With the deadline to extend qualifying offers now passed, we have a much clearer picture of the pitchers the Cubs are likely to pursue this offseason. That’s because they may not be in the market for a QO-saddled player at all and absolutely aren’t going to target a pitcher who’s received one. Lucky for them, a few unexpected decisions left the market a fair bit broader than many of us expected.
Chief among those choices were Jon Gray, Steven Matz, and Carlos Rodón all being allowed to head to free agency scot-free. That’s very good for the Cubs because it not only gives them more potential options, it also creates a better opportunity for value among those options. And if there’s one thing we know about what the Cubs are seeking this winter, it’s value.
We can also assume they’re willing to spend a little money, or at least that seems to have been indicated by the waiver claim of Wade Miley last week. The veteran lefty gives them a stalwart for the back end of the rotation and pairs with Kyle Hendricks to give the Cubs two guaranteed spots. If we take them at their word that there’s one spot for the trio of Adbert Alzolay, Justin Steele, and Keegan Thompson, that’s three starters total. Alec Mills “has made a pretty strong case” according to David Ross, so now you’re at a soft four.
The big problem with that group, however, is that the Cubs would be right back where they were this past season when the rotation threw slower than any other group in MLB and “simply wasn’t good enough.” Jed Hoyer, Carter Hawkins, and the rest of an overhauled front office need to find a way to create a more dynamic rotation that features a lot more swing-and-miss than we witnessed in 2021.
That probably means going after a lead-pipe lock of a starter and then getting another arm with significant risk/reward potential at a lower cost. I was thinking about how to lay this out when, lo and behold, ol’ Full Count Tommy did it for me. We’ve mentioned a lot of these names before and I don’t know that it’s worthwhile to break down each of them here, but discussing several of them in terms of a hypothetical strategy could be fun.
So we’ve now got a pretty clear tier of FA starters the Cubs have to choose from. Here are some names:
Top: Stroman, Gausman
Mid: Gray, Matz, Rodón, DeSclafani
In between: Wood, Cobb, Pineda, Hill
Risk/upside: Bundy, Heaney, Duffy, Kikuchi, Lorenzen, Richards
— FullCountTommy (@FullCountTommy) November 8, 2021
I was thinking out loud about how it might make sense to jump out early on one of the higher-tier pitchers and then see about finding value from the riskier ones later, though the opposite is probably a better plan. After all, the expectation of a bigger contract means bigger discounts on money or time if those pitchers don’t find their markets developing as expected.
Yusei Kikuchi intrigues me because he’s got the kind of mid-90’s velocity the Cubs currently lack and he could really benefit from some tweaks to his secondaries. He’s also heading into his age-31 season and might be amenable to a pillow deal, though he turned down a $13 million player option with the Mariners and could be seeking at least two years. The potential for the fastball to tick up in a relief role a la Kendall Graveman offers a little fallback.
Andrew Heaney is another interesting option who is almost exactly the same age as Kikuchi and has posted similarly gaudy stats. He gets a lot of strikeouts and doesn’t walk many batters, but he also gives up too much hard contact in the air. Health is an issue, the secondaries aren’t great, and he’s not a hard thrower, but he’s a lefty who some view as a possible Robbie Ray redux.
Ed. note: Heaney will sign with the Dodgers for one year and $8.5 million.
Among others in this risk/reward category are Dylan Bundy (Cubs seem to love former Orioles), Danny Duffy (older LHP with 94 mph fastball), Michael Lorenzen (97 mph fastball, buy-low, reliever or opener), and Garrett Richards (mid-90’s RHP, one-year deal). If the Cubs are going to fish in these waters, I would much prefer they get someone who throws gas. Kikuchi or Richards would be my picks, but the latter probably comes at a significantly lower cost.
I do think there’d be some poetry in bringing Rich Hill back into the fold 14 years after he was basically left for dead. He’s one of only a few pitchers who would actually decrease the rotation’s average velo — Miley already has — and he’ll turn 42 in March, but he hasn’t posted an ERA north of 3.86 since 2013 and he offers a different look than the other pitchers on the staff. Outside of that, I’m very meh on the “in between” players above.
Marcus Stroman and Kevin Gausman would both be great options and I love the latter’s consistent mid-90’s velo, it just seems like both will be looking for a bit more than the Cubs are willing to offer. Some chatter around the league has Stroman drawing a contract worth around $25 million annually for 5-6 years at a minimum. Gausman is just a few months older and may not be valued quite as highly, though he’s still set himself up very well for a big payday.
When it comes to value, I think the group that includes Gray, Matz, Rodón, and Anthony DeSclafani might yield the best results. It’s at least a little curious that the White Sox declined to offer a QO to Rodón after an excellent season, particularly when they expect to compete for a title again next year, so I wonder whether his health is a question.
The fastball was at just 91 in his last start of the regular season after sitting 97 in June, though he sat around 95 and touched 99 in Game 4 of the NLDS against Houston. I liked him as a target on a show-me deal last season and, while such an option is probably off the table after his 2021 performance, staying in Chicago could be a nice sweetener.
Matz is a lefty sinkerballer with decent velocity who would probably benefit from some adjustments to his breaking balls. His nearly identical splits don’t offer a lot of encouragement and he doesn’t miss many bats, so he seems like a guy who could fall through the cracks. He pitched well for the Jays, though, and still has room to get even better if he cleans a few things up.
Gray is undervalued by fans because his numbers don’t look great and because his splits are actually better at Coors Field than on the road. Not exactly a selling point for a pitcher. With mid-90’s velo and an excellent slider, I like him as an upside guy who could make a big leap in performance in a new setting.
DeSclafani figured some things out this season and rebounded in a big way from a disastrous campaign in Cincy during the short season. He pitched well in 2019 also, indicating that 2020 was just an outlier, though you wonder whether the Giants hype may drive his price up a bit. On the other hand, he’ll be 32 in April and that could temper interest a wee bit.
There are certainly others the Cubs will look into and it’s entirely possible that they don’t sign any of these players, but I do think we have a fairly good idea of how they view the market. I keep going back to Hoyer’s statement about power arms and leaning toward them seeking at least one starter who throws 95+, so I’ll be pretty disappointed if we see them running it back without much heat.
I won’t be surprised if they make at least one more move here before any CBA shenanigans shut things down, then it’ll be a matter of waiting for the market to come to them. If everything works out, maybe the Cubs can turn Gallagher Way into Deal-y Plaza.