You may choose to file this under “No Shit” or “Consider the Source,” but a report (scroll down past the story to the blurbs) from USA Today’s Bob Nightengale says the Cubs have no intention of offering Marcus Stroman an extension. The righty, who has a 9.00 ERA over his last seven starts, went to the IL with hip inflammation and is now shelved indefinitely after suffering fractured rib cartilage. He has a player option to return to the Cubs for $21 million in 2024, which feels like much more of a possibility than it did even a week ago.
Stroman recently made the very unorthodox choice to visit the Wrigley Field press box cafeteria during the 6th inning of Friday’s loss to explain his injury to media members. Or rather, to muddy the waters a bit further, since he claims to have no idea how an injury that typically results from severe blunt-force trauma happened when he’d only been throwing bullpens and fielding grounders.
“I was throwing on Sunday in Toronto and I felt a little crampy feeling, nothing crazy,” Stroman shared with Sahadev Sharma and others. “I threw my bullpen, got done with all my work and after I cooled down, it was kind of hard to breathe. Kind of in my diaphragm and rib area. So I went through some things with the trainers.”
The timetable for Stroman’s return is equally cloudy, as these injuries are rare if not completely nonexistent in baseball. He has been shut down from all baseball activity due to the discomfort in his ribs and could be out of action for up to six weeks. That would put him close to the end of the season just to begin a throwing program, so he’d effectively be done for the year. Between rest and ramp-up, anything longer than a three-week hiatus would jeopardize his return prior to the postseason.
As for his return to Chicago, well, that too could depend on his health. The greatest ability for many players is availability, and Stroman will fall short of last year’s 138.1 innings over 25 starts if he doesn’t make two more starts of at least five innings apiece. Though he bounced back nicely from COVID and right shoulder inflammation last season, those issues forced him to miss roughly six weeks.
Interestingly enough, being shelved for over a month across most of June and part of July may have been in Stroman’s best interest. Over his first nine starts in a Cubs uniform, he had a 5.32 ERA with eight home runs allowed over 47.1 innings. Through 16 starts following his activation from the IL, he pitched to a 2.56 ERA with the same number of homers in 91.1 innings.
That strong performance continued through his first 16 starts this season, with Stroman posting a 2.28 ERA and just five homers in 98.2 innings. He was a Cy Young front-runner at that point, but the bottom fell out in London and trouble with his hip caused him to compensate by altering his mechanics. It’s reasonable to wonder whether travel exacerbated or caused that issue, leading to the sharp drop-off in his output.
Now the Cubs have a would-be ace who may not return this season and who they were already unwilling to engage in extension talks even when he was pitching well. There was some speculation that Stroman would seek as much as $30 million AAV over five years, which seemed ludicrous at the time and is not even worth discussing at this point. Jed Hoyer has more pressing issues this winter than what to do if Stroman indeed opts in for next year, but the baseball boss can’t feel great about how his rotation is shaping up.
Not only is Stroman a huge question mark in more ways than one, but Drew Smyly is under contract for at least $9 million in ’24. His base deal called for an $8.5 million guarantee and he’s triggered $500,000 in escalators for reaching 120 innings this season. He’ll get another $750,000 each for reaching 130 and 140 innings, pushing him to $10 million. Getting to 150 innings will bump that by another $1 million.
That’s not bad for a No. 5 starter, but Smyly had been relegated to the bullpen and the Cubs have to be crossing their fingers that he can return to form over the remainder of the year. Then again, we’ve seen their willingness to cut bait and eat money on veterans with guaranteed money remaining for ’24. Then there’s Jameson Taillon, who will earn $17 million AAV over each of the next three years. Add in Stroman’s $23.67 million AAV and you’ve got nearly $52 million for starters who are Nos. 2, 4, and 5 in the rotation at the very best.
Even though a bird in the hand is indeed worth more than two in the bush, it’s tough to feel good about that trio when Jordan Wicks, Luke Little, Ben Brown, Cade Horton, and others are pushing up through the system. Stroman opting out becomes a much greater possibility if he’s able to return this season and he pitches really well once he does. If he can’t come back or if he’s still pitching poorly once he’s activated, that $21 million salary might look a lot better.