Waiting in the Wings
Rebuilds happen. Eras end, the great players leave or retire, and the team has to move on. The goal of any front office is to prolong periods of dominance as long as possible and to shorten the inevitable rebuilding phase. The Cubs haven’t been to the playoffs since Barack Obama won his first presidential election and haven’t won a playoff game in nearly a decade, so it seems fair to say that the Cubs are in that rebuilding phase. The question now is how much longer they’ll be there.
One of the ways the Cubs have tried to shortcut the rebuilding process is by signing relatively low cost free agents, polished them up, then shipped them off to contenders for prospects. It’s not hard to look at the Cubs’ offseason rotation moves and see the same impetus for the additions of Baker and Feldman. Garza, too, could find his way out of Chicago if a buyer can be found in his last year before free agency.
While on paper this rotation looks quite different from last year’s, the first few weeks of the season may be much more familiar to Cubs fans as the team’s depth gets tested almost immediately given the current status of the former Twins, Garza and Baker. While the sight of Garza walking off the mound after his first appearance caused no small amount of trepidation for the Cubs, the biggest concern right now is less the injury itself and more the time lost.
It’s a virtual certainty that he’ll make a full recovery, but getting his arm strength and command back into game shape may take more time than is left in spring training. It’s not a huge deal from a fantasy standpoint; owners can easily stash him on the DL since he likely won’t miss much time at all. Garza is in his last year of arbitration, meaning that he’ll be a free agent after the season, meaning he’s unlikely to be a Cub come August 1 if he’s healthy and pitching effectively in June and July. Therefore, there’s a huge incentive for the Cubs to keep him out until he’s 100 percent ready to roll, lest he flop at the beginning of the season for lack of reps in camp, and thereby damage his trade value. If he’s not moving toward making his spring debut over the next two weeks, consider the strong possibility that he’ll miss at least two starts until the Cubs are satisfied he’s capable of leading the rotation upon his return.
My hunch is that the Cubs signed Baker with the intention of trading him, which would set up the same incentive structure for him as there is for Garza. Current speculation has him missing the first 2-4 weeks of the season, which makes sense, though timetables this far out from opening day are always a little fluid. I wrote about Baker in depth early this offseason, and I still like him a plenty as a sleeper, but for NL-Only players, every start he misses at the beginning of the season diminishes his value since there’s no way to know whether he gets traded within the league as Paul Maholm did last year or out of the league like Ryan Dempster did.
Feldman is the last member of the Cubs’ rotation whose deal expires after this season. I love the move of signing him as cheaply as the Cubs did, but I’m a little undecided on him as a fantasy option. The league switch is going to help him a fair bit, as will the move out of Arlington, but the rest of his profile is just a little underwhelming. He has never reached 200 innings, made 30 or more starts just once, and generally posts pretty middle-of-the-road counting stats. With pitching as deep as it is, I’d rather spend the late round pick on a true sleeper and grab Feldman off the wire if he puts together a couple of encouraging starts once the games get going.
On the other side of that coin – i.e., someone I like fantasy-wise, but dislike their actual contract – is Jackson. There’s a lot to like about how he pitched for the Nationals, even if his ERA did sneak over 4.00. He dropped his line drive rate to a career low, generated a career high 12 percent SwStr rate, and kept his walks under control relatively speaking. If nothing else, in his worst season out of the last five, he was still just 5 percent worse than league average and he has made 30 or more starts every season since 2007. In a league of any meaningful depth, there’s value in a ton of innings with a decent strikeout rate and otherwise league average production. Given the length of his contract, Jackson is one of two starters I don’t see the Cubs moving.
It’s hard to believe that the ace of the Cubs’ staff wasn’t even assured of a rotation spot this time last year, but it’s hard to argue with Samardzija’s first season as a starter. There are nits to pick with how he got to his final line, but there’s honestly no point in it. He gave up a few too many hits, a flaw that’s hardly unique, and did a good enough job getting out of trouble via the strikeout. Yes, it’s not a combination I like to bet on repeating year after year, but it’s not enough to dissuade me from grabbing him in the mid-140s of a mixed draft, which is where he’s going now. I think it’s more likely that he shows slight improvement over last year than stumbles into a bad regression, but if he can simply repeat the trick, the Cubs and most fantasy owners would take it in a heartbeat.
Though I don’t expect either Garza or Baker to miss all that much time, it’s worth looking at the guys coming behind them. Coleman and Wood don’t do much for me, but both have started in the past and can reliably take the ball for better or for worse. Wood still has some potential upside remaining and while I don’t think he ever amounts to much fantasy-wise, the Cubs could do worse than to give him a few starts as the sixth starter and/or designated injury replacement. Namely, they could give the ball to Coleman.
The two more compelling options are the two riskier ones. Bowden came over last season for Marlon Byrd – a trade the Cubs won simply by being the team that wasn’t holding the Byrd when the music stopped – and while he has been much better out of the bullpen than he was as a starter, it wouldn’t be unthinkable for the Cubs to see if his starts over the winter in the Dominican Winter League produced any change in his ability to start in the majors.
Long term, the Cubs almost certainly view Vizcaino as a starter, but he, too, is coming off of Tommy John surgery and may be brought back to the rotation via the bullpen in order to keep his innings down this year. If he progresses well in camp, it isn’t hard to imagine a scenario in which he starts, pitches 4-5 innings, and then gives the ball to the bullpen. I can’t see this happening for more than a start or two, but making do with the pitchers already on the roster rather than adding another might help alleviate a roster crunch if necessary.
I don’t yet look at the Cubs and see a good team, there are too many holes for that to be the case, but they are absolutely an improved one, especially here in the pitching staff. Last year, the rotation combined for just a shade under 8 WAR and that would seem to be a disappointing result if repeated by this year’s ensemble. The caveat here is that the better each individual element of the rotation does, the less likely it is that it will stay intact for a full season. AL- or NL-only league players must always keep the possibility in mind that their players can be traded out of the league, but the Cubs rotation seems to carry that risk with them at abnormally high levels.