There is an old adage about lightning not striking the same place twice.
But in 2011, 2012 and 2013, the Cubs struck a free agency trifecta when they signed Paul Maholm, Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel in consecutive offseasons at a total cost of approximately $16 million.
The deals brought in short-term, cost-effective rotation arms that provided — at minimum — league average production with a chance for upside. As it turned out, Feldman, Maholm and Hammel each showed enough to become valuable trade chips before the non-waiver deadline.
Maholm’s 21 appearances were valued at $7.6 million (1.2 fWAR) and Feldman’s 15 starts were worth $7.4 million (1.0 fWAR) by Fangraphs. Hammel’s 17 starts in 2014 were worth $15.4 million.
Not only did the Cubs receive a good return on investment for each of these pitchers with regard to long-term assets, but each pitcher performed at a rate that exceeded expectations and their salary.
With the Cubs in the market for another starting pitcher after reportedly signing John Lackey, and apparently not able to spend ambitiously like the Red Sox did for David Price or Diamondbacks did for Zack Greinke, it is fair to wonder whether or not the Cubs should go down this road again.
But rather than bring in a sign-and-flip candidate, the Cubs could instead develop a low-cost, high-upside free agent arm over the course of an entire season.
To be clear, this kind of pitcher would be a second or third starter acquired this offseason. The kind of pitcher who provides depth and upside who could slot into the rotation if he looks good in the spring. The kind of arm that forces the organization to make difficult decisions.
The 2015 Cubs entered spring with Kyle Hendricks, Travis Wood, Tsuyoshi Wada, Edwin Jackson, Jacob Turner, Felix Doubront and others fighting over two rotation spots. Each pitcher’s performance and/or health did the decision making, and frankly, the front office might be wise to do that again in 2016.
President Theo Epstein suggested the Cubs might need to be creative when adding arms this offseason. And with the Cubs new revenue streams still in their infancy stages, there might not be a more creative way than a low-cost/low-risk, high-reward project for pitching coach Chris Bosio. Considering that the Cubs might want to be in a position to spend aggressively in the outfield, this could be a pitching alternative (or supplement) to making a trade for a younger, cost-controlled starter.
The Cubs turned themselves into an attractive landing spot for free agent arms looking for a new lease on life during their rebuilding years. And even though they are turning into contenders, there is still value to be had in these types of pitchers.
- Doug Fister was a 4-WAR pitcher as recently as 2013 and finished eighth in Cy Young voting in 2014. Fister is a ground ball specialist who has induced a 50.5 GB% since 2012. His two-seamer has been his ace pitch over the last four years, throwing it 41.1 percent of the time (12th most often) and getting the fourth most value out of it (28.2 wFT). Steamer projects Fister (who has had injury concerns in recent years) to be a 1.4 WAR pitcher in his age 32 season.
- Tim Lincecum is a name brand item that looks like can be had at a value price this offseason. His 2015 ended in June after hip surgery, but is expected to be ready to give it a go in spring training. But for whom? He was a 1.8 WAR pitcher in 2013, but has been worth 0.4 WAR in his last 48 appearances (41 starts). Steamer projects Lincecum’s return to be worth 0.7 WAR over 26 starts. Could a boost from Bosio find some added value in what’s left in Lincecum’s right arm in his age 32 season?
- Brandon Morrow hasn’t had a 30-start season since 2011 and hasn’t been a 2-WAR pitcher since 2012. Morrow’s career has been injury plagued with glimpses of potential, especially in the swing-and-miss department with 25.6 K% in 77 starts from 2010-12 — the second best in baseball in that stretch. The strikeout might not be Morrow’s top weapon at age 31 if he is a full-time starter, but he is the type who could transition into a bullpen role. Steamer projects Morrow to be worth 0.8 WAR in 13 starts. If any team could get 20-30 starts from him at a reasonable price, he could be an offseason steal.
- Trevor Cahill, who will be 28 in 2016, is a name Cubs fans are familiar with after the team turned him into a useful reliever down the stretch and into October. He posted a 61.8 GB% and 34.9 K% out of the bullpen, all while putting together an improved pitch mix and gaining velocity. Cahill worked primarily with his sinker (53.3%) and increased his change-up use to 24.2% from 10.8% after coming to the Cubs from the Braves. In the process, Cahill ditched his slider (2.2% with the Cubs; 22.0% with the Braves) and completely abandoned his traditional curveball (7.2% with Braves) for a knuckle-curve (16.0% with Cubs). Steamer projects a 0.2 WAR in 45 relief appearances out of Cahill, who prefers to be a starter moving forward. [UPDATE: And the Cubs have reportedly done just this, retaining Cahill.]