The latest from Patrick Mooney is a great read on how to think about the Cubs’ efforts to add pitching this offseason, and it squares nicely with what we’ve talked about here in terms of how the Cubs should approach their offseason. The Cubs aren’t going to be shopping in the top tier of free agency, and yet they need at least one really impactful starting pitcher. So they’re going to have to get creative in trades, or in free agency, to make it happen.
First, the Mooney piece (and you can subscribe to The Athletic today for 50% off (not an ad)):
How it could line up for the Cubs to land an impact starting pitcher this winter: "We just need to be right." https://t.co/NVMzPCjyuP
(Black Friday deal: 50% off an annual subscription to @TheAthletic.)
— Patrick Mooney (@PJ_Mooney) November 29, 2019
In short, if the right deal comes along to pick up a younger, cost-controlled, impact pitcher (for example, in a Willson Contreras deal?), then yeah, the Cubs are absolutely going to explore it. But they also have to be thinking about how they can get a quality starter in free agency, even when not pursuing guys like Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg or Zack Wheeler.
Thankfully, the free agent starting pitching market is so unusually deep this year that a trio of “buy low” guys actually look like intriguing opportunities, and Mooney mentions three: righty Julio Teheran, lefty Alex Wood, and righty Collin McHugh.
Teheran, who only turns 29 in January, has never lived up to the hype, and he’s now three years removed from his last 3.0+ WAR season. His once pristine control slipped badly in the last few years, making him one of the walk-iest starting pitchers in the game (11+ percent each of the last two years), and his strikeout rate has merely been league average. That all coincided with a dip in his average fastball velocity the last two years, so he’s likely right in the meat of that adjustment period.
But his *results* the last two years have actually been better than league average by ERA-, so that’s kinda wild. A fly ball pitcher in the current era is a risky thing, but the past arm talent is there, he’s on the right side of 30, and the Cubs have had interest in the past. Maybe they feel like they can reshape him a bit.
Wood, also 29 in January, has basically always been really good … when he can actually take the mound. He’s managed barely 400 innings total over the past four seasons, and 2019 was the worst of the bunch. Thanks to a back injury, he pitched only 35.2 innings for the Reds this year, and, for the first time in his career, he was really ineffective. I presume he was just not right, because he was basically just throwing meatballs in the zone and getting destroyed for it. Of course, 35 innings is kinda nothing, so really it’s the back injury that makes you worry more than the results. Again, when he’s been healthy, he’s always been pretty great.
Wood, like Teheran, is definitely a risk for giving you nothing in 2020 if you sign him. Though unlike Teheran, the risk with Wood is more that you would literally get nothing, as opposed to just not getting useful performance. I expect Wood will get a cheap, incentive-laden contract, and he’s worth a look only if the Cubs feel like they can get him right (from a health perspective) and the performance in 2019 was solely because of the injury. Moreover, thanks to the injury history, you just can’t count on him for more than 80 to 100 innings, tops. Still, on the right deal, thanks to the upside, he’s definitely worth a low-cost risk.
McHugh, 32, is a really interesting one for a team like the Cubs, because he hasn’t been a full-time starter since 2016/2017, but has instead been at times a really good reliever and a really useful swing man. Those Astros … they know what they’re doing with pitchers. He’s just a really good pitcher to have around, and could be a middle-of-the-rotation starter or a top swing-man or even a setup guy if you needed it.
So obviously go get him, right? But he’s gonna get a big contract, right? Ah, but the rub with McHugh? He dealt with elbow pain for most of 2019, pitching through it at times, but ultimately being shut down late in the year. His status for next year from a health perspective, like Wood, is a bit of a question mark.
Mooney’s piece also mentions other borderline starters on the free agent market, but I wanted to focus on this trio, both because of their situations and upside, and also because it seems like Mooney was giving them a little extra special mention.
You can see the pros and cons. But none of these guys is going to get a huge contract. On that basis, alone, I’m at least interested in the conversation, since we’re trying to be realistic about the Cubs’ situation.
The thing about all three of those guys: when they were at their best, they pitched like very good mid-rotation starters, with stretches of even better. And all three have had significant down periods, too, either simply in performance or injuries or both. So, then, they are where they are on the market: teams signing them know they’re absorbing a ton of risk to try to get some upside, but none can be counted on as sure-fire starters in 2020.
And I’ll tell you right now: they are the perfect kinds of guys for the Cubs to be targeting in free agency.
Without a lot of additional money to spend right now, but with a need for an impactful starting pitcher or two, my strong preference is that the Cubs spend time targeting trade candidates. Thanks to the free agent market being what it is, the Cubs could afford to take a couple months to really try to work a trade (always hard to pull off, unlikely to succeed) before falling back into adding from what’s left in free agency. It’s that deep.
But more than just being deep, it’s got guys like Teheran, Wood, and McHugh who have far more upside than your typical “third tier” option in free agency. In fact, I’m gonna talk out of both sides of my mouth: because of the upside in these guys with the right tweaks, if there is a guy the Cubs believe is a great fit to bring in and work with, I’m fine with them taking an early bet on signing one of these guys to a low-cost deal. For one thing, none are such a sure bet that they block other moves if they present themselves. For another thing, if they are signed and then wind up in the bullpen, it’s not the worst outcome in the world.
But for the main thing, I’d rather see the Cubs take a big swing in free agency on a high-upside, low-odds type (for a lower cost) than just signing a “solid” back-of-the-rotation starter for more money. Roll the dice, and bet on your new development structure. The best organizations find guys like this every year and win with them.