The Cubs rotation this year, as documented here by Evan, has been extremely good. I agree with his opinion, too: the team doesn’t need to acquire a starting pitcher if everyone performs this well and stays healthy.
But that doesn’t mean the Cubs should rest on their laurels. Instead, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer should target specific kinds of pitchers to protect against a potential second-half letdown from Jason Hammel or Kyle Hendricks and/or injuries.
There aren’t any openings in the rotation as it stands, so young, cost-controlled starting pitcher prospects with high upside should be right in the Cubs’ crosshairs.
Before you yell, “Well, DUH, every team needs that,” let me explain.
For starters, the rental market is terrible this season. After Stephen Strasburg signed a contract extension (and the Nats are contending, anyway) the prize rental appears to be Rich Hill, and it only gets uglier from there. A terrible rental market also means a bare cupboard for impact talent in free agency.
So that leaves pitchers with more control as the main target for contenders needing a serious improvement to the rotation.
The two big names that immediately stand out are Sonny Gray and Julio Teheran. Gray currently has a 5.08 FIP and a worse 6.19 ERA over 48 innings. He’s currently on the DL with what the A’s are calling a strained trapezius, but he’s looked lost on the mound for quite some time and something is clearly wrong. Even so, it would be surprising if Billy Beane traded him for a discount — Gray will cost a pretty penny.
As will Teheran, who is having a good season with a 3.43 FIP and a 2.57 ERA. Last year was rough for both him and the Braves as he posted a 4.40 FIP with a 4.04 ERA. Given the Braves’ reported interest in Jorge Soler this offseason, it’s easy to imagine trade talks starting there (if Soler’s value trends up, which it easily can).
Again, though, this isn’t necessarily an improvement over the current rotation. And if you are going to trade Soler or Javier Baez or an injured Schwarber (not sure this is possible, but he should have some value), then why not pay more and get that potential ace prospect?
Blake Snell of Tampa Bay could be a guy the Cubs target after having seemingly endless discussions with the Rays this offseason (Baez seemed to be their favorite Cub, for what it’s worth). With a 1.41 ERA in 2015 across A+, Double-A, and Triple-A, he flew up prospect rankings. While his 3.29 ERA in Triple-A this year isn’t as eye-popping, he has struck out 56 batters in 41 innings for a ridiculous 12.3 SO/9 and is ready for the big leagues.
Snell also made one spot start for the Rays and only allowed one earned run in five innings (extremely small sample size alert, but still.
Another name to watch is Lucas Giolito (Keith Law’s current #1 prospect), who may be trickier to pull away from the Nats, but should be available thanks to the quality of their starting rotation. With Strasburg and Max Scherzer signed to long-term deals and Tanner Roark (2.89 ERA and a 3.26 FIP) and Joe Ross (2.70 ERA and a 3.41 FIP) under control through at least 2020, they have the flexibility to make a big move with Giolito if it improves multiple aspects of their team.
Will the Cubs be willing to pay the insanely high price and improve potential playoff competition? Probably not, which is the same issue with prying Julio Urias away from the Dodgers. While the Dodgers aren’t as stocked with rotation quality as the Nationals, they do have many, many options to choose from (Brett Anderson, Scott Kazmir, Mike Bolsinger, Hyun-Jin Ryu are all fighting to get back for a shot at the fifth-starter spot).
Jose Berrios of the Twins would be nice, but the team has several young position players who are highly-touted, so more pitching could be their need moving forward.
Like the rental market, the options for cost-controlled young arms are limited. The price to acquire such talent, however, is not. Limited, that is. Even so, these are the guys the Cubs need to target. Yes, the prices will be high enough that speculating on it is probably a waste of everyone’s time. But the Cubs will have a need at some point in the immediate future for this kind of player, even if it isn’t this season.
Barring an extension, Jake Arrieta will be a free agent after 2017. Hammel could be a free agent as early as this offseason with only a club option left on his deal. John Lackey and Jon Lester aren’t getting any younger, either. Pitching will be a weakness for the Cubs in the near future.
It’s a tough pill to swallow when it comes to paying the price to acquire a highly-touted pitching prospect, but a need is a need. These kinds of deals are rare, but as the Addison Russell trade (he was a top-5 prospect when moved) shows us, they do happen from time to time. After two consecutive seasons of bad second-half performances, I don’t trust Jason Hammel. Blake Snell, who can stay in the minors if Hammel proves me wrong, is the perfect last piece for the Cubs this season and beyond and should be the Cubs #1 target this trade season.