Last week, we discussed how free agent starting pitcher Marcus Stroman is a fairly obvious superficial fit for the Cubs this offseason, with the team having huge needs in the rotation and having had interest in Stroman “for years.”
For his part, Stroman said all the right things about being open to joining the Cubs and loving Wrigley Field and the fans and all that. But like I wrote at the time, “The money will be the real thing. How much of it the Cubs are truly ready to spend, not only for 2022 – we expect they have a ton of short-term dollars available – but in deals that extend out many years. Jed Hoyer has said the Cubs will be ‘really active’ in free agency, but ‘intelligent.’ It just sounded like he was indicating that longer-term deals – the kinds that can negatively impact multiple years – are going to be very, very carefully scrutinized.”
How much is Stroman actually going to be seeking? And will the Cubs actually considering going to that level? Do external sources believe the Cubs will be involved?
Well, I can’t TOTALLY answer those questions at this moment, but Mets beat reporter Pat Ragazzo did hit on them at Sports Illustrated:
The belief around the league is Marcus Stroman will draw a 5-6 year deal worth a “minimum” of $25M AAV. Mets, Cubs, Padres, Blue Jays among teams interested early on, but there will be many more suitorshttps://t.co/WYLnWxrpey
— Pat Ragazzo (@ragazzoreport) October 10, 2021
There’s a mention of the Cubs, which might be partly just a reflection of the chatter from last week, but also could be further acknowledgement that there has been interest there in the past (and there’s an obvious need now).
But a *minimum* deal of five years and $125 million – is that a reasonable ask for Stroman? Consider that the Cubs signed Yu Darvish for six years and $126 million before the 2018 season. Darvish was about six months older then than Stroman will be this offseason. To that point in his career, Darvish had a 3.42 ERA over parts of five seasons (3.30 FIP), about 21% better than league average. Stroman has a 3.63 ERA over just about six seasons (3.62 FIP), about 13% better than league average. Darvish had been worth 19.3 WAR at the time of his free agency, and Stroman is at 19.2 The biggest differences are that Darvish was probably a little better overall (and did it by way of an obscene strikeout rate), but had also undergone Tommy John surgery a year and a half earlier. Stroman has a clean arm history.
That is all to say, when you consider salary inflation and the injury history, it’s not CRAZY for Stroman to seek a little more than Darvish. A $5+ million jump in AAV? That might be a stretch. But we’re in the ballpark overall, I suspect.
Will the Cubs be willing to get into that ballpark this offseason?
We already know all the caveats about the Cubs likely being averse to major long-term deals right now, but the counter caveat is that you never quite know when they are particularly fond of a specific free agent. And with a payroll that’s looking like $50 million on paper right now for 2022, they obviously have room to add pretty much anyone to the 2022 budget. In that respect, sure, it’s conceivable the Cubs could go after Stroman at the desired price point, because maybe they see value in it, and maybe he’s a guy, specifically, for whom they are comfortable locking down a chunk of the payroll for the next five or six years, even as he ages.
Let me also put it this way: if a big, long-term deal were going to happen, I suspect it would be for a starting pitcher whom the Cubs believe will age particularly well, and whose value won’t come primarily over just the next couple years. You could make the argument that Stroman is that guy, given his athleticism and arm durability (though there is some debate about how well smaller pitchers age). The Cubs have a nice group of starting pitching prospects down on the farm, but it’s not at all clear that they’ll seen a huge bloom of emerging starters in 2022 or even 2023. There are huge holes in the rotation now, and there’s possibly a gap of several years coming, too.
It’s also worth noting that Stroman is ineligible for a qualifying offer, so there’s no draft pick compensation considerations here for the Cubs (or any other suitor).
But I can’t lie. It would be a big surprise. Again, for any of these upper-tier 30+ year-old free agents, you have to expect that the most value you’ll get will come in the first couple seasons. You’re fighting against the reality of aging curves if you PROJECT otherwise. And in that world, that means a guy like Stroman should be most valuable to teams that see themselves as clear and obvious winners in 2022-23, and thus those teams should be willing to pay more than a team like the Cubs, which is more plausibly a “we’re just looking to give ourselves a shot in 2022” type team. A team like the Cubs, in theory, should be willing to go kinda nuts on short-term, high-risk, high-upside free agents (and they freaking better). Other teams, in theory, should be more willing to go kinda nuts on surer-thing, immediate-impact free agents (and then eat the expensive down years in 2024-2026, or whatever).
A lot of this depends on what else the Cubs have in mind for the offseason. Again, I think they can – and should! – set themselves up to have a shot at competing in 2022. It can be done in a way that doesn’t damage the future, keeps all heads appropriately straight, and allows the team to bail at midseason if it ain’t happening again. And what if, in tandem with that setup, the Cubs wanted to sign one long-term starting pitcher, given the long-term need in the organization? Would that really be so crazy? Maybe Stroman is that one guy.
Honestly, I have to dig in on him a little more to see how I feel about just how good he could be in the years ahead. I see some obvious improvements this last year in attacking the zone and getting more whiffs, but I also see some things I don’t love in the contact data (it all looks fairly mediocre on first glance, and then his expected wOBA against agrees). That is to say, my first passes at Stroman suggest to me he’s a very solid starting pitcher, and one that any contender would want to add to its rotation. I do not necessarily see where he’s a guy that a team like the current Cubs absolutely have to target specifically.
Ultimately, after the mental back-and-forth, here’s where I land as of October 12: if the Cubs particularly loved Marcus Stroman, yes, I can see the argument that they should (and might) go out and sign him now, even accepting that 2022 is, at best, a “maybe competitive” season. But if there isn’t something in particular about Stroman that tells the Cubs he has another level they can unlock and/or is going to age especially well, then I don’t really see them locking down significant 2024-2026 payroll for 2022-2023 impact. I tend to think they would instead prefer to target multiple shorter-term guys in the $8 to $20 million AAV range.
Oh, but hey, also: if his price tag surprisingly falls and the Cubs see too much potential value to leave on the table, all bets are off! I’m just discussing this through the lens where we want to know whether the Cubs are going to be bidding aggressively at the top of the market for Marcus Stroman.