At the end of the 2014 season, the Cubs headed into free agency with a few things on their wish list, but pitching seemed to be priority number one. With an impressive collection of young positional prospects, it wasn’t hard to see why. Despite being connected to Max Scherzer and James Shields, at one point or another throughout last offseason, Jon Lester was always their guy and they went out and got him. Together with bringing back Jason Hammel, the Cubs’ rotation was set for 2015.
However, in the background, fans and analysts repeated another narrative. Specifically, the story went something like, “The rotation is set for now, but the Cubs definitely need another pitcher. It wouldn’t be smart to go after another high priced free agent pitcher in the same offseason (as Jon Lester) for a variety of reasons, so the Cubs should/will wait until 2016 where there is a huge class of free agents awaiting (including David Price).” [Brett: I probably said that a bunch back then, too. Of course, even the front office, pre-Lester, was mentioning things about accumulating front-end pitching over the next 12 to 24 months. Remember that thing?]
But it didn’t matter, because the Cubs still had that plan. The plan was the same one they had before the season (at least according to fans and analysts): Grab another top of the rotation starting pitcher this offseason – when so many are available – so that the “weaknesses” in the rotation cannot be exploited, once again.
Of course, that’s not what the Cubs did at all.
Instead, the Cubs doubled down on the positional side, adding Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist, electing instead to march forward with the more affordable arm of John Lackey. Despite the pretty significant success of both Lackey and the Cubs’ starting staff in 2015, some fans are still worried that the Cubs aren’t prepared for the upcoming season. Many even see the the starting rotation as a liability.
Well, by at least one account, nothing could be further from the truth.
According to MLB.com’s Paul Casella (utilizing the 2016 Steamer Projections), the Chicago Cubs will be the best starting staff in all of baseball, by WAR.With a presently-expected rotation of Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks, the starting staff is projected to accumulate a combined 17.4 WAR, tops in baseball. Further, the North-siders lead the way, ahead of the New York Mets (well, how about that?), Nationals, Indians and Dodgers.
Although four of the top five teams are from the National League, you’ll notice that the Cubs are the lone representative from the NL Central. Neither the Pirates (who’ve had a quiet offseason) nor the Cardinals (who missed out on David Price) made the cut, and it’s looking likely that the Cubs may ultimately lead the way with their starting rotation in 2016. (You’ll find it interesting that the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs were the top three by ERA and all within the top 5 by FIP in 2015.)
To be fair, the Cardinals did just add a young, consistent starting pitcher in Mike Leake, but his Steamer projections – 4.13 ERA, 4.22 FIP and just 2.0 WAR – won’t do much to sway the rankings.
While the positional side deservedly gets much of the praise and hype for 2016, it would appear the the Cubs’ starting rotation, too, might already be elite … at least on paper.