First, the dots. The Cubs nearly traded for Tyson Ross at the deadline in 2015. Jed Hoyer has said that the Cubs will pursue both bullpen and rotation help and that they’ll specifically target guys who may have had “some bumps along the road.” After being non-tendered by the Padres while recovering from an October surgery to relieve thoracic outlet sydrome, the cost to acquire the former top-of-the-rotation starter no longer includes players. Finally, the Cubs are in need of a new Ross after losing David to retirement.
Gosh, when you put them that close together you almost don’t even need to draw lines to connect them. Not that it’s a foregone conclusion or anything, just that it makes a hell of a lot of sense for the Cubs to look at bringing the big (6-6, 245) righty aboard. There are, of course, a lot of questions related to both health and performance.
Thoracic outlet syndrome sounds pretty ominous in name alone. Then you learn that it’s a compression of blood vessels and/or nerves between your collarbone and first rib that results in reduced blood flow, pain, fatigue, and numbness and you cringe. That’s bad for anyone, let alone a man who’s job involves throwing a baseball over and over. Surgery to treat TOS often involves the removal of the offending rib, which makes it sound like those urban legends about Cher and Marilyn Manson.
Recovery time could be anywhere from four to six months, which means that Ross could be ready to resume baseball activities as early as February. While it’s not as ubiquitous as Tommy John surgery, TOS does seem to be gaining in notoriety. Luke Hochevar, Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Josh Beckett, Clayton Richard, and others have all returned from this particular surgical procedure, though the results have varied significantly. You might note that Matt Harvey is another name on the list, but I left him off earlier because he has yet to return.
Given the inherent risk, any contract the Cubs would offer Ross would need to be heavy on incentives and options, a thought echoed by Bruce Levine. It’s imperative for the Cubs to insulate themselves against poor performance while giving Ross the ability and desire to stick around should he recover fully. Add in the probable losses of Jake Arrieta and John Lackey after the coming season, and I could see a base two-year deal making sense for both parties.
As for the specifics of that deal, well, that is an interesting topic. MLB Trade Rumors projected Ross’s 2017 arbitration salary at $9.6 million, more than double any of the Padres’ other arb-eligible players. It makes sense that a rebuilding team would not want to tie up money in a guy like Ross who might not be able to contribute immediately, if at all. But $10 million-ish AAV for a starting pitcher is much more palatable for a team like the Cubs that has a greater appetite for risk and payroll, especially in this incredibly weak market.
Health is really the Sword of Damocles here, but let’s assume for now that Ross is able to return to form in short order. He’ll be 30 in April, so we’re not really talking about a youngster. We are, however, talking about a pitcher who’s still a pretty raw practitioner of his craft. Ross only threw 5.1 innings in 2016, but no pitcher issued more walks than the 156 he tallied over 391.2 innings in the previous two seasons. Even if we level the playing field by using BB/9, only four starters in baseball were worse than the 3.58 Ross averaged.
He was generally able to keep those free passes from hurting him, posting a 3.03 ERA over the same period. And that’s no fluke, as we see from a 3.11 FIP and 3.13 xFIP. Much of that success came from Ross’s ability to keep the ball in the ballpark. While you can credit the pitcher-friendly Petco Park for some of that, his 0.51 HR/9 ranked fourth in the majors over the two full seasons in question. Ross can miss bats too, striking out 9.35 batters per 9 innings.
We’re talking about a pitcher with some health and control issues, but who has really good stuff and could perhaps benefit from a change of scenery. Remind you of anyone else? Maybe, I don’t know, Jake Arrieta? I actually made that comparison after the rumored trade(s) for Ross fell through and I stand by it, imperfect as it is.
If everything worked out perfectly, Ross could even end up replacing Arrieta. A lot would have to go right, but the Cubs are in the unique position to gamble and bring the former A and Padre along slowly as a swingman or sixth starter. So will they roll the dice? I’m not sure whether he’s going off of inside info or just a gut feeling, but Levine says to “Bet on it.”
It may not be as simple as Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer just choosing to ante up to pursue Ross, though, as other teams are sure to be in on the former All-Star. Jon Heyman mentioned the Dodgers as a possible landing spot, in part because of Ross’s familiarity with Dave Roberts, who was a coach with the Padres from 2010 to 2015. And you can’t discount the fact that Ross grew up in the Bay Area and attended Cal-Berkeley before coming up with Oakland and then coming into his own in San Diego. Outside of a couple minor-league stops, the guy has spent his whole life in California.
Then again, maybe that’s all the more reason for him to try something different. No one’s going to confuse the beaches of Lake Michigan with those of the West Coast, particularly in the fall, but the sun was shining pretty darn brightly on the Cubs this November.