As the Cubs (and most of the other teams around the game) shift their focus to the off-season, Baseball Operations President Jed Hoyer told reporters this week that improving and deepening his pitching team is his “No. 1 Priority ”this winter (left via Russell Dorsey of the Chicago Sun-Times and Gordon Wittenmyer of NBC Sports Chicago). However, Hoyer also preached the importance of using the team’s considerable financial flexibility “intelligently,” citing Rays and Giants as examples of teams moving under the radar to get themselves into the postseason.
As expected, Hoyer did not expressly rule out the use of agents who did not use the marquee. However, he also rejected the idea of ”winning” the offseason – noting that such aggressive advances can often be “really negative” – and instead spoke of acting “more opportunistically”. While pitching may be the main focus of the Cubs’ dealings in the off-season, it doesn’t sound like Hoyer is looking for top-of-the-market new additions.
That the Cubs would give pitching – especially pitching – priority is to be expected after their starters were among the worst in baseball in almost all categories in 2021. In the last off-season, Hoyer & Co. was downgraded from Yu Darvish to Zach Davies in the salary dump deal with the Padres, followed by one-year signings by Trevor Williams and Jake Arrieta. Davies wasn’t good enough to be of trade interest as of the deadline. Arrieta was eventually released. Williams went to the Mets on the side Javier Baez. Neither of the three will be back in 2022 (unless the club sign Davies again).
The result was a rotation that pitched 23rd in the majors in innings (781 2/3), 27th in ERA (5.27), 29th in FIP (5.21) and 28th in SIERA (4.74) occupied. Cubs starters had the third highest strikeout rate of any team in the MLB and the eighth highest walk rate – a decidedly suboptimal combination. Things were better, if not overwhelming, in the Bullpen and the dead trades of Craig Kimbrel, Ryan Tepera and Andrew Chafin Leave a lot of work on the relief side of the equation as well.
With a view to the 2022 campaign, the rotation of the Cubs currently plans to include right-handers Kyle Hendricks, Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay. left handed Justin Steele fought on the track for much of his nine-person audition, but ended the year with seven frames of shutout (albeit against a thin Pirates line-up). Right handed Adrian Sampson still has options in the minor league and could get a look after five starts. On the whole, there is enough wiggle room to add to the rotation – even if the cubs are actually in the market Robbie Ray, Kevin Gausmann, Max Scherzer and other top starters.
The upcoming off-season will bring major league teams to a large collection of free-agent starting pitchers to watch – even beyond the top names mentioned above. The market also features established medium rotation guns, relatively young guns in need of a recovery, and solid but older veterans who are likely to command relatively short-term deals. The freedom of action is marred by the ongoing collective bargaining between the league and the MLBPA, but whenever the teams start making additions, the Cubs will not be short of options.
It is also very plausible that the Cubs could dive further into the trading market to acquire some younger arms either in the rotation or in the pen. Willson Contraras is a year of freelance agency work and should bring back interest from teams looking for a short term option behind the record. Outfielder Ian Happ has only two years of club control and ended the season with a huge second half. Hendricks struggled through the worst season of his career in 2021, but threw 597 innings with 3.27 ERA ball from 2017-20. It is signed until 2023.
Whichever route the youngsters want to take, there really is no destination that should are out of their price range. The team has one of the game’s biggest sources of income and only has Hendricks’ contracts ($ 14 million). Jason Heyward ($ 22 million) and David Messenger ($ 2.5 million) for next year’s books. Contreras and Happ are the only players to receive notable arbitration increases, and again, neither should be viewed as a ban on return. We’re only two years away from the Cubs, who have an opening day payroll north of $ 200 million punctuated by humble one-year contracts.
Hoyer has stressed on several occasions that despite the Cubs’ recent trades and lack of spending, this roster reshuffle does not reflect the aggressive refueling process of their recent rebuilding. To what extent this is actually the case or not remains to be seen in the next few months.