Each of the last two seasons, Theo Epstein and the Chicago Cubs have made huge splashes at the July 31 trade deadline. Two years ago, Epstein dealt Chicago’s top prospect, Gleyber Torres, and three other pieces to the New York Yankees for fire-balling closer Aroldis Chapman.
That deal worked well for the Cubs as Chapman posted a 1.01 ERA in 26.2 innings, helping the North Sider’s win their first World Series title in 108 years.
While there was no need for a closer at the 2017 trade deadline, that did not stop the Cubs’ top man from acquiring game-changing talent. This time, help came in the form of left-handed starter Jose Quintana, a piece that required the Cubs’ top two prospects.
Like Chapman, Quintana found success on the North Side during the second half of the year, amassing a 3.74 ERA over 14 starts, helping the Cubs to reach their third straight NLCS.
The by-product of trading top prospects two years in a row is a thin farm system led by players who are still a few years away from making an impact on the big league club. It’s for that reason that the Cubs’ options are very limited as they attempt to fill holes in their roster for the third straight season.
Starting Pitching is Becoming an Important Need
In the days and weeks leading up to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, it will no doubt be circulated the Cubs need more bullpen depth. That is true considering the Cubs’ relievers have eaten the seventh most innings in the majors while do-it-all man Steve Cishek ranks third in the National League with 48 appearances.
Despite that, the Cubs’ bullpen has dealt with injuries to their top guys including Brandon Morrow and Carl Edwards which will go a long way in keeping their arms fresh for the stretch run in August and September. Eddie Butler will also be fresh for the latter part of the season as he was activated on Tuesday after missing significant time with a groin injury.
In addition, the Cubs have already added right-handed swing-man Jesse Chavez to the mix, a pitcher who has experience as both a starter and reliever. That experience, coupled with Butler’s return, will be key moving forward as Mike Montgomery continues to be needed in a rotation that has largely under-performed this season.
Entering the season, it seemed like the Cubs had built a deep starting rotation. Kyle Hendricks had just finished posting back-to-back Cy Young-caliber seasons while Jose Quintana and Jon Lester had track records of being among the most consistent starting pitchers in the game.
New addition Yu Darvish owned a reputation as a multi-time All-Star selection, his performance in the 2017 World Series notwithstanding. Lastly, Tyler Chatwood was signed on a three-year, $38 million deal in hopes his stuff would play up outside of Coors Field and an increase in his curveball usage would help curb his previous walk issues.
Three months into the season, and things have not gone according to plan. Outside of Jon Lester, the Cubs’ starting rotation has struggled as they currently lead the National League with a 10.9 percent walk rate. To make matters worse, the Cubs’ staff rank 13th in the NL in strikeout rate (19.3 percecnt), 13th in WHIP (1.38) and and 14th in FIP (4.78).
What these numbers suggest is, despite the chatter for more bullpen help, the Cubs desperately need some more help on the starting pitching front. Even with Darvish slated to comeback from his injury at some point this season, Chatwood is walking 7.96 batters per nine innings, resulting in a 19 percent walk rate, the opposite of what the Cubs hoped would happen when they signed him over the winter.
At the end of the day, a couple things are clear. The Cubs cannot continue to let Chatwood start games as the importance of such games grow with each passing day. In addition, Montgomery cannot stay in the starting rotation if the Cubs wish to have him available in the postseason. Prior to this year, Montgomery’s season high in innings came last year when he appeared in 44 games and started 14 due to injuries. That season, he racked up 130.2 innings, by far the most of his career and a number he is set to blow past this year.
If Darvish remains on the DL and no help comes at the deadline, Montgomery will pass his career-high in innings around the end of August. While that would not necessarily be a big deal, remember this is only Montgomery’s third full season in the big leagues, meaning at some point the southpaw could tire, leaving the Cubs with yet another ineffective pitcher for a deep playoff run.
How the Cubs can Rectify this Issue
The obvious answer is for Darvish to get healthy and the rest of the starting rotation to bounce-back. While that would be nice, the Cubs still do not know when their $126 million investment will be back while Chatwood continues to post monthly ERA’s north of 5.00 (May – 5.95, June – 5.40, July – 6.19).
All the while, Montgomery is putting unnecessary innings on his left arm while the bullpen continues to be overworked by a starting rotation that has eaten the ninth lowest amount of innings in the majors (532.1), while averaging well under 5.5 innings per start.
With the trade deadline a week away, the Cubs’ front office will no doubt at least kick the tires on some back-end of the rotation, inning-eater guys that can hold the fort down until Darvish comes back healthy.
Recently, the Cubs were linked to two Baltimore Orioles’ starting pitchers, Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. Of course, the first thing Cubs’ fans think about when talking about acquiring Orioles’ starting pitching is Jake Arrieta.
Like Arrieta, who blossomed into a Cy Young Award winner on the North Sider after a July 2013 trade, both Bundy and Gausman have struggled in their time at the big league level.
Of the two, Gausman is the more experienced, with six years and 126 starts under his belt. Those starts, however, have not been particularly good, as the right-hander owns a career 4.23 ERA and is currently sporting a 4.54 mark this season.
Despite the unsavory ERA, Gausman owns a solid career walk rate of 7.1 percent, a number that sits at 5.9 percent this season, the lowest mark of his career if it holds.
As for control, Gausman as three more years of control left after this season, while he will likely become much more expensive over those years than the $5.6 million he is owned this season.
Like Gausman, Bundy has not been able to find much success in Baltimore. At age 25, Bundy is in the middle of his third full season with the Orioles. In two and a half seasons, the right-hander is sporting a 4.25 ERA in 85 games (61 starts).
After two years of posting an above average ERA-plus, Bundy has slipped below the average mark of 100 and is currently sitting at 90. That is due to his career-worst 4.57 ERA in 108.1 innings and the fact he’s already allowed 23 home runs after giving up 26 long balls in 169.2 innings last season.
While those numbers do not look good, they could be what ultimately persuades the Orioles to ship a once highly regarded pitching prospect to the Cubs for a package of lower level prospects. As with Gausman, Bundy would fit well into the Cubs’ need for strike throwing pitchers who do not walk a ton of batters. After sitting in the low-20’s with his strikeout rate to begin his career, Bundy owns a 25.1 percent mark this season while his walk rate sits at a respectable 7.6 percent and 7.9 percent for his career.
Right now, the Cubs find themselves in an odd situation. With all the teams in on lefty closer Zach Britton, one of the Cubs’ top targets at the deadline, it seems increasingly unlikely Chicago will win the sweepstakes. Now that Brad Hand, another top-tier left-handed reliever is off the market, it could be hard to find an impact southpaw reliever within the Cubs’ price-range as the deadline looms.
For that reason, it makes more and more sense for the Cubs to target a back-end starting pitcher that has not found much success in recent years. That way, the price for such a piece would be low enough for the Cubs to pull the trigger without giving up what’s left of their thin farm system.
Gausman and Bundy both fit that mold to a tee while the Cubs and Orioles have enough relations from past deals and negotiations to pull-off a swap.
With the deadline a week away, it will be interesting to see who the Cubs can add for the stretch run. Keep in mind, Theo Epstein and company are among the best in the business at this type of stuff, so sit back and enjoy the next week Cubs’ fans.
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