Cubs Add Marcus Stroman Right at the Lockout Deadline

The Sugar Glum Fairy had one last holiday treat for us before the lockout rudely intervened, with the Cubs signing starting pitcher Marcus Stroman to a three-year contract. After opting out of the 2020 season while recovering from a calf injury, he resumed his career without missing a beat, starting 33 games for the Mets with a 3.02 ERA and 3.49 FIP, good for 3.4 WAR.

Over three years, the total guarantee for the deal is $71 million, with $25 million coming in both 2022 and ’23 and a $21 million base salary for ’24. For each 160-inning season in ’22 and ’23, $2 million is added to the ’24 salary, making it a tidy $75 million. Stroman also has the ability to opt out of the final year of his contract, becoming a free agent after 2023. Let’s jump straight into the projection.

ZiPS Projection – Marcus Stroman
Year W L S ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ WAR
2022 13 9 0 3.60 31 31 170.0 163 68 19 47 148 121 3.5
2023 12 8 0 3.71 29 29 155.3 153 64 17 44 132 118 3.0
2024 11 8 0 3.82 27 27 148.3 148 63 17 42 123 114 2.7

Nothing looks particularly odd about the projection or the contract. At the salary assumption I’m going with this winter ($7.3 million for a win with 3% yearly growth), ZiPS would suggest a $70 million deal over three years; over five, it suggests $109 million, putting Stroman’s valuation very close to both that of Robbie Ray and Kevin Gausman. Stroman, though, was not subject to a qualifying offer due to accepting New York’s qualifying offer for the 2021 season (Gausman was in an identical position, but Ray cost the Mariners a draft pick). I’m mildly surprised that he didn’t land a longer deal, but whether the fact that he didn’t was due to inability to get one or simply a desire to get another crack at free agency in the not-too-distant future in a normal winter is unknown to me. If I ran a team or the MLBPA foolishly accepted a bizarre proposal from owners that resulted in my computer setting all salaries, I’d be happy to give him five years at $109 million. (Note to any negotiators: the Szymborski cartel’s service fee is 0.05% of base salary)

However they got to the current contract, this is a very astute signing by the Cubs. No, Stroman is not as exciting a pitcher as some of the other names available this offseason. His fastball isn’t all that fast, though it’s far from the Jered Weaver Zone, and his stuff doesn’t yield an impressive bounty of hitters looking foolish after flailing away at strike three. But if not a star thrower, he’s certainly a star pitcher, and he added another good one this season — a splitter that’s more on the changeup side than the fastball side of the spectrum.

While sinker pitchers seem almost passé in current years thanks to the increased willingness and ability of hitters to golf anything low into the stands, Stroman has seemed basically immune to the offensive changes in baseball over the last five years. Batters struggle to get loft against him; of the 92 pitchers in 2021 who threw 2,000 pitches, he had the ninth-lowest average launch angle. As a result, he’s never allowed more than 21 homers in a season, and his FIP has been remarkably stable, with less than a half-run of separation in his last five seasons.

There’s also little specific reason to worry about Stroman’s health, other than the typical angst you should feel about anybody who throws pitches for a living. His only serious injury related to throwing was shoulder fatigue in 2018 that cost him about a month of the season, but there was no structural damage, and he hasn’t had issues since (he later missed time that season due to blisters). The season he missed early in his career was due to a torn ACL, not any elbow or shoulder shenanigans, and his only nagging issue in 2021 despite missing a year was a hip pull that didn’t even cost him a start.

Also, the Cubs really need a starting pitcher. FanGraphs has starter/reliever breakdowns going back to 1974, and comparing Cubs rotations since then, the 2021 rotation was last in FIP, last in WAR, and (probably) last in the hearts of their countrymen.

Cubs Rotations Since 1974
Season W L GS IP ERA FIP WAR Top Three by Starts
2021 41 60 162 781.7 5.27 5.21 2.6 Kyle Hendricks/Zach Davies/Adbert Alzolay
2020 25 20 60 325.0 3.77 4.02 6.0 Yu Darvish/Kyle Hendricks/Jon Lester
2012 42 76 162 922.7 4.52 4.36 6.7 Jeff Samardzija/Travis Wood/Chris Volstad
1981 27 45 106 575.3 4.13 3.59 6.8 Mike Krukow/Randy Martz/Rick Reuschel
2006 48 69 162 877.0 5.19 5.20 7.0 Carlos Zambrano/Sean Marshall/Greg Maddux
1996 54 61 162 949.0 4.76 4.80 7.5 Jaime Navarro/Frank Castillo/Steve Trachsel
1994 35 45 113 679.0 4.53 4.42 7.9 Willie Banks/Steve Trachsel/Anthony Young
2011 46 65 162 931.7 4.79 4.25 8.0 Ryan Dempster/Matt Garza/Carlos Zambrano
1982 50 67 162 934.7 4.30 4.03 8.1 Fergie Jenkins/Doug Bird/Dickie Noles
1995 58 50 144 888.3 3.98 4.54 9.0 Jaime Navarro/Frank Castillo/Steve Trachsel
2000 40 62 162 978.0 5.29 5.07 9.1 Jon Lieber/Kevin Tapani/Kerry Wood
1997 56 61 162 958.7 4.43 4.60 9.3 Steve Trachsel/Terry Mulholland/Kevin Foster
2018 59 50 163 888.0 3.84 4.30 9.6 Kyle Hendricks/Jon Lester/Jose Quintana
1983 51 61 162 896.7 4.50 4.06 10.2 Chuck Rainey/Steve Trout/Fergie Jenkins
1999 40 73 162 935.3 5.33 4.85 10.2 Steve Trachsel/Jon Lieber/Kevin Tapani
1980 44 69 162 953.7 4.32 3.83 10.8 Rick Reuschel/Dennis Lamp/Mike Krukow
1987 59 61 161 965.7 4.72 4.41 10.8 Rick Sutcliffe/Jamie Moyer/Greg Maddux
1993 58 62 163 981.3 4.45 4.24 11.0 Mike Morgan/Greg Hibbard/Jose Guzman
2013 45 65 162 974.0 3.97 4.03 11.0 Jeff Samardzija/Travis Wood/Edwin Jackson
1990 51 65 162 933.3 4.48 3.95 11.2 Greg Maddux/Mike Bielecki/Mike Harkey
1985 49 61 162 970.7 4.01 4.00 11.4 Dennis Eckersley/Steve Trout/Ray Fontenot
1978 42 61 162 989.3 4.08 3.80 11.6 Dennis Lamp/Rick Reuschel/Ray Burris
1991 48 54 160 957.0 4.35 3.85 12.3 Greg Maddux/Mike Bielecki/Shawn Boskie
2007 64 50 162 955.7 4.19 4.58 12.3 Ted Lilly/Carlos Zambrano/Jason Marquis
2010 60 60 162 960.3 4.00 4.04 12.3 Ryan Dempster/Randy Wells/Tom Gorzelanny
2017 64 47 162 888.3 4.05 4.27 12.4 Jon Lester/Jake Arrieta/John Lackey
1986 38 59 160 947.0 4.67 3.93 12.5 Dennis Eckersley/Scott Sanderson/Rick Sutcliffe
1992 59 56 162 1028.0 3.21 3.66 12.6 Greg Maddux/Mike Morgan/Frank Castillo
1979 54 64 162 965.3 4.07 3.92 12.7 Rick Reuschel/Dennis Lamp/Lynn McGlothen
1988 57 64 163 1075.3 3.69 3.60 13.7 Greg Maddux/Rick Sutcliffe/Jamie Moyer
1998 67 49 163 1007.0 4.54 4.26 14.0 Kevin Tapani/Mark Clark/Steve Trachsel
1989 73 51 162 986.0 3.67 3.55 14.1 Greg Maddux/Rick Sutcliffe/Mike Bielecki
1974 43 68 162 954.7 4.43 3.63 14.3 Rick Reuschel/Bill Bonham/Steve Stone
2005 58 56 162 994.0 4.17 4.13 14.3 Greg Maddux/Carlos Zambrano/Mark Prior
1976 49 65 162 993.3 3.94 3.54 14.4 Rick Reuschel/Ray Burris/Bill Bonham
2014 50 63 162 927.0 4.11 3.61 14.9 Travis Wood/Edwin Jackson/Jake Arrieta
1975 52 62 162 1023.7 4.29 3.63 15.0 Rick Reuschel/Bill Bonham/Ray Burris
2019 51 47 162 888.0 4.18 4.07 15.6 Jose Quintana/Jon Lester/Yu Darvish
2008 69 40 161 955.0 3.75 4.12 16.0 Ted Lilly/Ryan Dempster/Carlos Zambrano
2016 81 39 162 989.0 2.96 3.72 16.2 Jon Lester/Jake Arrieta/Kyle Hendricks
1977 54 58 162 959.7 4.07 3.72 16.9 Ray Burris/Rick Reuschel/Bill Bonham
2002 45 67 162 972.7 4.01 3.80 17.0 Kerry Wood/Matt Clement/Jon Lieber
2001 66 49 162 972.3 4.07 3.93 17.1 Jon Lieber/Jason Bere/Kevin Tapani
2009 62 54 161 961.0 3.71 3.95 17.2 Ryan Dempster/Carlos Zambrano/Ted Lilly
1984 65 45 161 985.7 3.69 3.38 17.6 Steve Trout/Scott Sanderson/Dennis Eckersley
2015 60 39 162 946.7 3.36 3.26 18.3 Jake Arrieta/Jon Lester/Kyle Hendricks
2004 61 51 162 1007.0 3.72 3.91 18.9 Greg Maddux/Carlos Zambrano/Matt Clement
2003 68 55 162 1030.3 3.69 3.69 21.0 Carlos Zambrano/Kerry Wood/Matt Clement

Of the solid 2019 rotation, only Hendricks remained two years later, and his stuff doesn’t give him a massive margin of error; he suffered easily the worst season of his career and finished with a FIP only slightly better than five.

While the Cubs are in a rebuilding/retooling phase right now, who starts the games is more than just interesting trivia, because they play in a division in which the games do count for something. Back in August, I made some premature projections for the NL Central based on players who were still under team control for 2022, and Chicago wasn’t noticeably any worse off than three of the other four teams in the division. The Cardinals surged late in the season, but the Cubs are not out of the playoff picture in 2022 by any stretch of the imagination.

There was a flurry of big-ticket activity leading up to the lockout, but you’ll find that the NL Central teams were noticeably quiet, just as they were through most of last winter. Only a single multi-year contract has been signed by a non-Cubs NL Central team: the four-year, $44 million deal St. Louis made with Steven Matz. It’s also the only contract worth more than $5 million. I like Matz and think that’s a fair price for an average-ish starter, which is something the Cardinals need, but literally zero front offices have ever called a tense emergency meeting with coffee mugs plummeting to the floor because of the dropped bombshell that a rival has acquired his services.

With the Reds talking about trading Luis Castillo rather than acquiring top talent, I would not be the least bit surprised if the Cubs enter the 2022 season with a third-place projection, one that leaves them within shouting distance of the Cardinals and Brewers. They have more work to do, plus we’re not quite sure what a possible 2022 season would even look like at this point, so it’s a bit premature to throw any celebrations. But if they spend a bit more dough when free agency resumes, they could be competitive in a weak division far quicker than many of the naysayers think.

For now, this is a dandy of a deal for the Cubs. They needed a starting pitcher, and they got a good one for a good price.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Edit: when free agency resumes instead of removes