Chicago Cubs: Looking at lower-tier free agents
The Chicago Cubs may have to look at some lower-tier free agent options for starting pitching.
Prices are escalating for the prime starting pitchers in this year’s free agent market. Rumors are now suggesting that David Price could command over $200 million, with the Red Sox ready to best anyone else’s offer by $30-40 million, per MLBTradeRumors.com.
Such high pricing will likely trickle over to the other first-tier pitching free agents, Zack Greinke and Jordan Zimmermann, as clubs scramble to fill their own pitching needs. The Cubs have such a need. However, the Cubs do not yet have millions in revenue their waiting to spend on a single player.
The Cubs have seen increased revenue from Wrigley renovations. But the big bucks aren’t likely to roll in until the end of the decade, when the club starts seeing revenue from new luxury suites and a lucrative TV contract.
This all suggests that it’s likely the Cubs will need to look at cheaper options to fill out their starting rotation in 2016. The Cubs will give the ol’ college try in signing Price, Greinke or Zimmermann. But we’ll probably need to accept that those players are long shots.
So who could the Cubs end up with? Who should the Cubs be targeting secondarily?
There are a handful of pitchers flying a bit under the radar who could fit very nicely alongside Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel in the Cubs’ rotation. And none of the following players would require the Cubs to mortgage their ability to sign players in the future.
The rule of playing at Wrigley Field is that the Cubs want their players to hit the ball in the air and the opposing players to hit the ball on the ground (or not hit the ball at all). Jake Arrieta is playing proof of how a Cubs pitcher who induces ground balls can find great success. Arrieta’s ground ball percentage for 2015 was over 56%, the highest percentage of his career. It is not coincidental that this was the best season of his career.
While we will be hard pressed to find any free agent starting pitchers who rival Arrieta’s ground ball rate, we can find some who come in the neighborhood—and who actually post better percentages than any of the big three free agents (Price, Greinke and Zimmermann).
Sep 30, 2015; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Mike Leake (13) throws a pitch against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the ninth inning at AT&T Park. The San Francisco Giants defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-0. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
Tops out of the starting pitchers still available is Mike Leake. Leake’s numbers for 2015 were respectable: 11 wins, 10 losses, 3.70 ERA, 192 innings pitched while taking the mound for the Reds and Giants. Leake’s ground ball percentage was nearly 52%. That translated to a low batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .260—also amongst the best of available pitchers. While Leake doesn’t strike out as many batters as some other pitchers—he struck out just over 15% of the batters he faced while Price struck out 25%–he doesn’t walk many either, walking just 6% in 2015.
At just 28 years old, Mike Leake is young for a free agent thanks to the Reds fast-tracking him to the majors. That could mean he’ll demand added years on a contract, but he still looks affordable verses the likes of Price and Zimmermann. MLBTR predicts he’ll pull $80 million over five years.
A slightly older, slightly cheaper option to Leake could be Mike Pelfrey. Pelfrey’s traditional statistics aren’t as good as Leake’s: Pelfrey posted a 6-11 record with a 4.26 ERA while pitching for the Twins in 2015. But Pelfrey induced opposing hitters into ground balls 51% of the time. This did not translate into a low BABIP, however, as Pelfrey posted a .334 mark in that category.
Could the long grass at Wrigley, however, cut into that mark? As long as Pelfrey keeps the ball on the ground, he should see more outs—as a .334 BABIP seems extraordinarily high. Like Leake, Pelfrey does not walk too many hitters, and he could be a great success story in Wrigley Field.
The Cubs have another option and it might be the craziest, though easiest to implement. Among all available pitchers, Trevor Cahill actually has one of the highest groundball percentages. We know that he worked that well into success late last season while pitching in relief for the Cubs.
Next: Cubs looking to upgrade behind the plate?
Could the Cubs stretch him out and give him another go as a starter? He was successful in the past making the All Star game as a starter for the Oakland A’s and posting up some decent seasons in Arizona. He has struggled the last two seasons. But his limited success at the tail end of this past season with the Cubs could be a mere glimpse of a return to All Star form. Cahill would likely enjoy a return to the Cubs, and may come with a “hometown” discount.
Bottom line: the Cubs may not end up with the pitcher of their dreams. But that may not be the end of the world… nor the end of their 2016 season. Good options are available for a team that is good at being creative in lining up their roster.