Chicago Cubs in catch 22 when attracting top starting pitching


As the Cubs wind down the April portion of the 2014 schedule, they have settled into their familiar last place position in the National League Central. As has been the case the last two seasons, the starting pitching has generally been the least of the team’s concerns during the extension rebuilding process. For example, the offense’s struggle with runners in scoring position has been painful to watch. Yet with a deep and promising crop of position players waiting on the doorsteps of the Majors, it is the lack of future rotation depth that is the long-term concern of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer.

The front office duo should be credited for their buy low, flip high in July success stories. By now Cubbies Crib readers and North Side fans are familiar with the Cubs collecting prospects from their bets on bounce back starters like Paul Maholm and Scott Feldman. The early returns on Jason Hammel so far could see the right-hander join this list in less than three months.

Mar 10, 2014; Scottsdale, AZ, USA; Chicago Cubs pitcher

Jeff Samardzija

in the dugout against the San Francisco Giants at Scottsdale Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

While those successes have been a bright spot to hang onto so far in the Epstein era, the team’s inability to reel in a big name starting pitcher over the last couple of off seasons is beginning to overshadow the above positives. And rightfully so, as the Cubs should be taking another step forward in their progress towards becoming consistent contenders. The concern should not be with Epstein and Hoyer’s efforts, however. Instead, the organization and Cubs fans should be worried about the results. The Cubs front office is hitting worse than the team’s offense with RISP.

It began in December of 2012. The Cubs were surprisingly in serious contract talks with then free agent starter Anibal Sanchez. Just how true was the team’s interest? Apparently to the tune of $77.5 million over five years, as Tweeted by Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports at the time. But when all was said and done, there was some talk that Sanchez had merely used the Cubs to get Detroit to pony up as much money as possible. The right-hander would sign for $80 million to return to the Tigers, a team that had come off of a second straight playoff appearance. Sanchez would also play a part in the Tigers making it three postseason appearances in a row in 2013. To add insult to injury, Epstein and Hoyer’s knee jerk reaction was to throw 46 million in cash at Edwin Jackson. The veteran pitcher would reward the decision with an 18 loss debut season on the North Side.

Fast forward to this past off-season and it was the focused pursuit of Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka. All off-season long Cubs fans had placed their hopes on the reports that the Cubs were willing to go above and beyond to secure the hottest name on the market. Such talk supposedly reached as high as $25 million per season for seven years. Even in hindsight it has been hard to confirm exactly what the Cubs offer was, but investing $175 million on a MLB unproven commodity would signal intent. But as we all know, the Japanese righty would elect to sign with perennial contenders the New York Yankees at $155 million for seven years.

The Cubs were widely considered to be the runner-up in the Tanaka sweepstakes. The word around the league was that the honest prospects of the North Siders not being able to contend as quickly as year one of the Tanaka era was what separated the Cubs from snagging the right-hander instead of the Yankees.

There lies the catch 22 the Cubs front office faces during this rebuild effort. To accelerate the process the Cubs need to sign ace quality pitching to add to the likes of Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood. But it is becoming more and more apparent that the North Siders need to be winning more to attract such top shelf talent on the mound. This realization provides a bit of explanation why Epstein had come out during the off-season to publicly proclaim that the Cubs would contend in 2014. The inhabitants of 100-year-old Wrigley Field need to start shedding the rebuild image quickly if they have hopes to land some of the top pitching free agents next winter, with Max Scherzer headlining that list.

Further evidence of this issue has been highlighted just in the last two weeks of baseball. The Cubs got a front row seat to see what they missed out on in Tanaka when they traveled the the Bronx a couple of weeks ago to face the Yankees. The Japanese product went eight strong innings of shut out ball, allowing just two hits while striking out 10 Cubs, on his way to his second career MLB victory. In five starts Tanaka is 3-0, while the default ace of the Cubs Samardzija sits with an 0-2 record despite allowing less earned runs than the Yankee pitcher.

Then just this past series the Cubs went up against their old friend Matt Garza. The ex Cub would collect his first win of the 2014 campaign by pitching seven innings of two run ball, with seven strikeouts to go with. The goatee faced right hander would also sling some fastballs at the organization off of the field, reportedly having advised Samardzija to focus on pitching his way out of Chicago. While some of it may be over bitter feelings of having been dealt away from the North Side last July, the truth behind Garza’s dig remains that the Cubs are not winning.

Speaking of Samardzija, there is no other roster decision that symbolizes this catch 22 situation any better. The former Notre Dame wide out has the stuff and upside that translates into market value that may be higher than his career stats imply so far. Any extension talk that was made public over the winter made it seem like the team and player were still far apart on the dollars. But recent comments from Samardzija himself (as referenced in this piece by our own Garrett Filson) and now the Garza advice reveals that the stalemate in negotiations may revolve around divided opinions on just how quickly the Cubs can get on the winning track. Regardless of your opinion of number 29, everyone can agree that based on his numbers Samardzija should not be sitting at 0-2 to start the season. If the Cubs end up dealing their number one starter by this July, it may not completely be for the wish to cash in on his current trade value.

I have been all in regarding the support for the massive rebuilding project Epstein and Hoyer have undergone to establish a strong foundation for this team’s future. But while it may be earlier than had hoped, the pressure is on to start winning now for the sake of winning later. This patch work roster for 2014 needs to overachieve for the Cubs to have concrete evidence regarding winning to sell to future ace free agent targets. Otherwise the team is in for unbalanced roster of talent that will result in an ironic twist of fate in the next two seasons. The North Siders could very well go from being a team with above average starting pitching with no offense to back it up, to one that has a potent, young offensive core that does not have the starting pitching youth to compliment it. Either way you shake those mixes, the end result is a continuation of the losing.