Zack Wheeler's monster contract extension is bad news for the Cubs

Zack Wheeler's contract proves the Cubs need to think hard about their upcoming starting pitching decisions

Chicago Cubs Introduce Shōta Imanaga
Chicago Cubs Introduce Shōta Imanaga / Nuccio DiNuzzo/GettyImages

On Monday, the Philadelphia Phillies gave starting pitcher Zack Wheeler a 3-year contract extension worth $126 million. With the Chicago Cubs needing an ace-level starting pitcher like Wheeler, it may be time for the front office to prepare to spend a lot more on pitching in the coming years.

The Cubs have been hesitant to shell out a large contract on starters recently, and they will be paying their rotation less than $33 million in 2024. The largest deal was Jameson Taillon's $18 million, which could end up looking like a disaster if Taillon turns in another year like 2023. Aside from Taillon, Kyle Hendricks will earn $16.5 million before hitting free agency in 2025, and Shota Imanaga will make $22 million over the next two seasons. Justin Steele recently reached his first year of arbitration and will earn $4 million in 2024.

The kind of money the Cubs are spending on pitching looks like a bargain now but will only take their rotation so far. The organization does boast a lot of young depth in the form of Javier Assad, Ben Brown, Caleb Kilian, and Jordan Wicks, but none of them are number 1 caliber. There is a clear need for an ace-level starter and the Phillies just took one of them off the board.

Wheeler was set to reach free agency in 2025, but now he'll be making more per year ($42 million) than the entire Cubs' starting pitching staff combined. Another potential Cubs target this offseason was Aaron Nola, but the Phillies also committed $172 million to the big right-hander over the next seven seasons. These deals prove that the market for starting pitchers commands a high price tag and the Cubs need to be willing to pay up if they want their team to take the next step.

As of now, Corbin Burnes and Max Fried look like the headliners of next offseason's starting pitching market and the Cubs need to be in on them. Otherwise, they are putting a lot of faith in their farm system to churn out an ace, which has a better chance of backfiring than not.

The front office cannot put all their eggs in Cade Horton's basket

The Cubs' best pitching prospect right now is Cade Horton, and he has a good chance to make his MLB debut at some point this season. Although Horton is considered one of the best pitching prospects in baseball, the team cannot bank on him becoming the next Jacod deGrom. After all, Horton has one season of professional baseball under his belt where he threw just 88.1 innings. His ceiling is very high but we don't know how his stuff will translate to MLB and banking on his dominance at that level is a gamble.

It would be smarter for Jed Hoyer to hedge his bets and supplement the roster with a true ace like Corbin Burnes next offseason. That's much easier said than done but the Cubs have a better chance of landing Burnes now that Craig Counsell is their manager. Before getting traded to the Baltimore Orioles, Burnes spent seven seasons in Milwaukee with Counsell as his manager so the Cubs are in a good position to land him next winter if he doesn't sign an extension.

In the meantime, Hoyer might want to give Steele a contract extension before he gets too expensive. The southpaw contended for a Cy Young award last year and established season highs in innings pitched (173.1) and strikeouts (176). If he continues to turn in seasons like that, Steele will command a steep price tag so locking him up now would be smart if the team doesn't want to pay more in the long run.

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