The end of the Cubs’ 2022 season is only nine games away as of Monday, which is almost unthinkable after the interminable slog we’ve gone through so far. Like last year, even the most die-hard fans are going to be hard-pressed to name all 60-plus players who’ve suited up in Chicago. And when you do see the full list, there will be a handful of players who elicit a shocked, “That was this season?!”
So even though this particular rebuild should take place over a shorter chronological period, it certainly feels as though the Cubs have been stuck in neutral for a lot longer. One could argue convincingly that they’ve been directionless since 2017, the last time they actually won a postseason game. Quick playoff exits in 2018 and ’20 served only to emphasize organizational flaws that hadn’t been properly addressed during the previous seasons.
Chief among those was a lack of pitching development everyone correctly noted even as the Cubs were asserting themselves as World Series favorites. While they saw fit to supplement the lineup with peripheral signings like Steven Souza Jr., Jon Jay, and Daniel Descalso, wheelbarrows of cash were being dumped into the pitching staff to make up for what the farm system had failed for years to supply.
While that dynamic has begun to shift in a big way over the last two seasons, the front office can’t simply trust that they’ll have a homegrown ace ready to lead the rotation in the near future. So even as Tom Ricketts repeats his caveat about how it’s not possible to buy a championship team, it’s become clear that the budget needs to increase once again to accommodate a winning team.
Everyone in the organization appears to be singing from the same hymnal at this point, and that includes pitching coach Tommy Hottovy. More than just the guy who goes out to calm his charges down during a rough inning, Hottovy is the tip of the pitching infrastructure’s spear. Whether it’s working on grips to differentiate fastballs and breaking balls, targeting sequencing changes, or helping young pitchers transition from the bullpen to the rotation, Hottovy knows this staff better than anyone.
He’s also aware of who the Cubs have coming up through the pipeline and what the team needs to do to take things to a new level. That means finding at least one high-level arm from the outside, either via free agency or trade.
“We’ve started talking about names,” Hottovy told reporters. “We’ve talked about things that we may want to do. But we really need to get through the season, evaluate where we feel like guys can go next year, and then how we can target guys that kind of fit into the mix.”
The Athletic’s Patrick Mooney and Sahadev Sharma listed Japanese pitcher Koudai Senga as someone the Cubs will pursue. Jacob deGrom and Carlos Rodón were mentioned as well, then there’s the possibility of going after the one that got away in Justin Verlander. The Cubs ended up with a good deal in Cole Hamels, but Jed Hoyer has publicly acknowledged regret over not having the budget to trade for Verlander when Detroit unloaded him. In fact, the Hamels trade was motivated in large part by whiffing on Verlander.
Based on what we know, or at least what we assume, about the intersection of the Cubs’ needs and their willingness to spend, Senga and Rodón probably make the most sense. We can probably elevate the former to 1A due to the qualifying offer penalties that will likely be attached to the latter, though I don’t think the forfeiture of a draft pick and international money is a deal-breaker.
Senga will turn 30 in January, making him less than two months younger than Rodón, five and a half years younger than deGrom, and about 10 years younger than Verlander. Still, Senga has been pitching professionally in Japan since 2012 and has over 1,300 innings under his belt. One could make the argument that he’s got much less mileage on his arm, relatively speaking, due to the shorter NPB season.
What this could come down to is perceived value, as the other players mentioned here have red flags in terms of either age or health history. However, the Cubs have said before that they’re willing to inflate a contract’s AAV in exchange for shorter terms, so Verlander (one year) or deGrom (3-4) could make sense in that light. Rodón is somewhere in the middle and he showed that he can pitch through 30-plus starts after his issues staying on the mound with the White Sox.
The Cubs might also be looking more at the next tiers of pitchers, whether it’s to augment a bigger deal or to simply build more starting depth as their philosophy evolves. Standouts from that group include Jameson Taillon, Tyler Anderson, and Nathan Eovaldi, then you can rattle off a slew of veterans down the line who might be amenable to a pillow contract. Noah Syndergaard is in there somewhere after a middling season with Anaheim in which is average fastball has clocked in at around 94 mph.
“The more pitchers, the better,” Hottovy explained. “As an organization, what you can’t do is assume they’re all going to throw 150, 170 innings.”
Imagine going back even 10 years and saying you can’t expect starters to throw 150 innings over the course of the season. That’s not a lament over our departure from bygone days, just a statement about how the game has changed. The Cubs know it’s not realistic to have a bunch of pitchers who are all capable of throwing complete games every time out, but they also know how much an ace can improve the whole staff.
As I see it, this pursuit could easily be the most meaningful when it comes to their ability to right the ship quickly. Other holes need to be patched up, of course, but getting that true No. 1 would give them a big push in a division that figures to remain less than daunting in 2023.