The top of the free agent starter market now looks – well, there really isn’t a top anymore, because the last of those arms is now off the board. It was pretty much always going to play out like this before the Cubs brought in a starter. I know that’ll tick a lot of folks off, but before we even get into anything, I just want to be transparent about it up front. The Cubs were simply never going to sign a starting pitcher in the top 10 (or whatever) of the market this year.
Hyun-Jin Ryu heads east and north:
BREAKING: Left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu and the Toronto Blue Jays are in agreement on a four-year, $80 million contract, sources familiar with the deal tell ESPN.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) December 23, 2019
To be sure, there was never any connection between the Cubs and Ryu, and, moreover, we’ve expected nothing better than a roll-of-the-dice, high-upside, high-risk signing for the back of the rotation. Without an expansive budget to deploy, and instead with a plan that very likely dictated trading out multiple pieces before any kind of serious free agent pursuits, guys like Ryu were going to fly off the board before the Cubs got involved in starting pitcher free agency. They were going to wait out the bottom if they didn’t land a cheap impact starter in trade. Just the way it was going to be, as regretful as that may seem.
I still like a lot of the arms still out there for what they are, though the very nature of these types – very, very low-cost – is such that you’re unlikely to hit to the upside. It’s just a cheap chance (some would be minor league deals) on guys like Taijuan Walker, Alex Wood, Jerad Eickhoff, Cody Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Shelby Miller, Jimmy Nelson, and Danny Salazar (with many of those guys actually worth a look in the bullpen, too – like Salazar). There are also some rehabbers that could be interesting to bring into the organization, including Aaron Sanchez and Rich Hill.
It isn’t inspiring when you consider the risk already present in the front four of the rotation, but with the Cubs perhaps punting on 2020, it wouldn’t have made sense to sign another middle-of-the-rotation arm to a huge contract. Just bring in a couple reclamation guys, let them show what they have in Spring Training, and compete with Tyler Chatwood – a reclamation of sorts – for the fifth spot. And then you have the remainder, plus Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay, as depth.
Is that going to make for a sexy rotation? Even if you feel confident in Hendricks-Darvish-Lester-Quintana? No, it probably won’t win any preseason awards. But is it good enough that, if you’re kinda punting on 2020 anyway, it could surprise and be good enough to compete in the division? Yes. It could. It could also provide some midseason trade chips if it comes to that.
See what happens in the first half, be prepared to sell in the second half. It just feel gross to type it out, but I really think that’s the realistic spot the Cubs are going to find themselves in by the time Spring Training breaks. So, whatever: bring in some arms like the ones I mentioned here, and at least see what happens. Odds are good that nothing great happens. But give yourself a chance at some surprising upside.
Of course, even that isn’t going to happen – outside of minor league deals – until the Cubs move out some salary. I’ve accepted that as reality at this point, and, while I can’t go so far as to say I like it, I at least better understand now how staying under the luxury tax in 2020 can be paired to both 2021 (and beyond) spending, plus the need to reformulate the roster in 2020 anyway. If you missed the lengthy takes on why that is, please see here and here.