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Cubs can't stand pat as starting pitching market heats up

Ryan Herrera Avatar
December 3, 2022

The impressive second-half performance in 2022 by the Cubs has been well-documented, with their 39-31 record coming at least partly as a result of a turnaround by the team’s starting pitching corps (2.89 ERA in the second half, third-lowest in baseball).

That improvement is one of those sticking points that make the Cubs confident they can truly be a competitive team next season.

“I was incredibly impressed and excited by the way we played in the second half,” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said as he opened his end-of-season presser in October. “I thought we created some real momentum. Some of those inexperienced players started to gain experience, some of the depth that we’ve been working to create for several years started to bear fruit and there’s a real sense of momentum in this building right now because of the way we played in the second half.

“We were eight games over. We pitched exceptionally well. I really give a lot of credit to the players. They never stopped competing every day.”

That second half of the season was important in showing what the Cubs could do with a little more continuity and stability. Unfortunately, that’s mostly gone.

As we enter the last month of the 2022, the makeup of the Cubs’ rotation for next season is still unclear. Marcus Stroman and Justin Steele led the team with 25 and 24 starts, respectively, while Steele posted a 3.18 ERA to Stroman’s 3.50. Heading into 2023, these two feel like the only really dependable starters for the Cubs.

There are other options, of course:

  • Pitching coach Tommy Hottovy told CHGO on Nov. 16 that Kyle Hendricks had not yet started throwing but will be on a strict throwing program when he does, and he’s hoping to be ready to go when spring training begins
  • Hayden Wesneski impressed in his first month in the big leagues but he’s not a lock for the rotation
  • Javier Assad and Adrian Sampson stepped up when the Cubs needed it in 2022, but a competitive roster likely sees the duo as starting pitching depth
  • Keegan Thompson and Adbert Alzolay’s futures may lie in the bullpen as multi-inning relief weapons instead of the rotation

So, that’s where the Cubs are at. They have just two locks for the rotation and plenty of question marks surrounding the rest of the starting pitching group. It’s a necessity for the Cubs to add starting pitching this winter, and the team is well aware of that.

“You can’t just always pen these guys in, right?” Hottovy told CHGO during the Cubs’ last homestand of the season. “It’s like, ‘OK, we need numbers.’ That’s why organizations talk so much about building in-house pitching, pitching depth, guys coming up through the pipeline. You can fill those holes a lot of different ways: by free agency, by those young guys, by re-signing guys. I think we see the value of having those quality depth pieces. You’ve never heard a team say, ‘We have too much pitching. I don’t know what to do with all this pitching.’ It’s always like, ‘We don’t have enough pitching. We need more starters.'”

“We’re actively looking for quality innings, pitchers we feel like we can work with and potentially make better,” Hoyer said. “We’re far from done when it comes to building a pitching staff.”

However, while the Cubs have stated their desire to add more starting pitching, that area of the free-agent market has started moving without any action on the North Side.

The biggest move of the offseason occurred Friday, when the Rangers pried Jacob deGrom away from Queens with a five-year deal reportedly worth $185 million.

That followed the news Thursday of the Rays and Zach Eflin reportedly agreeing to a three-year deal worth $40 million, the largest free-agent contract ever given out by Tampa Bay.

So, that’s two more starting pitchers who are now off the market. They follow other free-agent starters who’ve struck deals over the past few weeks, like Tyler Anderson (Angels) and Mike Clevinger (White Sox). As of Saturday morning, there’s still plenty of names in free agency for the Cubs to target, but when a domino as massive as deGrom falls, there’s plenty of reason to believe the rest aren’t far behind — and the Cubs cannot find themselves on the outside looking in.

deGrom wasn’t truly on the Cubs’ radar, as they aren’t generally thought to be players for top-of-the-rotation starting pitching. That would also likely rule out a real pursuit of Justin Verlander or Carlos Rodón.

That’s disappointing considering the Cubs could certainly use a frontline starter to lead the rotation, but remember, this is a rebuild. The Cubs won’t be able to plug all of the holes on the roster and turn into a World Series contender in one offseason. For now, putting together a rotation of reliable starters is the best course of action toward at least competing in what should be a weak National League Central.

As far as who might fill those roles, that’s still very much up in the air.

The Cubs had been connected to Koudai Senga (and NBC Sports Chicago’s Gordon Wittenmyer reported from the GM Meetings that Seiya Suzuki had been recruiting him), but he’s near the top of the level just below the group including deGrom and will have a number of suitors. They’ve also been named in rumors involving starters like Chris Bassitt, Taijuan Walker and Jameson Taillon, though as we’ve seen throughout the winter, rumors are just that. A reunion with Drew Smyly could be in the cards, but after a strong 2022, he may command a deal worth more than what the Cubs want to spend.

This winter is important for the Cubs for multiple different reasons, but adding starting pitching is high on the priority list. Clearly, with so many names on the market, they have a lot of options to look at.

But they have so far done nothing to address the issue, and nearly a month into free agency, the market appears to be heating up. If the Cubs are serious about putting together a competitive roster next season, it’s imperative that they get involved before it’s too late.

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