Though Chicago Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer isn’t quite sure if there will be a “seller’s market” as the calendar turns to July -- the last month trades can be done without players going through waivers -- he and the front office are sure of one thing: The Cubs need starting pitching.
In fact, anyone who has watched the Cubs this season knows this to be true as they’ve had no consistent innings out of three spots in the rotation, including Jon Lester’s. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Cubs have averaged 5.4 innings per start in the month of June, the second worst mark in the National League. Entering the month they were second best. Overall, Cubs starters rank 10th in the National League in innings per start this season.
“We know we have to address it here at the deadline,” Hoyer said this past weekend.
It echoes what his boss, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, has been saying as well. Last season the Cubs found some depth in their minor leagues after trading away Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel but Triple-A hurlers such as Dallas Beeler and Eric Jokisch have faltered this year, thinning out the organization's options as far as extra arms. Other problems have popped up, including Tsuyoshi Wada’s injury, as well as Jacob Turner’s. Hoyer was asked if the Cubs miscalculated their depth at that position.
“Was it a miscalculation?” Hoyer responded. “I guess you can say it probably was, but at the same time we’ve had guys that have been nicked up and that’s taken away from an area we thought we had depth.”
Whatever the reason, the Cubs are probably in need of at least one starter to keep themselves in the chase for the playoffs. Hoyer said the Cubs have the “flexibility” to add salary but it remains to be seen if that would be a big fish or a small guppy.
“There’s not going to be a lot of sellers,” he said. “You have to think about it creatively and think about what would happen if there aren’t a lot of deals to be made.”
Is Hoyer right? Outside of the division leaders there are only four other teams above .500 in the NL. Two of them will make the playoffs. It would be hard to imagine someone besides the Cubs, New York Mets, Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants vying for those two wild-card spots. It means there actually could be a lot of sellers unless a bunch of teams are delusional about their chances, something Hoyer indicated happens every year.
In any case, the balance between adding a name that will cost them good prospects or adding a smaller piece is the internal debate going on. All things being equal the Cubs are likely to err on the side of keeping most of their core and back-ups intact as selling out for the second wild card is a silly notion. As much as every year of contending gives you a shot at winning it all the idea of the Cubs winning the World Series this year seems no more likely than it did in spring training. OK, maybe it’s a little more likely but not a whole lot.
“We have another four weeks to evaluate where we are,” Hoyer said.
Not much is likely to change between now and then. It could get better for the Cubs if Lester and Kyle Hendricks give them more innings but that still won’t change the need for acquiring a starter -- it might just make their situation a little less desperate.
One pitcher that has to be on the market is Miami Marlins starter Dan Haren. The Marlins are 11 games out of a wild-card spot and just lost their best player to injury. The 13-year veteran has given up just 76 hits in 93 innings this season while producing a 3.38 ERA for the Marlins. The Los Angeles Dodgers are picking up his entire salary so a team trading for him would only have to pay his bonuses -- and he can’t cost much in terms of prospects as he’ll be 35 in September, not long before his contract ends. Would you trade minor leaguer Arismendy Alcantara for him or a pitcher of Haren’s caliber? Maybe that’s too much.
“Haren is not what he was,” Cubs catcher Miguel Montero said Sunday. “Everyone knows that but the one thing that he has, and I would take it any day, is he has guts. He goes out there and competes.”
Montero caught Haren when he was at his best, with the Arizona Diamondbacks, but now he’s more of an innings eater, which is exactly what the Cubs need. Could he be effective in Chicago? He has only 70 strikeouts in 93 innings, which means he pitches to contact. That’s not a good formula pitching for the Cubs this season because their defense hasn’t been up to the task. Maybe it’s simply because they’re good pitchers but it’s not a coincidence that Jake Arrieta and Jason Hammel have had the most success. They’ve produced high strikeout totals ranking eighth and 15th, respectively, in the National League. You may not think it’s a big deal but it is. The Cubs don’t do well by contact pitchers this season. That has contributed to some of Hendricks’ problems as well as Lester’s.
So maybe Haren isn’t the perfect candidate but he could be a candidate nonetheless. A report from Fox Sports over the weekend said the Cubs could be looking at lefty Jon Niese of the New York Mets. A 4.12 ERA and 1.52 WHIP with just 58 strikeouts in 83 innings might not look like the best formula for the Cubs either but at least Niese is signed beyond this year -- though at a hefty price tag of $10 million, or more if the Cubs want to pick up two option years. But again, Niese would eat some innings as he has made 14 starts and thrown 83 innings so far.
Unless the Cubs simply go big for a big-name pitcher like Cole Hamels -- and that’s not likely -- expect a smaller addition such as the ones above. It should help keep them in the wild-card race, which is about all you can ask for while facing a double digit deficit in the division.
“We’ll see where we are closer to the deadline,” Hoyer said. “We may have to get creative.”