In his end-of-season presser, Cubs President Jed Hoyer confirmed what we all already knew, but also still really wanted to hear him say out loud: starting pitching is the number one priority this offseason. Crystal clear. No equivocation. Hoyer even called the starting pitching “the downfall of the season.”
And while you could definitely point to offensive struggles in the first half – that was an issue, too – it was absolutely the starting pitching that left the Cubs unable to compete.
Just how bad was it?
Well, the Cubs’ 5.27 starter ERA was fourth worst in baseball, ahead of only a trio of teams that lost 100 games (and tied for third worst by ERA-, 24% below league average). Their 5.21 FIP? Better only than the freaking Orioles.
The Cubs got 2.6 WAR this year from their starting pitchers. Total. There were 45 INDIVIDUAL STARTING PITCHERS who accounted for more than 2.6 WAR this year in baseball!
The Cubs had 12 different individuals make starts for them this year, and the best ERAs of the bunch came from Cory Abbott (3.60, just one start at the end of the year) and Adrian Sampson (3.00 in a small sample that I have trouble explaining how he did it). Among the regular starters, Kyle Hendricks (4.77) and Alec Mills (4.80) were the best of the bunch, and they were each 13% worse than league average by ERA-. Yup. The Cubs’ *BEST* starting pitchers this year were 13% worse than league average. The best FIP of the bunch was a 4.27 from Alec Mills, exactly league average. In a fun twist, two of the three worst FIPs come from the two guys – Abbott and Sampson – who posted the best ERAs. Probably not sustainable!
When we talk about how the Cubs need to add AT LEAST two sure-fire, high-quality starting pitchers, plus SEVERAL MORE competitive arms to at least bring to camp (and hopefully be quite a bit more than that), you can see why.
The Cubs tried to give their rotation a chance in 2021 with economical signings, but the biggest problem was that they sat out the first part of the offseason with budgetary restrictions, so they couldn’t actually have their pick of the litter. There should be absolutely no such time-bound restriction this time around (and dang it, if the “right” pitchers are deciding to sign before the CBA is finalized, then the Cubs need to get on that – it can’t be an excuse this year).
There are very few free agent starting pitchers that the Cubs should not be able to be in on (mostly the veterans who are going to be looking for more obviously competitive situations). But the Marcus Stroman/Kevin Gausman tier? Yes. Cubs should be in, at least to see what’s realistic. The Noah Syndergaard/Jon Gray-type tier? Yup, Cubs should also be in. The Steven Matz/Dylan Bundy-type tier? Yes. If you like a guy, target him early. And so on and so on. Be OK with “overpaying” on a one-year deal for some of these guys.
It’s the number one priority this offseason for a reason, and the Cubs should have the money and the innings available to go after preferred targets.