. Even in the areas where the Cubs have significant depth (position players, bullpen), there are legitimate downside risks.
That said, the area that gets the most attention is the area where we also have concerns: the starting pitching depth.
For years, this has been an issue for the Cubs – usually the best starting pitching depth comes from young players who develop internally, and can thus be held at AAA until a need arises. You can’t sign quality free agent starters to be depth, and you couldn’t stash them at AAA even if you were willing to pay them handsomely thanks to service time and options rules.
So, then, the Cubs are once again left with a depth mix of lower-upside pitching prospects and waiver/low-cost-trade acquisitions. Guys like Eddie Butler, Alec Mills, Jen-Ho Tseng, Luke Farrell, Cory Mazzoni, Adbert Alzolay – there is talent in that group, and there is a chance that one or two of them could emerge as capable back-of-the-rotation starters in the big leagues. But the fall-off from one of the Cubs’ top arms to that group is really significant, and the Cubs are just an injury away from that happening.
This is what we meant when saying that not adding another starting pitcher would be OK for the front five – I still really like Mike Montgomery as a starting pitcher! – but it would be scary as heck for the pitching situation overall. To reiterate what we said earlier this month:
Here, instead, is where I get really concerned about having Montgomery in the rotation right now. Because he has shown that unique ability to bounce between the rotation and the bullpen, the Cubs have had the luxury of having their sixth starter available to them at all times, while also getting big league value out of his performance in the bullpen. Often, a sixth starter is using up bullets at AAA or is out of options and makes for very complicated roster decisions. Montgomery gave the Cubs the best of all worlds.
So, then, if you lose Montgomery in that role, you’re left with a mess of typical depth concerns. Butler, for one example, is out of minor league options. Could the Cubs get him through waivers to AAA if he doesn’t make the rotation or bullpen, and thus be kept as depth? Tseng has options, but is he really going to succeed at the big league level in the rotation? Is Alec Mills ready to be a depth starter? Is Adbert Alzolay? Did the Cubs find a diamond in Luke Farrell?
The best teams have their depth situation taken care of by good-to-great prospect arms who can be freely optioned back and forth to AAA as needed. The Cubs don’t yet have quite enough guys in that mold to have that luxury. So if a series of injuries pop up (or ineffectiveness, or injuries AND ineffectiveness), their rotation could very quickly become an anchor.
Adding a Darvish or an Arrieta or a Cobb not only improves the five-man starting rotation for the Cubs, it preserves the option to continue using Montgomery in an extremely valuable role (assuming he gets back on board with it). It’s conceivable the Cubs would be fortunate enough to find/develop a new Montgomery in the interim, but that’s far from a guarantee.
The safer bet is simply to sign a quality arm, and let Montgomery keep being the quality swing man he is. And *then* if a rotation spot opens up, it’s not a disaster – it’s just the opportunity for a really good pitcher to get some starts.
The front office knows all of this, and that’s why they continue to pursue Darvish, as well as Alex Cobb and Jake Arrieta. Even if the Cubs aren’t able to swing a deal for one of those three (or Lance Lynn), I think you’ll see the Cubs bring in a next tier starter like Jaime Garcia or Trevor Cahill or Jeremy Hellickson or Jason Vargas. Heck, you might also see the Cubs trying to bring in a veteran starting pitcher from the tier after that on a minor league deal, just in case there’s a rash of injuries in the Spring.
But, of course, landing one of these starting pitchers – in the top tier or otherwise – is not solely about improving the rotation (though one of the top three would probably do that), and is not even solely about creating depth (though any signing would help there). The move is also about improving the bullpen by moving Mike Montgomery out there into a more flexible role, where he’s been so useful and effective for the past season and a half. Sure, he’ll still make starts – I hope the six-man rotation makes an extended appearance again this year – but he’ll also provide a buffer in the bullpen when it gets stretched thin. Further, his presence in the bullpen will create competition in the Spring, and will give the Cubs flexibility not to have to lean on any youngsters before they are ready.
In sum: the quality of the Cubs’ starting pitching depth is concerning. The starting five, at present, is probably pretty good, but a quality addition would make it even better, and would improve that depth. Such an addition would also improve the bullpen in a variety of ways, including depth, versatility, and impact potential.
It’s not just about getting a “Darvish” or an “Arrieta” or a “Cobb” – it’s about improving the overall team, and this is a situation where the Cubs can make an extraordinary impact in a market where they have plenty of options.