Can the Cubs Draw an Ace?

A major league baseball franchise exists to serve one of only two purposes: (1) win a World Series; or (2) line the owner’s pockets without regard to the quality of the team on the field. Since this post isn’t about the Miami Marlins, I’ll focus on the first purpose. It is almost axiomatic that a championship team needs at least one ace-caliber starting pitcher. Cubs president Theo Epstein has been acting as though he would single-handedly battle a battalion of Imperial storm troopers if that’s what it would take to get an ace. And indeed, many of you felt a minor disturbance in the Force when the Cubs claimed Cole Hamels off waivers from the Phillies tire fire. No trade was consummated, but is Theo right to obsess over finding an ace?

Here are the best starters from each of the last 10 World Series winning clubs, along with their ERA+ for that year, their career ERA+, and age that year. I’m using ERA+ to wash out park effects as well as the effects of the last decade’s gradually desiccating run environment.

Year   Pitcher                     ERA+ (WS season/career)           Age

2004  Curt Schilling (BOS)                   148/127                   37

2005  Mark Buehrle (CHW)                 144/118                   26

2006  Chris Carpenter (STL)               144/118                   31

2007  Josh Beckett (BOS)                     145/111                    27

2008  Cole Hamels (PHI)                     141/125                    24

2009  CC Sabathia (NYY)                     137/120                    28

2010  Madison Bumgarner (SFG)   131/114                   20(!)

2011: Kyle Lohse (STL)                         109/99                     32

2012: Matt Cain (SFG)                          126/117                     27

2013: Clay Buchholz (BOS)                234/110                    28

So while a team can be championship caliber without a dominant starter, it hasn’t happened often in the last 10 years. The 2011 Cardinals were the only team in this (admittedly miniscule) sample to scrape by with a pedestrian #1 starter (and remember, this was the year that Cards managed to win the pennant only by imprisoning the Atlanta Braves in a shipping container). Buchholz is a bit of an oddity in that he pitched only 108 innings, but man, they were 108 damn good innings. Lester and Lackey had weaker rate stats but pitched many more frames.  Every other team had a clear ace who beat the league ERA by at least 25% — most did even better.

What this list also shows is that aces don’t ace it every year. Most of these guys beat their own career ERA by roughly 10-30% in their World Series seasons. These are, for the most part, very good pitchers who had an occasional great season, but not guys who can crank out stifling dominance year after year. Almost nobody can do that. The other thing to note is that 7 of the 10 were under 30, and only Schilling was putting his teeth in a glass at night. Dominance is generally a younger man’s game.

All this suggests that the best way to get an ace season is to get two or three young quality starters with upside, and hope that at least one of them has an explosive season when the rest of the team is also doing well. But for a team like the Cubs, who have a plethora of low-ceiling starters in their system, this big bang approach probably won’t work.

So if they’re going to get an ace season, they need to import. Unfortunately, imported front line starters generally don’t come young, and never come cheap. The big obtainable names include the following (numbers are career ERA+/ current age):

Free agents at the end of this year

Max Scherzer (118/30)

Jon Lester (120/30)

Free agents at the end of next year

David Price (123/28)

Zack Greinke (116/30) (Greinke has an opt-out after the 2015 season, but he’s signed through 2018.)

I’m a celebrity! Get me out of here!

Cole Hamels (125/30)

And here they are ranked by 4-seam velocity this year:

Price             93.4

Scherzer       92.7

Hamels         91.8

Lester            91.6

Greinke         91.6

If I were Theo I’d probably start at the top of this list and work down, but Price may never become available if the Tigers lock him up. Scherzer and Lester will cost lots of money but no current talent, and will both probably be available in 2 months. The Cubs don’t have a front-line starter anywhere in the organization, but they do have around eleventy quillion dollars in payroll space, which will get even larger after the ad revenues from the new jumbotron start rolling in. Buying two of these guys and teaming them up with C.J. Edwards, Corey Black, and what looks likely to be a young, cost-effective, video game offense could finally make Cubs fans forget about 1908. Or the free-agent contracts could be giant albatrosses that make Cubs fans forget about Alfonso Soriano. That’s why they call it gambling.

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5 Responses to “Can the Cubs Draw an Ace?”

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  1. brad says:

    Using ERA+ just doesn’t work for this, as Lohse’s inclusion shows rather clearly. Carpenter’s ERA was .06 higher, but his WAR basically doubled Lohse’s. 4.5 vs 2.2. Jamie Garcia was .17 higher but over a win more valuable.
    Interesting article, but bad inputs.

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    • 1908 says:

      Good point – I was looking for qualitatively superior performances, but at the extremes this doesn’t work. When I get time I’ll rework this idea using WAR.

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    • a eskpert says:

      Lohse has shown that he can beat his ERA fairly consistently though.

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  2. skmd says:

    free agents at the end of next year should include Jeff Samardzija, who the Cubs would certainly look into if he was available.

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    • 1908 says:

      The omission of Shark was not entirely accidental, as I have some doubts whether he is really an ace-caliber pitcher. I’ll look into that in my next post, because I’ve never done a deep dive on this. Comments on this issue welcome!

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