The Cubs Hope Lightning Can Strike Twice

In the 2013 offseason, the Cubs did something smart. They signed RHP Scott Feldman. Feldman had a rough 2012 season in Texas, posting an ERA of 5.09. However, his peripherals indicated that he was fairly unlucky during that season, leading him to be vastly undervalued. FanGraphs’ own Dave Cameron opined that Scott Feldman was the poor man’s Brandon McCarthy. Feldman was a nice, cheap addition for one year, $6 million.

The Cubs’ strategy of betting on FIP and xFIP seemed to pay off as Feldman quickly became an asset by the time the trade deadline rolled around. In a move that flew under the radar, the Cubs traded Feldman for Steve Clevenger, Pedro Stroop, international bonus slots, and a struggling Jake Arrieta.

It hasn’t taken the Cubs long to see the fruits of their return as Jake Arrieta has become a bright spot on an otherwise struggling Cubs team. In 64 innings, he has compiled a 2.4 WAR and an ERA/FIP/xFIP line of 1.81/1.97/2.50.

Arrieta has been downright filthy for the Cubs in the 64 innings that he has pitched this season. While this is a small sample, it’s indicative that there has been a change in Arrieta’s approach to pitching that is proving to be successful.

While the acquisition of Arrieta didn’t make headlines last year, the Cubs have definitely made headlines over when they completed potentially the largest blockbuster trade of the season, sending pitcher Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland Athletics in return for Addison Russell, Billy McKinney, Dan Straily and a PTBNL.

While Russell and Samardzija are the main components of the trade, there is something interesting about the other acquisitions.  If you break the trade into two parts, there’s McKinney and Russell for Samardzija, and then there’s Straily and a PTBNL for Hammel.

It looks as though the Cubs are hoping that history can repeat itself.

The Cubs signed Hammel — for not a lot of money — hoping that he would perform well, and that he could be used as ‘trade bait’ midway through the season. Hammel exceeded expectations during his time with the Cubs, and now he is netting another reclamation project for the Cubs. Sounds an awful lot like the Feldman trade the Cubs made a year ago.

Straily has struggled this year, posting an ERA/FIP/xFIP line of 4.93/5.64/4.43. This is a small sample size of only seven starts,  however the projection systems don’t rate him too favorably for the rest of the year. ZiPs projects Straily to have an ERA of 4.44 and FIP of 4.80 by the end of this year. Steamer projects Straily to have an ERA of 4.45 and FIP of 4.93.

Straily has been getting a decent number of strikeouts, however the root of his struggles have been keeping the ball in the park (16.4% HR/FB), and keeping his walks down. It’s reasonable to think that Straily’s HR/FB will come down given that this is a small sample size, and he’s not nearly this bad at keeping the ball in the park; regression to the mean is expected.

Unlike Arrieta, Straily doesn’t necessarily have the blazing raw stuff. Arrieta flashed a 94 MPH fastball even through his struggles with the Orioles. You could definitely see some raw talent. Straily is in the midst of a velocity decline in which his fastball has declined from 90 MPH in 2013 to 88 MPH this year, and he has lost at least a mile and a half on each of his other pitches. However,  Straily does appear to have a good slider and decent changeup which — combined with regression back to the mean — is a good enough reason for the Cubs to think that there is some talent that can be unlocked.

It’s unlikely that the Cubs will be able to turn Straily into a potential ace, however it’s hard to bet against their track record. They have managed to turn Feldman, Hammel, and Arrieta into something. The have proved that they are good at scouting as they boast arguably the best farm system in the league. Maybe they see something in Straily with which they think that they can work, and realize that he might be good to buy low and hope that he turns into an asset. The Cubs trust their ability to turn pitchers that are nothing into something. While Russell, Samardzija, and Hammel may be grabbing all the headlines, it might just be Straily that surprises us in a year or two.

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