A strength for the Cubs the year before with a 3.97 ERA, starting pitching was an absolute rollercoaster for the team last season totaling a 50-63 record, 798 strikeouts in 927 innings with a 4.11 ERA and 1.31 WHIP. The Cubs were among the best in the league at the beginning of the year, but trades of Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel left the team scrambling for arms as Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson continued to struggle. The team saw some impressive performances from Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks while others like Dan Straily and Jacob Turner clearly need some more minor league seasoning. With the Cubs likely to spend on pitching in free agency to give their rotation more talent and depth, let’s take a look at what the starting pitching could look like next season.
When you have a young team and have had a habit over the past couple of years of trading veteran pitching for young assets, it makes sense why the Cubs had 13 pitchers make at least one start last year. Of those, only Arrieta and Hendricks will be locks to make the starting five when Spring Training begins.
Jake Arrieta was hands down the best starter on the team last season as he flirted with a couple of no hitters and posted the team’s only complete game and shutout. His filthy numbers of a 10-5 record, 167 strikeouts in 156.2 innings with a 2.53 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP made it easy for fans to forget the team traded number one pitcher Jeff Samardzija. And he likely would have been even better had he not started the year on the DL with a shoulder injury. Arrieta’s improved each season with the team statistically, but now needs to prove he can stay on the field for an entire season and can stand up to the rigors of 200 innings. If he can do that, Arrieta probably has the stuff to be one of the top starters in the league.
Kyle Hendricks also has to prove he has the stamina as well as show that his control pitch repertoire can be as successful as it was during his call-up. Hendricks posted a nice 7-2 record, 47 strikeouts in 80.1 innings with a 2.46 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP. And Hendricks pitched six or more innings in nine of his 13 starts. He projects to be a control pitcher in the vein of Greg Maddux with a ceiling of a number three or four starter and may make the Ryan Dempster trade, in which he was acquired, look like a steal.
In addition to Arrieta and Hendricks, Tsuyoshi Wada is in the rotational mix after the Cubs signed him Monday to a $4 million deal for the 2015 season that includes $2 million in incentives. Wada posted a solid 4-4 record, 57 strikeouts in 69.1 innings with a 3.25 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP in 13 starts last year. Wada gives the team a possible low cost option that could perform similarly to many of the second-tier free agents available. Wada is not without his warts however and potential negatives for Wada is not really knowing what you have in him. Last season was his first in the majors after Tommy John surgery erased most of his two years in the Orioles system. Wada posted just five quality starts last season and they were the only outings he completed six or more innings.
Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson had rough seasons in the rotation and are not locks to make this team next year. Wood was a definite disappointment as he regressed in every major category. His ERA rose from 3.11 to 5.03, his innings dropped from 200 to 173.2 and his WHIP rose from 1.15 to 1.53. Trading Wood at this point would be selling low, but he does have two years of arbitration left and has been a league average starter so he has value either to the Cubs or another team. Depending on what the Cubs add in free agency this winter could determine if Wood has a spot in the rotation next year or not.
If Wood was a disappointment, Jackson was an absolute failure. His numbers of a 6-15 record, 123 strikeouts in 140.2 innings with a 6.33 ERA and a 1.64 WHIP were a career worst and at this point his contract can be considered a total loss. Jackson made just 10 starts where he pitched six or more innings and of those 10, only six were quality starts. That is unacceptable for a pitcher that is still owed $22 million over the next two seasons. With the Cubs looking to upgrade their rotation, it’s hard to see where Jackson fits next year. Either the team will eat the final $22 million or possibly trade him for another bad contract. Reports last season had the Braves interested in swapping Jackson for fellow free agent failure B.J. Upton. Upton is owned a little over $46.3 million over the next three years and has been equally as terrible posting a line of .208/.287/.333 with 12 home runs, 35 RBI, 20 stolen bases and 173 strikeouts. The Cubs do have somewhat of a hole in center field and now have Upton’s former manager Joe Maddon in the fold, but it’s debatable how much Maddon would get out of a player who has looked like he is done over the past two years. Either way you look at it, the Cubs lose some getting rid of Jackson even if they win getting him off the team.
Should any of the above pitchers falter or have injuries, the team has amassed some intriguing young pitching depth in Jacob Turner, Dan Straily, Dallas Beeler, Eric Jokisch and Felix Doubront. Straily only made one start and gave up five earned runs in 5.1 innings and struggled mightily in the bullpen. Straily is likely ticketed for Triple-A. Turner received an extended six start audition after being claimed off waivers from the Marlins. Turner is a former first round pick and couldn’t build on a solid debut in 2013 where he posted a 3.74 ERA in 20 starts for the Marlins. He struggled all last season and managed a 2-4 record, 16 strikeouts in 30.1 innings with a 7.12 ERA and a 1.62 WHIP in his time with the Cubs. The team picked up Turner’s $1 million option for next season, but unlike Straily, Turner is out of minor league options and will have to earn a spot on the big league roster out of Spring Training. Some think Turner’s stuff would play better out of the pen, but the Cubs have not said what they envision his role to be on the team moving forward.
Felix Doubront was acquired in a trade with the Red Sox last year and was decent in four starts, posting a 3.98 ERA. Doubront has history with Theo Epstein, who signed him as an amateur free agent and could be an option to make the rotation next year. Beeler and Jokisch performed well in their limited time with the club and will likely be minor league depth for the time being.
With the team looking to compete for the NL Central crown next season, a dip into the free agency market will be a necessity and with the team looking to improve their veteran leadership will have more than a few quality options to choose from. The team may be a little gun shy after the Edwin Jackson debacle, but it will likely get the team to spend their dollars on pitchers with more of a track record of overall success.
Likely at the top of their list is Jon Lester, who was connected to the Cubs before he was traded from the Red Sox to the A’s at the deadline. The Cubs front office had a hand in Lester’s development and has a good relationship with the southpaw. He’s been one of the most consistent pitchers in baseball over the last few years and owns a career 3.58 ERA and 1.28 WHIP in nine seasons. He posted one of his best years last season with a 16-11 record, 220 strikeouts in 219.2 innings with a 2.46 ERA and 1.10 WHIP. Lester is a family man and wants to make sure the place he lands is a good place for a family to grow up in. With plenty of suburbs to choose from and a chance to play again for a front office, who has a lot of faith in him, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are likely to make Lester a very rich man if he chooses to sign with the Cubs. A six-year deal of $150 million or more is a good bet.
If Lester is the Cubs’ top target, Max Scherzer is likely the overall top target for free agent pitchers this off-season. The 2013 Cy Young award winner rejected a six-year, $144 million extension offer from the Tigers because he likely knew he could sign for around seven years and $175 million in free agency considering he’s currently one of the top pitchers in the game. Last season backed that up with an 18-5 record, 252 strikeouts in 220.1 innings with a 3.15 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. The Cubs are believed to be interested and would be foolish not to do their due diligence. However, with a likely bidding war for his services, it might leave the team with less money to sign another quality free agent pitcher, but Scherzer would look nice fronting the Cubs rotation.
Fresh off a World Series appearance, James Shields has been reported as a fallback option should the Cubs miss out on signing Jon Lester. It’s even been reported that Shields is a little intrigued about potentially playing for Maddon again. At 33, Shields is a couple of years older than Lester, but has been just as dependable with a career 3.72 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and has pitched 200 or more innings since 2007. His stuff is not as good as either Lester’s or Scherzer’s, but his 14-8 record, 180 strikeouts in 227 innings with a 3.21 ERA and 1.18 WHIP would still look good in the Cubs rotation. He’s likely to sign a five-year contract for around $100 million.
Another fallback option and potential buy-low candidate could be Justin Masterson. Theo Epstein and Jason McLeod drafted Masterson and have first-hand knowledge of the kind of pitcher he is. With pitching coach Chris Bosio, who has had success molding pitchers, Masterson could be a nice project. Going into free agency, injuries and ineffectiveness didn’t do Masterson any favors and he stumbled to a 7-9 record, 116 strikeouts in 128.2 innings with an ugly 5.88 ERA and 1.57 WHIP. Masterson isn’t too far removed from better numbers and could be had at a one year incentive laden contract.
Jake Peavy told reporters during the World Series that he and Jon Lester are close friends and have discussed the possibility of signing with the Cubs as a “package deal.” The front office has clearly stated that they do not want to sign free agents based on past performance and signing Peavy to a long-term deal comes with its share of risks. At 34, it’s debatable how much he has left in the tank even though he posted a 6-4 record, 58 strikeouts in 78.2 innings with a 2.17 ERA and 1.04 WHIP over 12 starts with the Giants. However, he wasn’t as sharp with the Red Sox and started the year with a 1-9 record, 100 strikeouts in 124 innings with a 4.72 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP. Fenway Park is more of a hitter’s park like Wrigley and Peavy also struggled at U.S. Cellular when he was with the White Sox, so it’s debatable how he would fare with the Cubs. He is known to be a good clubhouse presence and would be the type of veteran leadership the team is seeking, but it’s hard to see how he fits with the front office’s views on free agency. If the team does decide to add Peavy in attempt to sway Lester, he will likely command a two-year deal in the $14-15 million range.
Another starter with an up and down career that may interest the Cubs is Francisco Liriano, who the Cubs reportedly had interest in two years ago. Liriano is one of those pitchers who has all the talent in the world, but was never able to harness it consistently. In two years in Pittsburgh, the Pirates appeared to have found the magic formula and last year he went 7-10 with 175 strikeouts in 162.1 innings with a 3.38 ERA and 1.30 WHIP. With Bosio able to rework pitchers, it’s probable that Liriano would be able to keep his reliability, but after a contract failure with Edwin Jackson, who also had issues with walks, it might make the Cubs a little gun shy to sign a pitcher with similar issues. If Liriano does not accept the Pirates qualifying offer, he could be looking at a three to four-year deal for around $12 million per season.
Jason Hammel was a reclamation project of sorts for the Cubs last season and he posted strong numbers with the team to the tune of an 8-5 record, 104 strikeouts in 108.2 innings with a 2.98 ERA and a 1.02 WHIP. He didn’t fare quite as well with the A’s and managed a 2-6 record, 54 strikeouts in 67.2 innings with a 4.26 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP. Hammel is likely somewhere in the middle and his chances with the Cubs depend on where he ranks among a deep market to the team. With a lot of quality options, the Cubs may look to sign him to a bargain deal around three years and $9-10 million per year, but that’s only if the team thinks he can repeat his performance under Chris Bosio moving forward.
Brandon McCarthy was another pitcher the Cubs had some level of interest in two years ago. Last season was the first for McCarthy to top 200 innings as he’s been fairly injury prone in his nine-year career. His best years were in Oakland, a noted pitcher’s park, while he’s struggled in hitter’s parks. With Wrigley being more of a hitter’s park, it is curious how well McCarthy would do in that environment although he did post a 2.89 ERA at Yankee Stadium last season. McCarthy has a fair amount of potential to his game as evidenced by his 175 strikeouts in 200 innings this season, but it may be hard for the Cubs to justify giving a three-year deal to a pitcher who hasn’t been healthy for more than one season. At $12 million per year, he’ll cost the same as other pitchers who are a little more durable.
If the Cubs choose to spend big on a top-tier starter and opt to go for a pitcher coming off injury for a low risk-high reward one-year bounce-back contract, Josh Johnson, Brett Anderson, Brandon Morrow and Chad Billingsley may be intriguing options. All four pitchers have had trouble staying on the field the past few years, but when healthy were among the top up and coming young pitchers in baseball. With Bosio, each pitcher has a chance of regaining past form, but there’s no guarantee that any of them would last a whole season.
All in all, there’s no doubt the Cubs have a slew of options on the free agent market and with the front office hoping to add two veteran starters, it’s likely the Cubs will be in the thick of a contract negotiations. With just Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks locks to make the rotation when Spring Training begins, the Cubs have a lot of decisions to make with their own starting pitching options. And it all should make for one of the most exciting off-seasons to watch in recent memory.