Last season, the Cubs lost 101 games. By straight record, it was their worst year since 1966, and they would’ve been the worst team in baseball were it not for the Astros putting on a clinic in how to accomplish exactly that. The Cubs, of course, are rebuilding, and as their 2012 team record would suggest, the process has only somewhat recently gotten underway. As you rebuild, you generally build from the ground up, acquiring youth and spending on short-term free agents. Generally.
Thursday, hours after it was revealed that Josh Hamilton was signing with the Angels, it was reported that Anibal Sanchez was signing with the Cubs. That comes from Bob Nightengale. Nightengale has written up a whole article about this, but no one else is yet confirming his report — Ken Rosenthal says instead that the Cubs are close, but that others remain in play. The Tigers have been Sanchez’s other most serious suitor, and Nightengale puts the Cubs’ offer at five years and $75 million. Let’s say that Sanchez has not yet agreed to a contract. We know now that the Cubs are deeply interested. And at first glance, that seems curious, given the Cubs’ position.
You don’t expect a rebuilding team to go out and guarantee five years to one of the best free-agent starting pitchers on the market. You assume players of Sanchez’s caliber and beyond will be targeted by teams who are closer to contention, so that they may reap more immediate rewards. You also assume players of Sanchez’s caliber and beyond will target teams who are closer to contention, themselves. Not that it always works that way, but I think it’s a safe bet that the Cubs won’t make the playoffs in 2013. There’s a reason the Cubs just emerged as a mystery team in the sweepstakes — no one linked them to Sanchez, because no one thought that would make sense.
Now it’s being reported — I’m typing this live! — that the Tigers are getting one last chance to match or beat the Cubs’ offer. All right, we can still try to explain the Cubs’ interest. There are explanations for why this wouldn’t be so weird of a fit after all. We’ll begin just with the 2013 on-field product. There’s value in improving the team, even if the team doesn’t seem like a contender, because not only can contenders emerge by surprise, but fans simply respond better to a team that doesn’t suck so much. And with Sanchez, the 2013 Cubs might not suck so much. He’d join Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, Scott Feldman, and Scott Baker as rotation candidates, and a pretty good rotation could be formed out of that group. The Cubs added Kyuji Fujikawa to the bullpen, and their run production could get a little better. With Sanchez, the 2013 Cubs could be a reasonable, respectable baseball team, and I’ll cite once more the 2012 Orioles and the 2012 Athletics. You never know.
Then there’s the matter of the potential 2014 free-agent starting pitcher class. Not that starting pitching can be added only from the free-agent market, but the Cubs might’ve looked forward and identified Sanchez as a better bet now. That’s the thing about multi-year contracts — they cover multiple years. They allow you to sign a guy a year “early”, if you like. Just because the Cubs might not seem like an obvious fit for Sanchez now doesn’t mean he wouldn’t fit a year or two down the road. And then the Cubs would already have him under contract!
And Sanchez is underrated. Maybe that’s a meaningless word, because who’s doing the rating?, but he doesn’t seem to me to be that far behind Zack Greinke. He’s presently just 28 years old, his injury history seems to be behind him, and there are indications that his command has been improving. As pitchers go, Sanchez wouldn’t be a bad guy to build around, because he has a lot of talent and he doesn’t seem to be on the verge of a decline. As a matter of fact, Sanchez has a lot in common with another current member of the Cubs’ rotation. Here’s a table comparing Anibal Sanchez to Matt Garza, 2010-2012:
Garza turned 29 a few weeks ago. Sanchez turns 29 in a few months. Garza’s coming back from an injury and, if healthy, he’s widely considered a 2013 trade candidate, but if the Cubs had Sanchez, they could trade the original Garza and keep the other. Or they could attempt to keep both by offering the original Garza an extension. The point is less about what the Cubs will do with Matt Garza, and more about how Matt Garza is good, and has a lot in common with Anibal Sanchez, who the Cubs might sign.
As they say, this whole situation is fluid. The Tigers have a more immediate need for Sanchez, and they have greater familiarity, so he could re-sign with Detroit yet. The Cubs are just there with a strong bid that might or might not be taken, or that might or might not be improved. But the idea of the Cubs signing Anibal Sanchez isn’t as strange as it might seem at first. He represents a potential building block, and there’s no such thing as a baseball team that’s years and years and years away from contention. Certainly not when it’s led by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. You can make additions now while keeping the future in mind, and if the Cubs were to sign Sanchez, that’s precisely what they’d be doing.
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