The Chicago Cubs surprised many across baseball by finishing with 97 wins, third most in all of baseball. The ascension of young hitters like Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Anthony Rizzo take much of the credit, but the pitching as a staff deserve more praise. As a whole, ten players made a start for the Cubs and pitched to a 3.36 ERA, ranked third overall. Despite the strong numbers, the rotation depth fell short in the playoffs and the front office has made it their top priority to improve it. Let’s take a look back at the starting pitching from 2015.
When you look back at the starting pitching for the Chicago Cubs, the first person you have to talk about is NL Cy Young award winner Jake Arrieta. In 33 starts, Arrieta pitched to a 22-6 record in 33 starts with four complete games, three shutouts and one no-hitter. He struck out 236 batters in 229 IP while posting a miniscule 1.77 ERA and 0.86 WHIP. Arrieta showed he was coming into his own in the first half by winning 10 games in 18 starts with a 2.66 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and striking out 123 batters in 121.2 IP. However, it was his second half that showed he had ace potential by winning 12 games in 15 starts with a 0.75 ERA, 0.72 WHIP and 113 strikeouts in 107.1 innings. In the playoffs, he looked pretty much out of gas. Arrieta surpassed his previous career high in innings pitched by about 70 innings, so it bears watching next year if he can hold up to a bigger workload. If not, it shows why it’s so paramount that the Cubs build up their starting pitching depth.
Coming into the season, Jon Lester was supposed to be the ace of the staff, but the magical year by Arrieta pushed Lester down to the second slot. He pitched to a disappointing 11-12 record in 32 starts, but a solid 3.34 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and struck out 207 batters in 205 innings. Consistency was Lester’s main problem as he posted an ERA of 5.00 or higher in the months of April, June and August.
The next three spots in the Cubs rotation are up in the air currently, but Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks are most likely to fill two of them barring any trades in the off-season. It was a tale of two halves for Hammel, but nonetheless he still put together a fine first full season as a Cub. In 31 starts, he posted a 10-7 record, 3.74 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 172 strikeouts in 170.2 innings. In the first half, he dominated with a 2.86 ERA and just 18 walks in 103.2 IP. However, after suffering a significant knee injury disguised as a hamstring pull, Hammel struggled with his command and posted a 5.10 ERA and lasted just 67 innings in 14 starts. If the Cubs do trade for pitching, it’s possible that Hammel finishes his two-year contract elsewhere.
The more likely scenario for pitchers to be traded on the current staff would be Hendricks. At 26, not even arbitration eligible and under team control until 2021, he has a lot more value and upside than Hammel. In his first full season, he pitched well with an 8-7 record in 32 starts, 3.95 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 167 strikeouts in 180 IP. Like Hammel, he struggled in the second half as well posting a 4.44 ERA versus a 3.38 ERA in the first half. Hendricks also has to prove he can eat more innings as he managed just nine quality starts and pitched six innings or more in just 11 starts.
Six other pitchers made starts for the Cubs last year and of Dan Haren, Travis Wood, Tsuyoshi Wada, Donn Roach, Clayton Richard and Dallas Beeler only Wood, Richard and Beeler still remain in the organization. Wood will be profiled further in our bullpen analysis where he excelled after nine uneven starts where he posted a 5.06 ERA. Richard may function as a swingman again who can pitch multiple innings as evidenced by his 2-0 record in three starts with a 3.00 ERA and 18 innings. Like Wood, the fellow left-hander made more of an impact in the bullpen and may just function as a lefty specialist. Beeler looked way overmatched in his three starts, giving up 14 hits and nine earned runs in just 8.1 innings and may find himself a 40-man roster spot casualty depending on acquisitions.
Speaking of those acquisitions, the Cubs have been mentioned as possibilities for a variety of pitchers this off-season. Many reports have speculated that the team may be looking to add two total starters and could go either the free agent route or trade for a controllable high upside arm. On the free agent front, names like David Price, Zack Greinke, Jordan Zimmermann, Jeff Samardzija, John Lackey, Wei-Yin Chen, J.A. Happ and Mike Leake could make sense for the team.
Price is obviously the big fish and will likely cost the most to sign. Price is one of the few pitchers available not tied to draft pick compensation and has arguably the best pedigree. The left-hander has been one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball over his eight-year career and posted an 18-5 record, 2.45 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and struck out 225 batters in 220.1 innings. He has history with manager Joe Maddon and has not been shy about his interest in the team either. He really would make the Cubs rotation even stronger and push Lester down to the number three spot, but likely cost over $200 million to sign.
If Price is the number one target, Greinke is not far behind and some reports have suggested the Cubs might be even more interested in him than Price. It’s easy to see why as many thought Greinke’s sparkling season was more deserving of the Cy Young than Arrieta. In 32 starts, he went 19-3, led the league with a 1.66 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and struck out 200 batters in 225.2 innings. At 32, he’s two years older than Price so he may command a shorter time frame, but it would still likely cost $180 million-plus.
Zimmermann would be the next most costly target even though his name doesn’t carry quite the same weight as the other two. At 29, Zimmermann has a lot less mileage on his arm, but still has pitched 195 innings or more over the past four seasons. Zimmermann also suffered a dip in production over his previous two this year pitching to a 13-10 record, with a 3.66 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 164 strikeouts in 201.2 innings. He would be another solid innings eater in the Lester mold who has the ability to dominate when necessary and could cost around $120 million to sign.
Mike Leake hasn’t really been linked to the Cubs yet, but is a pitcher very familiar to the team thanks to his time with the Reds for most of his career. The 28-year old likely tops the second tier market of arms as a pitcher very similar to Zimmermann for a much lower cost and the only other pitcher without draft pick compensation. In 30 starts, the right-hander went 11-10 with 3.70 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 119 strikeouts in 192.1 innings. At five years, $80 million, he could be a nice surprise signing.
Coming in at similar money could be a pitcher much more familiar to Cubs fans and the recent rumor mill, Jeff Samardzija. The former Cub had much less success on the South Side last year with an 11-13 record, 4.96 ERA, 1.29 WHIP and 164 strikeouts in 214 innings. He also led the league by allowing 228 hits, 118 earned runs and 29 home runs. Some reports have suggested that Samardzija ignored pitching coach Don Cooper and focused more on throwing rather than pitching. A return to Chris Bosio’s tutelage could bring Samardzija back to the dominance he had the season before. With such weak numbers, it’s hard to see Samardzija making similar money to Leake, but he’s got a lot less mileage on his arm thanks to his time in the bullpen compared to the rest of the free agent market and that may drive his price up to the $70 million range.
Wei-Yin Chen is another name in money range of Leake and Samardzija that the Cubs have considered. In 31 starts, Chen went 11-8 with a 3.34 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and struck out 153 batters in 191.1 innings. The 30-year old has flown under the radar in the rumor mill so far, but could be a nice bargain at around $60 million.
John Lackey and J.A. Happ are the remaining two free agent names on the list. The front office has already checked in with Lackey’s representatives and has history as Lackey signed his last free agent contract when Theo Epstein was GM of the Boston Red Sox. The 37-year old has had a career renaissance over the past couple of seasons and Cubs fans are aware of the damage he can do in the playoffs. He posted his best career ERA at 2.77 last season and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down and will likely cost around $30 million, a risky proposition for a pitcher of his age.
Happ had a similar career resurgence when traded to the Pirates at the deadline last year winning seven of his 11 starts with a 1.85 ERA and striking out 69 batters in 63.1 innings. Of course, Bosio may be able to continue that magic for the 33-year old left-hander, but it might too much of a risk to sign a pitcher to a $20 million deal with a career 4.13 ERA and 1.36 WHIP.
While a lot of these names may be tempting, the trade front has its share of high profile arms to consider as well. So far, the Cubs have been known to be interested in Tyson Ross, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Julio Teheran and Shelby Miller. To pry any of these players away will likely need to have a package of prospects headlined by Starlin Castro, Javier Baez or Jorge Soler, who many of the above pitcher’s teams are known to covet.
Ross was linked to the team at the trade deadline as the Padres are in need of a shortstop. At 28, Ross is under control until 2018 and has tantalizing stuff. In 33 starts, he went 10-12 with a 3.26 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and struck out 212 batters in 196 innings. He does struggle with his control at times as he led the National League with 84 walks and 14 wild pitches.
Carrasco and Salazar were also in the rumor mill at the trade deadline and seemed to have been renewed due to the Indians long known interest in Soler. Like Ross, Salazar has had his own control problems, but seemed to figure it out some last year. He went 14-10 in 30 starts with a 3.45 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 195 strikeouts in 185 IP. Carrasco also broke out last season with a 14-12 record in 30 starts with a 3.63 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and struck out 216 batters in 183.2 innings. Both are under team control through 2021.
Teheran of the Braves is another name the Cubs checked in on at the deadline, but teammate Shelby Miller is a new rumor. Like the Indians, the Braves are also interested in Soler and recently have been selling off many of their top assets to accelerate the rebuilding process. Teheran stumbled a bit last year after a strong 2014 where he had an impressive 2.89 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 186 strikeouts. This past year his ERA rose to 4.04, WHIP to 1.30 and his strikeouts dipped to 171. The Braves are reported to be down on him and his value may be worth it at the right price. Miller meanwhile has a lot higher price tag after being traded to the Braves last year with prospects for Jason Heyward. Miller lost a league high 17 games, but still posted a low 3.02 ERA, 171 strikeouts and pitched two complete-game shutouts.
A name to keep an eye on in regards to the rotation in the minors is Pierce Johnson. The right-handed former first round sandwich pick has been one of the more highly regarded arms in the Cubs system and was recently added to the 40-man roster. An assortment of non-arm related injuries have kept the innings down for Johnson as well as slowed his development. In 16 starts for Double-A Tennessee, he posted a 6-2 record in 16 starts with a 2.08 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 72 strikeouts in 95 innings. If Johnson can stay healthy, he might earn himself a spot start or two later in the season.
No matter how you look at it, the Cubs have a ton of options available to them to improve their starting pitching depth this off-season. Some combination of a trade, free-agency or both is highly likely and it will be interesting to see the route the team takes over the next few weeks. No matter what they do, there should no doubt that the rotation will be better than ever going into Spring Training in February.
Cubs 2015 Position Reviews
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