The Cubs manager search drags on while waiting for the most annoying World Series to end. The #narrative is strong with this well played and little watched World Series. The Cubs are by all accounts waiting to interview Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo before making a decision. The attention in the world of Cubdom is also momentarily diverted with the crazy good AFL production of Kris Bryant, Albert Almora and Jorge Soler.
The reality of the situation is that the fate of the 2014 Cubs rests far more with Cubs prospects not playing in the AFL and the pitching staff then either of those situations dominating most fans attention. The Cubs have featured in the past two off seasons the rebound pitcher flip candidate. This offseason is likely to be a transition period as the front office moves from focusing almost solely on the acquisition of long term assets.
One reason for the absence of a flip candidate signing in the pitching staff is that the rest of baseball has caught up to the front office. The Cubs made several smart acquisitions in Paul Maholm and Scott Feldman. These two starters were not highly coveted when the Cubs signed them, but managed to turn them into three pitchers that the Cubs control well beyond the time that Maholm or Feldman were signed. However, as Dave Cameron noted with the Tim Lincecum extension signifies the fact that teams are continuing to evolve in their evaluation of pitchers. The Cubs have signed several pitchers whose peripheral numbers suggested rebound and more teams are now starting to value these same statistics. The fact that the Giants, which might be one of the most anti-“cyber” organizations remaining in baseball, is beginning to value these measures suggest that the market has corrected in an area the Cubs front office has exploited successfully the past two off seasons.
The other issue is that the Cubs lack the roster flexibility to gamble on these flip candidates. Pitching remains a weakness throughout the Cubs system, but there is a depth that is available that has been unheard for nearly a decade. The Cubs lack top of the rotation potential, but the Cubs have a plethora of options for filling out a rotation and a bullpen. Beyond that fact the Cubs have nine pitchers who either have to remain on the Cubs 25 man roster or risk losing for nothing. Those pitchers are:
1. Jeff Samardzija
2. Travis Wood
3. Edwin Jackson
4. Pedro Strop
5. James Russell
6. Carlos Villanueva
7. Blake Parker
8. Jake Arrieta
9. Alberto Cabrera
Now the Cubs could risk losing anyone of those guys for a rebound candidate signing, but which one would you be willing to risk losing? Edwin Jackson is the only guy who you might want to be gone at this point, but are you willing to pay 33 million for him to play elsewhere? Trade is another possibility, but while Blake Parker and James Russell had nice seasons what is the likely haul for middle relievers? The Cubs have an issue with tremendous amounts of depth at the bottom of a 25 man roster and not enough talent at the top end. This is in stark contrast to the situation Theo Epstein inherited in 2012 with no reasonable options to round out a rotation that featured Matt Garza and not much else.
The Cubs starting rotation and virtually all of the bullpen is already set for 2014. The Cubs have three locks for the starting rotation in Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, and Edwin Jackson. Jake Arrieta has earned at least the opportunity to compete for a spot along with Carlos Villanueva, Alberto Cabrera, and Chris Rusin, whose ability to be sent freely to the minors makes his chances of breaking camp with the 2014 Cubs very slim.
The Cubs are in need of options for the top of the rotation, but the flip candidates that have been the du jour special just don’t have the same need for depth. Beyond the nine pitchers that have to remain in Chicago, the Cubs have Chris Rusin, Justin Grimm, Max Ramirez, Brooks Raley, Arodys Vizcaino, Chang-Yong Lim, Hector Rondon, and Zac Rosscup on the 40 man roster to take over either rotation or bullpen spots. The Cubs also have the runner up to the minor league pitcher of the year in Kyle Hendricks likely to make up the most talented Iowa roster in recent memory (along with the headliners of position prospects Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, and possibly Mike Olt).
The Cubs needs are at the top of the rotation and the back of the bullpen particuarly from the left side. The Cubs rotation would look a lot better with a top of the rotation starter to push everyone in the staff down a peg. The closest option to that is Marashiro Tanaka. Rice already detailed all the reasons why the Cubs are likely to bid heavily for the Japanese starter, and his signing would put the finishing touches on a 2014 Cubs rotation. The Cubs would likely start Tanaka, Samardzija, Wood, Jackson and Arrieta. The Cubs bullpen would feature Strop, Russell, Parker, Villanueva, Cabrera, and then a couple of spots for other arms such as Rondon, Lim, Rosscup, etc. The Cubs could also really use another left handed reliever with Rosscup, Raley and Rusin not really a proven option there. That would leave one spot for Daniel Bard or perhaps Scott Baker on an incentive laden deal.
The only wildcard in this scenario is a potential Jeff Samardzija trade. There are increasing rumblings that the Cubs might look to deal the Cubs starter since an extension has not been signed yet. This would be the best season to trade him with two years of control and Samardzija proving to be durable enough to handle a starter’s workload. Assuming that the trade brought back prospects that would start the year in Iowa or below that would open a spot for a Dan Haren, Josh Johnson, Phil Hughes type signing.
The Cubs have a lot of question marks heading into the 2014 season, but the bulk of the pitching staff is in place already. I would look for at least one veteran bat signing and a heavy push for Tanaka. The Cubs might make some minor league/NRI type signings, but the Paul Maholm/Scott Baker/Scott Feldman/Carlos Villanueva signings are probably a thing of the past.