It’s well known that the Chicago Cubs are flush with position players, both at the major league and the minor league levels. It’s a big reason that their farm system continues to garner top 20 rankings by most of the major rankings, and that includes being ranked fourth best by ESPN.
What most of the experts aren’t quite as excited about are the Cubs’ minor league pitching prospects. In fact, of their entire minor league system, you could argue there are no major league game-ready pitchers that could come up to the big league team to fill in the starting rotation over an extended period. At least there are none ready to play for a team that is expected to be in the thick of the playoff race throughout the season. None.
Even if the Cubs starters can manage to stay healthy the entire year, which unfortunately is not likely, you could argue that they still could benefit greatly from one more elite arm in the rotation. This will never be more true than when (or if, I guess..) the Cubs make the playoffs and elite-level pitching and defense becomes much more significant in micro-situations that develop during playoff games.
To offset some of the potential risks associated with the Cubs starting rotation, Theo and company have done a good job of filling the bullpen with guys that have been and could again be starters in the majors. Joe Maddon has indicated that Trevor Cahill would be the back-up starter when they need someone to make a spot start or in the event of an injury.
Cahill was a starter for most of the first six years of his major league career, which began in 2009. He had one stellar year in 2010 when he was 18-8 for the Athletics posting a 2.97 ERA. Since 2010 his ERA had hovered around 4.0 until he dropped off to an ERA of 5+ in 2014 and part of 2015, when he was released by the Braves and Dodgers, eventually getting picked up by the Cubs. He pitched well for the Cubs during the remainder of the 2015 regular and post season, posting a 2.12 and 3.38 ERA, respectively, although over only 22 total innings (so a very small sample to feel comfortable about).
Beyond Cahill, there’s Clayton Richard, whose had a similar series of ups and downs to Cahill. Although Richard did do a good job of filling in for the Cubs in 2015 over three starts, registering a 2-0 record with one no decision and an ERA of 3.0. So, again, over a small sample he was effective.
Next up might be Adam Warren, although he’s only started 20 games in his major league career, which started in 2012, and 17 of those starts came when he was with the Yankees in 2015. In those 17 starts he had a respectable 3.63 ERA and a 6-6 record.
Travis Wood could always be a short term fill-in starter as well. He’s been a serviceable starter over most of his career until he fell off in 2014 and early 2015, which is where he saw his ERA head to 5+ until he was moved to the bullpen in mid-May, which is where he was by far the most effective.
So there you are. Those are the options if the Cubs need a starter during the 2016 season. And if they do have to pull one of the guys mentioned above into the starting rotation that also means they will have a hole to fill in the bullpen, possibly with one of the minor league guys (maybe Carl Edwards, Pierce Johnson, Manny Parra, or Ryan Williams). And those options would likely be fine for a short term solution. If it was a longer term solution the Cubs needed then that’s where problems could surface.
The Cubs could really benefit greatly from adding another elite arm and the possibilities of that happening are probably much more likely than we think. In an article written by Patrick Mooney (you can check it out here), he stated that the Cubs, namely Theo & Co., would not hesitate to pull the trigger to make a deal for big-time pitching if, and when, needed.
Of course there is the normal caveat that it’d have to be the right deal and the right fit for both long and short-term horizons, but you get the sense that Theo may be willing to risk more, meaning more talented players he’d have to trade away while still not necessarily trading for a soon-to-be free agent pitcher.
There’s plenty of speculation about who that pitcher could possibly be, but in the end it will likely be someone who is under contract at least through 2017, preferably longer, and is in his mid-to-late 20’s. Top of my wish list, in no particular order, are Sonny Gray, Danny Salazar and Julio Teheran. Of course, there’s always a chance someone else pops on the radar if such and such team doesn’t do as well as they thought they would this year.
In the end, the Cubs would do themselves a world of good if they can add another elite arm to the rotation. They do that and they’ll greatly increase the chances that they’ll be celebrating come the end of October.