David Ross Sends Clear Message to Front Office: We Need More Starters

You wouldn’t know it from the way they’ve played the Mets, or from their performance on the road in general, but the Cubs figure to be buyers at the trade deadline. One team official told NBC Sports Chicago’s Gordon Wittenmyer they need “at least one” additional starter, a sentiment David Ross echoed quite clearly prior to Wednesday’s loss.

“We can definitely use starting pitching,” Ross said. “We’ve got a lot of guys hurt. You can always use pitching in general, whether it’s in the bullpen or not.”

More than just a casual admission, this comes across as a very intentional statement from Ross in light of the way the subsequent game played out. Righty Robert Stock, who had started exactly zero of his 52 previous MLB appearances in addition to making nine starts in 226 minor league outings, was selected from Triple-A Iowa in order to face off against Jacob deGrom and the Mets.

With a patchwork lineup complicating what was a difficult task under normal circumstances, the Cubs righty’s surname felt all too apt for a lamb being led to the slaughter. Even had his manager not essentially hung him out to dry before the first pitch, it became evident as the game wore on that Ross was going to let his spot starter wear a bad outing.

“You’re not gonna have a lot of success against a quality ballclub with six walks and a hit-by-pitch,” Ross deadpanned after the loss. “…There’s some days you gotta kind of just let some guys try to figure it out and hope for the best, to be honest with you.”

Stock avoided damage in the opening frame by getting a double play to make up for a walk and hit batter, but it was clear by the 3rd inning that he was gassed out. After touching 99.4 mph and sitting 97-98 early, the 31-year-old had lost about three ticks on his heater even before heading out for his final inning.

Though he was able to reach back for a 98 mph fastball to Jonathan Villar in that 4th inning, Stock was only sitting 93-94 and really had to grind through three walks and a single. He then had to bat for himself in the 5th, though that was more about conserving a bench that was shortened by Kris Bryant‘s absence.

Thing is, Stock going four innings was a best-case scenario from the jump. That’s the most he’s pitched in a game for Iowa and he’s never been the most efficient worker in the past, so moving up to take an MLB start probably wasn’t going to result in a sudden change. And while he did outlast the best pitcher on the planet, who left after three perfect innings with shoulder soreness, Stock may have ended up serving as a clear sign to the front office that the Cubs’ staff needs reinforcements.

“I’m thinking we’ve gotta get some more innings out of the starters,” Ross stated. “In a down game, I can’t run to the guys that are gonna be the back-end guys when we’re winnings. When we’re tied or ahead, it’s a little easier to go to the guys that have had success and we’ve ridden them pretty hard when we’ve had the lead.”

Kyle Hendricks and Zach Davies have been much better after respective rough starts and Adbert Alzolay is expected back from the IL soon, provided his blister issue is resolved, but that’s not enough to get it done. Even if that trio is legit, it’s hard to stack it up against what other playoff teams can throw. Then there’s the matter of the other two spots and how the Cubs finish the season.

As of Thursday, the Cubs are tied for 20th in MLB when it comes to both innings (335) and ERA (4.65) from their starters. That latter number is actually better than it should be, however, as the Cubs are 25th in the majors with a 4.48 xFIP, 29th with a 4.94 FIP, and dead last with just 1.1 fWAR. That’s not the kind of performance you can count on to even get you to the postseason, let alone win there.

Believe it or not, Hendricks is actually the worst offender on that last front, as his -0.4 fWAR is twice as bad as anyone else on the staff. Ah, but he’s flipped that around since May and has actually posted 0.4 fWAR over the last six weeks. Jake Arrieta, on the other hand, is at -0.3 in that time and Trevor Williams is at -0.2 over the same stretch. That’s where the really tough decisions start to enter the equation.

Williams is significantly less difficult due to the nature of his contract and his lack of connection to the organization beyond his father. But if the Cubs are indeed looking for more than one starter, Arrieta’s spot is — and very much should be — in jeopardy. The former Cy Young winner has not been able to recapture his old form for more than fleeting moments and he’s fast becoming a liability due to his inability to miss bats.

Among 190 pitchers who’ve worked at least 30 innings so far this season, Arrieta’s 7.8% swinging-strike rate is tied for 178th. Even if you consider that he jumps all the way up to 129th when you factor in called strikes, the 35-year-old simply isn’t a reliable option in a must-win game at this point. Nor, it seems, are any of the pitchers the Cubs have waiting in the wings at Iowa.

Ross’s words and actions Wednesday were very clear: If the Cubs want to win the division and make any noise in the playoffs, they need to add pitchers from outside the organization. Whether and how that happens is entirely up to Jed Hoyer at this point, now it’s just a matter of what he’s willing to sacrifice to make it work is an open question.

We’ve been told it won’t be a matter of money, which felt as much like an act of self-preservatory bus-shoving than anything else, but prospect capital is a very real concern. With the Cubs really turning the corner on getting the development pipeline flowing and with so many members of the active roster currently set to depart after the season, Hoyer has to balance the immediate future with an only slightly more distant one coming this winter.

My guess is we see the Cubs target a starter with very limited contractual obligation that his team is looking to unload for pennies on the dollar. It’s hard to see a big splash that costs high-end prospects or a lot of money, even if that also means less impact to the rotation. Regardless of how it shakes out, I think we can say definitively that Ross learned a little something from Joe Maddon when it comes to sending a message via personnel deployment.

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