How Badly Do the Cubs Need a Starting Pitcher?

I saw a reference not long ago to the White Sox and Padres, regarding how they tell us it doesn’t matter who wins the offseason. The reference was made in an article about the Cubs. Now, the Cubs’ offseason isn’t over. Nor are the rest of the offseasons, so, who knows how the landscape will look by the end? But there are some crucial differences here. For one, there was more criticism of what the White Sox and Padres did. For two, the Cubs have worked on a team that was already legitimately good. As I write this, I believe the Cubs are the best team in baseball. It’s not irrefutable, but there’s a hell of an argument for the opinion.

More moves will be made, and we’ll see improvements to other contenders. The Cubs’ projection is unlikely to budge very much. Still, there are active rumors, surrounding players like Jorge Soler and Javier Baez. Reports suggest the Cubs are most interested in strengthening their starting rotation. Reports aren’t the same as actual moves, and actions speak louder than words and all that, but it’s worth wondering: how badly do the Cubs need a starting pitcher? Consider this part 1 of our series: how badly do the Cubs need anything?

If you think back to the playoffs, which weren’t actually all that long ago, the Cubs’ starters got exposed. Kyle Hendricks ran an ERA over 5, and Jason Hammel wasn’t allowed to throw even 50 pitches in either of two starts. That wouldn’t have been such a big deal had Jon Lester not shown cracks, and had Jake Arrieta not shown cracks, and had the whole lineup not shown cracks. The last time we saw the Cubs, they got steamrolled by the Mets, but you don’t judge a team by four games. The Cubs were good, and the Cubs should be good.

Isolating just the rotation, last year, the Cubs finished first in baseball by WAR. Sure, the group was topheavy, but rotations frequently are. Switching to RA9-WAR, for a different opinion, the Cubs finished third in baseball. The numbers were inarguably terrific. Since then, little of note has been lost, and John Lackey has signed for a couple of years. So here’s how the Cubs’ rotation currently projects for 2016, by Steamer and our own playing-time guesses:

cubsstarters

The Free Agents are loaded, but thankfully for everyone else, they’ll end up mostly disbanded by April. So right now, the Cubs project worse than the Dodgers, but better than the remaining 28 clubs. Obviously, the remaining 28 clubs will make more moves. Obviously, projections don’t predict the future with 100% accuracy. The point isn’t whether the Cubs are first, or second, or third. It’s that they look really good, rotation-wise. There’s not really any reason to believe this is a weakness.

What the Cubs have managed to assemble is both talent and depth. At the moment, this is the likely five:

  • Arrieta
  • Lester
  • Lackey
  • Hendricks
  • Hammel

Yet nearly no team goes through a season with just the five original starting pitchers. The Cubs understand that, and this is much of what they have as rotation support:

Warren’s the newest, and he’s probably the most interesting. As a starter with the Yankees he ran a sub-4 FIP with four pitches he threw at least a tenth of the time. The others have their own attributes, and it doesn’t matter much if you don’t love Richard, because he’s ninth on the list. No one loves a team’s ninth starter.

The Cubs have the starters and the depth. Lester is under control five or six more seasons. Hendricks has another five. Arrieta and Lackey have another two. Hammel has another one or two. Of the depth guys, Warren’s got three seasons of control. This group isn’t coming apart next winter. The short- and medium-term outlooks are favorable.

So why the reports? They could just be wrong. That possibility can never be dismissed. But let’s give the reports some validity, because the front office has talked about this. On paper, it doesn’t look like the Cubs really have a need. Yet they’re acting as if they might, and this leads us to a nifty principle: if a smart team is trying to do something that doesn’t immediately make perfect sense, assume the smart team has some information. Sometimes this can lead you astray, but you should never assume you’ve considered something that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer haven’t.

Could be the Cubs just want more young, cost-controlled starters. They’ve been linked to names like Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco, and since they took a bat-first approach to organizational development, maybe they’re just looking for an exchange. Maybe it’s just about being proactive, although the current market for starting pitching could drive a sane team elsewhere. The Shelby Miller deal did nothing good for teams sniffing around effective young arms.

That would be the long-term view, yet teams this good tend to focus more on what’s ahead. The Cubs might have more questions about 2016 than the projections would let on. Take Hammel. His was a 2015 season of two very different halves, the second and worse one coming after a return from a hamstring injury. By the time the playoffs rolled around, Hammel had nobody’s trust, and the Cubs might not love his chances of bouncing back.

However, second-half Hammel still had solid peripherals, and the Cubs know that’s generally encouraging. And Hendricks, in the second half, saw his strikeout rate leap forward. There’s some chatter that Hendricks may yet be exposed, as a finesse arm without an out pitch, but at this point it would be fair to say he’s mostly proven, and these are back-of-the-rotation guys anyway. There’s insurance in case they struggle.

I’m left with a gut feeling that the Cubs might be nervous about Arrieta. He was dominant almost all season long, to a historic extent, but he threw just shy of 250 innings, and in his final start, he lost a mile off his average and top-velocity fastball. Sometimes that’s nothing, and the weather was cold, but it grabs your attention, and it’s not like an injury would’ve come out of nowhere. Arrieta was used heavily, and the last time he pitched in 2015, he looked like it. In 2014, he fell short of 180 innings. In 2013, he fell short of 160. Arrieta’s talent is almost irreplaceable, and if something were to happen to him, the Cubs would be left looking mortal.

It’s hardly worth writing that the Cubs would look worse without Jake Arrieta. Everyone would look worse without their No. 1, and an injury is never guaranteed. Madison Bumgarner, last year, wore his heavy 2014 usage just fine. But the Cubs could look at Arrieta and see a heightened risk. There’s already perhaps been a symptom, and when you have a winning opportunity this good, you’d like to have insurance in case something goes catastrophically wrong. If the Cubs added a cost-controlled, long-term starter, it would be good for the future, but it would also help support the present, a present that might be a little more risky in reality than it seems in the projections. The Cubs of April 2016 already look fantastic. They’re now perhaps thinking about a half-year later.

We hoped you liked reading How Badly Do the Cubs Need a Starting Pitcher? by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Wizard of Ugh
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Wizard of Ugh

Can’t read the chart. It is cropped.

Helping Guy
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Helping Guy

I think it’s just supposed to be an illustration of the top few numbers. You can click on “Projections” in the navigation at the top of the page to see SP projections and everything else.