I got curious this morning. A market like this affords a man plenty of time to get curious.
If the Cubs do not sign any of Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, or Alex Cobb in these final weeks before the season begins, what do their alternatives look like in free agency? (And let’s just throw Lance Lynn into the group for the purposes of the discussion, even though I’m not big on the Cubs aggressively pursuing him even as a fall-back from the first three.) We earlier discussed the idea that the Cubs could have an acceptable front five already – Quintana, Hendricks, Lester, Chatwood, Montgomery – but the lack of quality depth behind Montgomery virtually assures that the Cubs will add at least one more starting pitcher to the group even if they fully intend on letting Montgomery compete for a starting job.
So, then, setting aside Darvish, Arrieta, Cobb, and Lynn, who might the Cubs still be able to add if things go totally sideways in the next few weeks?
Fortunately – well, fortunately is a matter of perspective – there are a ton of “quality” “depth” options still available in free agency. I use double quotes there because you’ve gotta enter into this with the right perspective. We’re not talking about guys you’d sign up to be in your playoff rotation, or guys you expect to be an immediate upgrade. Instead, these are last-minute, impulse buys at the checkout counter. And relative to a typical offseason, the options are pretty incredible for it already being February.
Some of the free agents who may ultimately have to settle for one-year, depth-type contracts …
Trevor Cahill – the Cubs’ old friend rediscovered himself as a reliever with the Cubs in 2015, and then was excellent in the role in 2016 (2.74 ERA over 65.2 innings). But he’d long wanted to return to starting, so that’s what he did in 2017, signing with the Padres, and being a very effective starting pitcher in the first half. He was then traded to the Royals, who gave him just three rough starts before putting him back in the bullpen. He was not at all effective with the Royals.
Still, at just 30 years old, and with the ability to swing back-and-forth between the rotation and the bullpen, Cahill seems like a perfect fit for a team like the Cubs *IF* the do not add another starting pitcher otherwise. Heck, you might even be able to work it so that both Montgomery and Cahill are “in the rotation” and also “in the bullpen,” optimizing their usage and matchups. If the Cubs miss out on the top options on the market, Cahill might be my favorite backup plan, given the upside, familiarity, relative youth, and versatility in how he can be used.
Jaime Garcia – Garcia is another guy who seems like he’s been around for ever, but is just 31, and was actually really effective last year despite bouncing around among three teams. You never know if you’re going to get health with Garcia, but he has managed to make at least 20 starts in each of the past three seasons. In a better market, Garcia probably gets a multi-year deal and a guaranteed starting job at the back of a semi-competitive rotation. This year? He may wind up having to take a one-year deal with a rebuilding club that wants to try to flip him.
On a team like the Cubs, Garcia would be something like a true fifth starter if they had to go that route. And I wouldn’t hate it, and I’d probably be just about as into Garcia as an option for the Cubs as Cahill. AGAIN: this assumes the Cubs do not land Darvish/Arrieta/Cobb for whatever reason.
Jeremy Hellickson – After a tremendous 2016 season that earned him a qualifying offer (which he accepted), Hellickson, 30, was barely serviceable for the Phillies in the first half, and then bad for the Orioles in the second half. Pretty much everything went bad for him, including a nose dive in his strikeout and groundball rates, and a big spike in his hard contact rate. Having previously worked very well with Joe Maddon and Jim Hickey in Tampa Bay (his best contact management days), you could see Hellickson as a “comfort” fit as a depth guy for the Cubs, though he’d be firmly behind Cahill and Garcia in my book.
Francisco Liriano – Now 34, Liriano was a very good starter as recently as the second half of 2016 with the Blue Jays, but his always spotty command was atrocious in 2017, leaving him dealt to the Astros to be used in their bullpen. There could still be some effectiveness there, though, and he’ll find a job eventually. For what it’s worth, when Liriano re-discovered himself with the Pirates back in 2013, the guy he worked with was Jim Benedict … the Cubs’ new pitching guru.
Chris Tillman – There was a time when it was looking like Tillman was going to get a really nice contract in this class. He’s not a front-of-the-rotation type or anything, but the guy was consistently solid from 2012 to 2016, and could be parked in the 4/5 spot of any rotation in baseball. He had middle-of-the-rotation upside, even. But then 2017 happened, and it was a total disaster of a year for the 29-year-old righty, who was not only bad, but also dealt with shoulder troubles. I couldn’t say what he’ll be going forward, but I think he’s probably going to wind up re-upping with the Orioles on a one-year deal.
Andrew Cashner – Another old friend, Cashner never fulfilled the promise of the Anthony Rizzo trade (sorry, Padres), but posted a 3.40 ERA for the Rangers last year. And it was maybe the scariest 3.40 ERA ever – complete with mediocre contact rates, a 9.1% BB rate, and a 12.2% strikeout rate. Cashner is just 31, but he’s a depth starter at this point in his career unless he can figure out some way to become an elite command/groundball guy suddenly, because the strikeouts aren’t ever going to be there.
Wade Miley – The 31-year-old lefty had good peripherals (for a fifth starter) in 2016, but hasn’t seen good results in either of the past two seasons. He’ll probably never be the guy he flashed in his younger days with the Diamondbacks, but a depth starter, even on a good team, certainly seems to be still within reach.
Jason Vargas – Happy 35th birthday today to Vargas, who was a perfectly fine fifth type starter last year for the Royals (32 starts, 179.2 innings, 4.16 ERA, 4.67 FIP). If you knew for sure you could get that again in 2018, a ton of teams would be plenty happy to sign up Vargas on a one-year deal. My guess is he’s hoping he can get two years, but this market, man. It’s crazy.
John Lackey – Speaking of crazy, would it be so crazy to just bring back Lackey as a depth guy? Well, we looked into that earlier this offseason, and the thing is, he wouldn’t be so bad as depth, but he’s probably not coming back unless he’s “in the rotation.” Given the other options on the market – even if the Cubs miss on Darvish, Arrieta, and Cobb – I think the Cubs can find a better fit.