By Todd Johnson
I was not wanting to do a post like this just yet. Business happens, though. And on Sunday, that business was the Cubs announcing that they declined the option on starting pitcher Jason Hammel.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that the major reason for the Cubs’ success in 2016 was their starting pitching. I didn’t think I would ever see the day where three Cubs would be in the top eight in all of Major League Baseball in ERA. it’s easy to see why the Cubs won 103 games.
On the other hand, things are now going to change drastically over the next 13 months. There are only two starting pitchers currently under contract after2017. Jon Lester is signed through 2020/2021, depending on options, and Kyle Hendricks is arbitration eligible through 2020.
Yesterday, the Cubs bought out Jason Hammel for $2 million rather than pay him $10 million. After 2017, both John Lackey and Jake Arrieta are free agents. I don’t see Lackey being re-signed. And, I am sure Arrieta is going to test the free agent market.
Although there are three options to acquiring pitchers in the next 18 months, the option I think the Cubs would ideally like to go with would be to cultivate one of their own. The problem is I don’t think that the Cubs have anyone who is going to be ready by spring 2017. Sure, they might be able to pitch in the major leagues, but they’re not gonna be able to be that elite young pitcher the Cubs desire who can be cheaply controlled.
Cubs already have a decent candidate to take No. 5 starters job: the one who got the last out, Mike Montgomery
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) November 7, 2016
The most obvious choice to replace Hammel is Mike Montgomery, the lefty acquired for Dan Vogelbach and Paul Blackburn. I don’t see anyone on the free-agent market this year whom the Cubs could go get to replace Hammel that would be worthy of the money, or the contract. Andrew Cashner is an option, but I don’t see the Cubs giving up a first round pick for the oft-injured pitcher who is now 30.
As of now, there are several prospects who might come close to being ready but a lot can happen in one year in the minor leagues. Rob Zastryzny got some action in this part year, but I think the Cubs want someone more dominant. If not for shoulder issues in 2016, right-handed pitcher Ryan Williams could’ve been knocking on the door of Chicago this year. He should return to AAA Iowa in 2017, but he is more a back end type starter. The same is true of Zach Hedges, who I thought was the Cubs minor-league breakout pitcher of the year in 2016. Hedges throws in the low to mid-90s with a plus slider. I still think he needs a lot more seasoning before he gets to Chicago.
The Cubs minor-league pitcher of the year in 2016 was Trevor Clifton. The tall right-hander was just dominant at Myrtle Beach from the middle of July to the end of the year. He throws his fastball in the 92 to 95 mile an hour range. This past summer, he turned his changeup into a plus pitch to go with his fastball and his plus curveball. He is getting to be very, very lethal on the mound. If he continues on his current path, he’s an arm we could see in 2018. I think you will like the way he attacks hitters. I would bet the Cubs throw him in some spring training games to get his feet wet along with Hedges in 2017.
Oscar de la Cruz is another power arm who also could arrive in the next couple of years. Last year, he missed the first half of the season with small injuries. However, he did pitch well for South Bend upon his return.
The big arm that everyone dreams of is Dylan Cease. His problem is he hasn’t pitched above short season A ball. Next year, I think the Cubs are still going to control his innings. He only pitched 42 in 2016. It is going to take a long time to build that arm up to 160-180 innings needed to pitch in the majors.
Looking beyond 2018, there are a plethora of young arms who could develop over the course of the next two years. They include; Jose Albertos (17), Erling Moreno (19), Thomas Hatch, Bailey Clark, Tyler Skulina, Manny Rondon, Brad Markey, Casey Bloomquist, Preston Morrison, Jake Stinnett, Ryan Kellogg, and Jose Paulino. That’s a lot of ifs, buts, and what have yous to watch.
However, out of all of them, Hatch is probably the most polished of the bunch without having pitched one inning in the system. I am not saying he is ready by any means, but with his 4 pitch repertoire, he could move faster unlike any Cubs drafted pitcher has in the Theo era.
The question now becomes: “What team is willing to surrender a young controllable starting pitcher for 3 or 4 prospects?” I used to think the Cubs were going to make a run at Jose Fernandez before his passing. Chris Sale was once a thought, but Reinsdorf will never allow him or Quintana to go to the North Side. The Cubs could make a run at Danny Duffy as Kansas City might not have the money to resign him. The Cubs have the assets in several highly respected prospects at various levels of the organization.
As a result of the difficulty required in acquiring a young, controllable starting pitcher, I wonder if the Cubs would trade prospects for prospects who might be in AA or AAA and could be ready in 2018. It’s an option that I think could be viable considering the prohibitive cost of acquiring MLB talent. Brent Honeywell of Tampa Bay comes to mind as well as a few Oakland A’s prospects like Grant Holmes and Dakota Chalmers, although both are not MLB ready.
I think, that come Thanksgiving, the Cubs should have a pretty good grasp on what their rotation will be for 2017. My belief is that you should expect one change a year through 2018.
Expect a trade quickly this offseason but not next. I think someone (or even multiple prospects) will be ready to contribute from the minor league system come spring training in 2018. The free-agent market is also better next year.
And to be honest, we might all be surprised as to who that arm will be that replaces Hammel.