Jed Hoyer said Monday that he wakes up every morning thinking about how to add pitching depth while also admitting that his budget has expanded recently, so we can probably expect a little news here in the next few days. As for who the Cubs are targeting, well, there really aren’t many options remaining. The pool gets really shallow if you assume cost is still a significant factor.
However, there may be some situations in which the Cubs can present a better opportunity for a player looking to cash in on what he hopes will be solid performance on a short-term deal. That is a common theme this winter and Hoyer might be able to leverage the benefits of his pitch lab and revamped infrastructure as value-adds to lure a pitcher who might otherwise be looking for more money.
Or maybe Tom Ricketts has actually freed enough that the front office can legitimately pursue someone who isn’t simply a high-risk reclamation project. Someone like Taijuan Walker, for instance. Listed by MLB Trade Rumors as the No. 23 free agent this offseason, a projection of $16 million over two years might be a little more than the Cubs are willing to do unless they’re able to get a little creative or Walker simply isn’t seeing a market for his services.
The 28-year-old righty looked like he was ready to break out after a 2017 season that saw him post a 3.49 ERA with career-best marks in strikeouts per nine innings, grounders induced, and home runs allowed. Then came a torn elbow ligament and subsequent Tommy John surgery that limited him to just 14 innings over the next two seasons.
Walker bounced back with a 2.70 ERA and a new high-water mark for strikeout rate in 2020, though he gave up more hits in the air and his 4.56 FIP was a little alarming. His fastball velocity wasn’t down terribly and he got good results with it, quite a contrast to the slider he threw more frequently than ever with the worst results of his career. His sinker was likewise ineffective, leading to a drop in grounders, but he made up for most of that with a splitter that looked really good.
ESPN’s David Schoenfield listed the Cubs as the best fit for Walker, who might really benefit from a few small adjustments. If the Cardinals’ acquisition of Nolan Arenado has sufficiently motivated Ricketts to stretch a little beyond his initial comfort zone, this move makes a lot of sense.
Another starter mentioned as being a possibility for the Cubs is lefty starter James Paxton. If I had my druthers, Paxton would have signed with the Cubs yesterday. His velo was down last year as he returned from back surgery, but he’s a southpaw who traditionally throws in the mid-90s and posts big strikeout numbers while limiting walks.
The Cubs don’t currently have a lefty projected in the rotation nor do they have many hard throwers or strikeout artists, so Paxton would offer them a much different look. His recent health history means he’s probably only looking at a one-year deal, but we’ve already seen pitchers with lower ceilings commanding more than the $10 million the former Mariner and Yankee was projected to earn.
Schoenfield listed the Blue Jays as the best fit for Paxton, with the Cardinals, Phillies, Twins, Giants, and Brewers mentioned alongside the Cubs as other options. If nothing else, keeping him away from St. Louis would be a benefit to Hoyer and Co.
Also listed among the Cubs’ potential targets are relievers Trevor Rosenthal and Mark Melancon, neither of whom really excites me. At least Rosenthal can still run it up there at 98, though, and he’s put up huge strikeout numbers in two of the last four seasons. The flip side is that he missed 2018 due to elbow reconstruction and was awful in a limited 2019 campaign.
Melancon barely throws harder than the Cubs’ soft-tossing starters and he doesn’t miss many bats these days, but he generates a ton of grounders with a cutter/curve combo. The one advantage I could see here is that he offers a different look from Craig Kimbrel and Rowan Wick at the back end, and we know how the Cubs typically like to mix styles in that regard.
It’ll likely come down to money, so I could see the Cubs going off the board as they look to add probably one more starter on a guaranteed deal. Rick Porcello is another available option and, though Schoenfield didn’t mention the Cubs in connection, he’s a durable righty strike-thrower who favors sinkers. If the Cubs want to really load up on those guys, Porcello should come much cheaper than either Walker or Paxton.