"How often does a hundred million dollar contract work out?"
This is a common refrain that has been inextricably linked to the Cubs incomplete off-season. The Cubs are clearly done with their planned off-season except for a single move to bolster their rotation. There are three arms available that would represent a substantial upgrade and the Cubs continue to play chicken with this group holding firm on offers that represent a clear cut from the previous norms of the market, given the limited information available to us.
It is understandable why teams fear these long term deals. The risk presented in offering a single player over a hundred million guaranteed dollars is the greatest risk any club takes. The idea that clubs sign these deals thinking they are likely to get five or six seasons of peak performance is silly though. Teams have known for a long time about the trajectory of the average player’s career for decades at a minimum. Teams sign these deals thinking they will get a few peak seasons that make the entire contract worthwhile. Jon Lester’s 6 year $155 million deal is a perfect example of this. Using Fangraphs system of valuing production, Jon Lester has been worth $96.5 million already. There is no expectation that Lester is going to continue to perform at the level he did in 2015 and 2016. The Cubs do not need that for the deal to “work out.”
Still many applaud the financial restraint shown by the Cubs this offseason as shrewd due to not wanting to invest in declining assets. This neglects the Cubs recent success in doing just that from Jon Lester’s six year deal or Ben Zobrist’s four year deal (and also doesn’t acknowledge that the biggest miss under Theo Epstein was on a player not in the decline phase by age in a then 25 year old Jason Heyward).There is a lot that could be written about the offseason. There are certainly ethical questions raised by how the market has acted this offseason, but a more interesting question is whether this truly makes baseball sense for the 2018 Chicago Cubs. And the answer is ultimately no. The Cubs cannot afford to not land one of the top three starters, and beyond that it should be Yu Darvish that the Cubs add this week before pitchers and catchers officially report.
One reason many fans seem unconcerned by the slow market and gaping hole in the rotation is the idea that the Cubs are almost assured their third straight division crown. The level of confidence is staggering and probably not completely unfounded. But a baseball season is a marathon. And a fourth straight playoff appearance is not a “mere matter of marching.” PECOTA projections released yesterday highlight this well. The Cubs are projected to win five more games than the second place Cardinals, but the gap between the Cubs and the Cardinals is the smallest projected gap in baseball. The gap between the Cubs and third place Brewers at six games which is smaller than the gap between any other projected division leader and their runner up.
Projections aren’t perfect, but PECOTA has a fairly strong track record of success. The fact that it is projecting the NL Central to be the closest division race for the third out of the past four years shouldn’t be a source of comfort. However, even if the Cubs could manage to win the division (and they could as the projections clearly show) with a rotation giving the ball to Tyler Chatwood and Mike Montgomery two out of every five times that still doesn’t make it an optimal baseball strategy. The largest reason is that the odds aren’t very high that the Cubs will only need five starters. Mike Montgomery as your fifth starter removes your best depth, and so then Alec Mills, Jen-Ho Tseng and Adbert Alzolay become your best depth. They might be able to provide some innings, but a team in a championship window relying on one of those options to pitch many meaningful games is the definition of suboptimal.
Trade is an option, but the Cubs have a very particular set of circumstances which makes that difficult. There are always arms on the move at the deadline, but the number of options that are likely to be better than what the Cubs could sign for just cash now is small. The rental market isn’t likely to be terribly strong with many of the free agent to be options pitching on quality teams like Dallas Keuchel, and a deal for a cost controlled starter that can take the ball in a postseason series is even more unlikely. The only pieces that the Cubs have to make that type of trade are currently on the big league roster. The needle that has to be threaded on that type of deal in the middle of the season is incredibly small. If the player isn’t playing well then the team is potentially selling low on a valuable asset. The opposite is the Ian Happ situation last year where the player is playing so well that it becomes impossible to move the player midseason or else you have robbed Peter to pay Paul with no impact hitting prospects on the horizon.
However, the damage to the Cubs chances in 2018 may already have happened if rotation is upgraded in the middle of the season. The Cubs rotation had been a surprising source of strength throughout the Epstein regime’s time. This was especially true in the first half of the season, at least until last year’s early season struggles. The bullpen had to pitch a lot of innings in the first half of the season to keep the team afloat until the second half surge. Cubs relievers threw 312 innings in 88 games in the first half of the season last year. That was the sixth most in baseball last year. The performance of the entire group suffered in the second half, and overwork is an obvious explanation for at least some of the decline. A bullpen that is counting on guys with extensive arm injury histories (Brandon Morrow the most notable) needs a rotation that can consistently shorten their night to three or few innings of work.
The Cubs need another starter to strengthen their roster now. There are obvious benefits to doing it now, and that aren’t obvious better options available later to fill this need. There is also a benefit to making this upgrade before pitchers and catchers report instead of continuing the staring contest into March. Team chemistry has been a scoffed at notion, but the 2016 Cubs have talked extensively about the role that played from David Ross presence to the Jason Heyward speech. There is an added need to bring Darvish into the fold sooner than later. He has something that needs to be worked on, and getting more time with the Cubs very good pitching infrastructure is a good thing. The Cubs coaching have received all sorts of deserved plaudits for their abilities to work with pitchers. The value in a free agent deal comes from the early part of the contract and the Cubs should not be jeopardizing value in any way.
The only positive from this situation is that the Cubs front office is very good at their jobs. They are not infallible, but people far more connected than me continue to assure that the Cubs will not enter the season with Mike Montgomery as the fifth starter. One of my few fears about this front office early on was their resolve to make the big moves when the time came. It is one thing to collect assets, but it is entirely a different thing to pull the trigger on the big trade like the one for Aroldis Chapman and Jose Quintana or sign the huge free agent like Jon Lester and Jason Heyward. They have, and I have faith that will again. The hope is that it will be sooner than later.