Among the Buy-Low Starting Pitching Options for the Cubs: Archer, Foltynewicz, Rodón, Porcello, Williams

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Among the Buy-Low Starting Pitching Options for the Cubs: Archer, Foltynewicz, Rodón, Porcello, Williams

Chicago Cubs

Although it’s hardly a rule, I’ve come to lean more heavily on pedigree and upside (over marginally better, but consistent success) when it comes to identifying potential buy-low candidates for the Cubs. It’s how I landed on D.J. LeMahieu and Didi Gregorius in previous offseasons, and why I think Marcus Semien is a perfect fit for the the Cubs this winter (if they were, you know, looking to spend even some money).

Of course, there’s more sophistication to it than just checking out the top prospect archives or previous big league success. Broadly speaking, I like to focus on (1) former tip-top prospects who never wound up making it for very specific reason, or (2) any player who had an individually monster season/stretch, even if the rest of their career is mired in mediocrity, injury, or underperformance. Meanwhile, when the Cubs are at their best, they’re likely targeting the sort of granular details (and projected tweaks) we’d hardly be able to identify from the outside without greater institutional resources.

Why do I bring this all up? Well, the Cubs currently have only two sure-fire, full-season starters in their rotation (Kyle Hendricks and Zach Davies), as well as two guys who are likely to give you their best effort at a full season, but probably won’t come close to 32 starts or 160+ innings (Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay). And after that, there’s nothing but question marks. Shelby Miller, Tyson Miller, Cory Abbott, Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson … Brailyn Marquez(?) are all hanging out, but by Brett’s estimate, this team will need something like 340 additional starting innings covered if everything breaks right with the front four (hardly a guarantee). So relying on that group isn’t going to be realistic, to say nothing of what it could do to the development of some.

So, yes, the Cubs will have to sign some additional arms in free agency and I do think that’s going to happen eventually. But if they’re really going to be shopping on the clearance rack, I’m at least happy to see these particular names popping up as “free agent possibilities” according to Jordan Bastian at Cubs.com:

Given the way the offseason has played out for the North Siders, free-agent possibilities could include Chris Archer. Archer missed all of 2020 due to thoracic outlet syndrome, but he hopes to be ready to go by Spring Training. Free agents Mike Foltynewicz, Carlos Rodón, Rick Porcello and Trevor Williams are coming off forgettable ’20 seasons but might benefit from the Cubs’ analytics team.

Let’s explore those well-known names to see what they might still offer in the way of upside in 2021.

Chris Archer

A former Cubs prospect, Archer was this team’s great white whale for so many years before he was traded to the Pirates … who saw him regress and get injured before declining his $11M option for 2021, making him a free agent. Things have been trending in the wrong direction for Archer lately (the Pirates didn’t even get that any crap for cutting him loose), but he’s had a TON of success in the not too distant past and is still just 32 years old:

(via FanGraphs)

The Cubs could do a lot worse than someone with his background. What you’d need to know is whether he’s recovering well from surgery to address thoracic outlet syndrome, from which not all pitchers come back. But if he’s healthy and throwing like he can throw, why not take a shot to find out if the surgery actually addressed a lingering issue?

(Photo by Getty Images)

Prospect Pedigree: Top-100 prospect from 2011-2013 (Highest Rk.: No. 27)
Award Pedigree: Two-time All-Star (2015, 2017), top-5 Cy Young finalist (2015), Top-3 Rookie of the Year finalist (2013).

Mike Foltynewicz

I was pretty surprised when the Braves designated Foltynewicz for assignment in 2020, just a few months after signing him to a one-year, $6.4M deal. But I think I must’ve just been way too keyed in on him during his 2018 season, because most of the results outside of that year are just meh at best:

(via FanGraphs)

But damn was he good that season.

(Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

In addition to a pristine 2.85 ERA (9th in MLB) and supportive 3.37 FIP (14th), Foltynewicz was getting a healthy number of ground balls and weak contact, as well as the lowest line-drive rate of his career (in fact, his 18.5% line drive rate ranked 6th best in MLB). Throw in a top-of-his-game 96.4 MPH fast ball and a killer slider (4th most valuable slider in 2018), and yeah … there’s plenty to like. I wouldn’t mind seeing if there’s something there to unlock – he’s only 29!

The big question with Foltynewicz is figuring out why his velocity fell off a cliff the last season and a half. Can you fix that? If not, can you help him be effective without it?

Prospect Pedigree: Top-100 prospect in 2014 (No. 59)
Award Pedigree: All-Star (2018), Top-10 Cy Young (2018).

Carlos Rodón

The White Sox drafted Carlos Rodón third overall in the 2014 MLB Draft, one spot before the Cubs took Kyle Schwarber. But soon after becoming one of the top prospects in MLB, Rodón’s career stalled out at the big league level when injuries to his wrist, shoulder, and ultimately elbow (Tommy John surgery) cost him most of his career thus far.

(via FanGraphs)

But he’s still just 28 years old!

While it hurts to type, the White Sox are looking at too competitive of a season to give him a chance in their rotation, while the Cubs should have plenty of innings to go around, and enough of a reason to want to figure it out with someone of his age and background. And it’s important to note that his velocity started bouncing back in 2020.

With even more space between him and TJS, I don’t think it would be crazy to assume he could recapture some of the magic that led him to becoming a top-3 overall draft pick. And, hey, the Cubs could use a lefty in this righty-heavy rotation.

Prospect Pedigree: Top-100 prospect in 2015 (No. 15), 3rd Overall Pick (2014)

Rick Porcello

Should Rick Porcello have won the 2016 AL Cy Young award over Justin Verlander? Not if you asked Kate Upton. But he wasn’t undeserving. It’s not often that a pitcher makes 33 starts (223.0 IP) of 3.15 ERA baseball.

At the same time, that’s some Jon-Lester-level health consistency, eh?

(via FanGraphs)

The only pitchers to make more starts than Porcello from 2009 to 2020 is Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, and Zack Greinke. They’ve all been a lot better during that stretch, but I mean … damn. And, hey, Porcello is still 32 years old. The youngest of that bunch is Scherzer, 36. So maybe his Cy Young caliber stuff is behind him, but you should at least get an innings eater out of him in a season when you might need that more than ever.

And, hey, if 2016 Porcello does show up … who knows who’ll need that sort of starter in their rotation after the deadline. His peripherals certainly were excellent last year.

Prospect Pedigree: Top-100 Prospect 2008-2009 (No. 21)
Award Pedigree: ROY Finalist (2009), AL Cy Young Winner (2016)

Trevor Williams

Trevor Williams, 28, is one of the youngest names on the list and probably someone with which Cubs fans have a little more familiarity than other teams around the league given his time and hype with the Pirates. He was never much of a tip-top prospect and he didn’t really win any awards, but he was always a highly thought-of guy, especially after a nice full season debut in 2017 (150.1 IP, 4.07 ERA) was followed up by an even better 2018 (3.11 ERA over 170.2 IP).

Things just went south from there:

(via FanGraphs)

But still. We’re talking about a 28-year-old righty with five pitches, solid contact management skills (from exit velocity to ground balls), and at least a couple pretty good seasons in his recent past. This is the type of guy you want to see the Cubs target (realistically).

And, well, if Bastian is correct, they are!

The search likely extends well beyond the names on the list above – indeed, he even includes former Cubs starter, and later Cubs postseason nemesis, Rich Hill – but you’d like to see them get at least one of the guys from the tier of pitchers listed above. Someone whose name you know and whose upside is meaningful. If they manage to do AT LEAST that much before Spring Training, I’ll be more supportive of the completely unfamiliar arms they bring in on the promise of a total pitch lab makeover to fill out the rest of the rotation.

Of course, even if they grab a couple of these guys, we have to be realistic about the most likely outcomes – pitchers tend to wind up in this tier because of their significant risks of zero value, rather than their small chance of upside. But, hey, this is the reality for the Cubs in 2021.

Brett Taylor contributed to this post.



Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami