The Chicago Cubs are almost perfect.
Coming off a World Series title, FanGraphs’ expected wins totals placed the Cubs at 99 victories back in November.
The young, enviable core remains. The top four starters return from the most effective rotation in baseball last season. While Aroldis Chapman departed, Wade Davis entered. Even David Ross is still around, though he’s moving upstairs to the front office. OK, not everything has gone the Cubs’ way in recent times. Quipped Cubs president Theo Epstein in regard to Tyson Ross‘ decision to sign with the Rangers: “We went 1-for-2 in Ross signings.”
Ross’ choice didn’t seem like a big deal, but maybe it will be a big deal.
As dominant as they were a year ago, the Cubs also benefited from a tremendous amount of good fortune in 2016: their starting rotation remained remarkably healthy.
Consider that, en route to a 103 wins in the regular season, five Cubs starting pitchers – Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, Kyle Hendricks, John Lackey, and Jon Lester – made at least 29 starts. It’s an extremely rare feat.
The Cubs are unlikely to be as fortunate this season, and the their rotation depth appeared thin entering the fourth week of January. Regression to the injury-fortune mean, combined with a lack of quality rotation depth, appeared to be the one glaring weakness facing the Cubs. (There are perhaps some bullpen issues, too.)
A Jeff Sullivan study in 2014 found teams can expect to cobble together 32 starts by pitchers outside their top-five rotation options in a given season.
A Jeff Zimmerman study found all pitchers have at least a 40% chance of landing on the disabled list in a season, risk that increases with age.
Andrew Simon of MLB.com wrote last spring that, since 1998, teams have averaged 10.3 starting pitchers used per season. Wrote Simon:
“Just 14 teams — or not even one per year — needed six starters or fewer. The last to do so was the 2013 Tigers.”
Lackey is 38. Lester is 33. Hendricks is coming off a career-high workload. There’s also Arrieta’s second half, including only a 10.6-point differential between his strikeout and walk rates (K-BB%), that has some in Cubs Nation uneasy. Beyond those four reside questionable depth and the unknown.
“Pitching depth,” Epstein told reporters recently. “That’s what we’re looking for.”
The Cubs have a glaring vulnerability — one which they appear to have begun addressing on Monday evening. That’s when Ken Rosenthal reported that the Cubs have reached an agreement with Brett Anderson — for $3.5 million guaranteed, according to Jeff Passan, with the possibility for more in incentives.
Anderson seemed to confirm the agreement:
Wheels up to Chicago…I bet it's cold there.
— Brett Anderson (@BrettAnderson35) January 23, 2017
A brief history of Anderson: he’s been one of the game’s best ground-ball pitchers of the last decade, he limits walks, he’s left-handed, and he’s also one of the game’s greatest injury risks.
Anderson has never thrown 200 innings in a major-league season and, since 2010, has only once exceeded 100 innings.
But he also posted a 66.3% ground-ball rate, along with a 3.69 ERA and 3.94 FIP, in 180 innings with the Dodgers in 2015, and after the season accepted their qualifying offer.
When he’s healthy, Anderson is an effective major-league pitcher.
It’s not immediately clear what role the Cubs have in mind for Anderson. He’s spent his career as a starter and the Cubs have a need there, but the club has also sought left-handed bullpen help this offseason.
Anderson would add to #Cubs’ rotation options, but his physical will be critical. Has appeared in only 65 games past five seasons.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) January 24, 2017
But if Anderson is an insurance policy for the rotation, he is a risky one for a team seeking rotation depth.
The Cubs did have 11 pitchers start games last season. But the top reserve, Mike Montgomery, who made five starts, is projected to be in the rotation.
The Cubs elected not to pick up Hammel’s $12 million option, paying a $2 million buyout, back in November. Hammel made 61 starts for the Cubs from 2015-16, posting a 3.68 FIP in 2015 and a 4.48 mark last season.
This winter’s free-agent pitching crop was historically weak, and Anderson was one of the more interesting names still available after the Cubs lost out on Ross. Anderson is a less healthy, but more talented, version of Cahill.
The Cubs did sign Brian Duensing and traded for Caleb Smith, both of whom have some starting experience, but both of whom were thought to have been added to compete to fill left-handed needs in the bullpen.
Another lefty, Rob Zastryzny, became the first pitcher drafted under Epstein to reach the majors for the Cubs last season. He figures to be one rotation depth piece who could begin the year at Triple-A. He could also potentially help as a left-handed reliever. If there is one criticism of the draft-and-development process under the current Cubs regime, it’s that it has not produced much pitching value to date.
While the Cubs made a significant investment to pitching in last year’s draft, there does not appear to be impact help available in the upper levels of their farm system. Consider this, from Baseball America:
The farm system’s upper levels offer little in the way of help for 2017 other than outfielder Albert Almora and perhaps some back-end pitching help, such as lefthander Rob Zastryzny. … The Cubs have more intriguing arms at the lower levels and armed themselves in the 2016 draft by taking 27 pitchers among their 38 picks. But the system has the ammunition for more trades if needed this offseason or during the 2017 season to bolster the rotation or bullpen.
The Cubs have prospects, and surplus of young position players, from which to make a trade if the need arises. History suggests the need is going to arise. Maybe Anderson will be healthy to help the club address it, maybe he will not.
Pitching depth is what Epstein sought all the way up to the Chapman acquisition last year. Wrote Wright Thompson in a profile of Epstein last summer for ESPN The Magazine: “The rebuild is nearly complete, and the marching order for the 2016 Cubs baseball operations staffers is written on their conference room wall in huge letters: Find Pitching.”
Even after the the Anderson signing, the mission likely remains the same this offseason.