As we creep ever closer to February 11 when pitchers and catchers report to Mesa, the Cubs remain a team with a rotation in flux. While Yu Darvish should be penciled in as the ace and yet another solid season is expected from Kyle Hendricks, the back end of the rotation remains utterly troubling. Jon Lester and Jose Quintana will both eat innings, to be sure, but the quality of those innings is far from certain at this stage of their careers. And then, of course, there’s the mystery of who will emerge as the fifth starter.
While we know the Cubs are still looking to shed salary to dip under the ~$208 million Luxury Tax, we have seen an ever-so-minimal willingness to spend money as of late. Steven Souza Jr. ($1 million base salary, upwards of an additional $2 million in bonuses) and Jeremy Jeffress ($850K) represent the team’s only true major league signings this winter, and they suggest a similar move could be made for a back-end starter.
In early December, I focused on a couple of internal options for the Cubs, and both Tyler Chatwood and Adbert Alzolay remain serious contenders as the calendar turns to February. While Alec Mills and a presumably healthy Jharel Cotton will also compete, the current options for the Cubs remain, at best, fungible. Bringing in an outside arm on the cheap to compete would serve as another low-cost, bargain move to help round out the competition for a vital role on the 2020 squad.
A full list of candidates is available here. The list below is my assessment of the five best free agents the Cubs could pursue, in no particular order.
Walker is at once the most intriguing and most volatile arm on this list. Given the dearth of remaining starters on the market, however, and the sheer talent that Walker possesses, he sits atop my list of arms the Cubs should pursue.
Tommy John surgery completely derailed his 2018 season, and his 2019 season was curtailed by a shoulder capsule injury. Despite injuries, Walker has received traction of late, as both his original team in the Mariners and now the Twins, a team that has loaded up on back-end starters already, are rumored to be exploring signing him.
At times averaging ~95 MPH on his four-seam fastball, Walker’s last season of notable action in 2017 displayed a fastball that sat around 94. He has a wide array of pitches in his arsenal, though it’s hard to know at this point which secondary offerings would best complement his still lively fastball offering. I’d like to see the Cubs ink him to a small deal, and as he rehabs allow the Cubs pitching lab to assess his arsenal. He has displayed a sinker, cut fastball, split-finger, slider, and curve throughout his career, giving the Cubs ample opportunity to harness this once can’t-miss talent.
As with much of this list, it’s far from guaranteed Walker receives a Major League contract. And while 2017 represents his only quality season, the former top prospect has the raw talent to turn heads should he discover long-term health.
Unquestionably the least-sexy name on this list, Vargas is a journeyman veteran who is also a known commodity. A 4.29 ERA in over 1,600 career innings, the soft-tossing lefty is reliable if not overwhelming.
He features a mid-80s fastball with a traditional curve and changeup to round out his arsenal. There’s absolutely nothing fancy to his game, but he’s proven effective since debuting with the Marlins in 2005.
Now 37, Vargas wouldn’t command much of a salary and could very well serve as important starting depth. And should he not pan out, a non-guaranteed contract would make it easy for the front office to cut ties before Opening Day.
Still, while there’s little upside to Vargas there’s also minimal risk, making him a viable candidate as Spring Training approaches.
Sanchez would likely be my favorite on this list, however, the shoulder injury he sustained in Houston toward the end of last season leaves several question marks. The uncertainty of his health — at the very least he’s not expected to be ready to start the 2020 season — knocks him down a few pegs on this list, but when healthy, Sanchez could be a nice piece to the back end of any rotation.
Still just 27 and now several years removed now from 2016’s sterling performance in the AL East (192 innings, 3.00 ERA, 3.55 FIP, 54.4 ground ball rate, 3.5 WAR), it’s hard to know what to expect from Sanchez moving forward. 2017 was mostly an injury-plagued season, and 2018 and 2019 maintained ugly ERAs (4.89, 5.89 respectively) even if he somehow accrued positive WAR both seasons.
Sanchez has thrown hard in his career, but his main offering is a power sinker that has maintained a stellar 52.7 career ground ball percentage. There is some concern in that his fastball velocity is roughly one mile per hour below career average the past two seasons, but that can largely be mitigated by the fact he’s never relied on strikeouts, with a middling 7.23 K/9 in his career.
Ground balls are Sanchez’s calling card, so if the Cubs can harness that skill and he proves healthy, he could pay dividends as a late signing.
A homecoming for Cashner would make for a compelling story this spring. Infamously traded for our Captain, Anthony Rizzo, all the way back in 2012, Cashner’s career has been one of ups and downs.
Despite everything, he has pitched to a career ERA of 4.10 and has tallied at least 123 innings every year since the 2013 season. Those numbers portend a solid back-end starter, and what’s even more encouraging is that Cashner’s velocity returned to near career levels in 2019.
Cashner also upped his changeup usage considerably in 2019, and while he still has a curve and slider he can employ, it would be interesting to see how the Cubs address his arsenal.
At 33, Cashner still has something to offer for contending teams, even if interest in his services this offseason has been tepid. His health and relative success make him a solid fit for the Cubs if they could nab him on a cheap contract.
A former flamethrower, Salazar has been bitten by injuries time and again throughout his career. Shoulder injuries derailed his 2018 season, and he wasn’t activated until August of last year, pitching just four innings in one start before a groin injury landed him on the 60-day IL.
Cleveland released Salazar following the season, and the health concerns are clearly a significant reason why. Still, if he can prove healthy, he maintains a career 10.47 K/9 rate, and he topped 100 innings in four straight seasons from 2014-2017.
Injuries from the last two years might prevent him from truly being effective until later in the season, and even if he rebounds he might be better suited as a reliever. That said, a bonus-laden deal that offers Salazar a chance to stretch out his arm in the minors could be a huge boon to a team seeking starting pitching depth.
If this list doesn’t excite you, it’s because it shouldn’t. What it does represent, however, are viable candidates the Cubs can (and probably should) kick the tires on before February 11th.
Signing another pitcher for depth would do more than just add to the competition for the fifth starter; it would also buttress against ineffectiveness or injury from the four guaranteed members of the rotation. The Cubs actually had health favor their rotation last season, as only 12 games were started by members outside of their 2019 Opening Day rotation.
Losing Cole Hamels simultaneously depletes the talent and the durability of the rotation’s 2020 iteration. Even if the front office has been directed to get under the Luxury Tax before season’s end, signing a low-risk starter would come at a minimum cost while providing a depth sorely needed this season.
Otherwise, the front office is rolling the dice on what’s currently available –a move so maddening it has truly defined this agonizing offseason.