The Cubs know they can’t just get by on change-of-scenery guys and sign-and-flip deals, planning to make a huge investment in their rotation either this offseason and/or next winter.
The Los Angeles Dodgers are a $2 billion franchise with an Opening Day payroll that soared to $235 million. They’re guaranteed a playoff spot, but a first-place team still needed a bullpen game to get through the season’s second-to-last weekend.
That again shows the cliché is true: You can never have enough pitching. Even when it’s in your DNA, from Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, to Tommy John’s breakthrough surgery, to international stars like Fernando Valenzuela and Hideo Nomo. Orel Hershiser even watched from the SportsNet LA booth inside Wrigley Field’s press box.
A series that began with Cy Young Award winners Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw ended with Jamey Wright making a spot start on Sunday and Dodgers manager Don Mattingly going mix-and-match with five more relievers to secure an 8-5 victory.
Theo Epstein’s front office hasn’t signed its Greinke or developed its Kershaw, and got outbid for South Korean lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu, who’s been sidelined with a shoulder injury. The total bill for that Big Three is projected at more than $420 million.
The Cubs have found great value in free agents Paul Maholm, Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel, relying on a blend of scouting and analytics and leaning on coaches Chris Bosio (pitching) and Mike Borzello (catching/strategy).
Edwin Jackson’s $52 million contract is a sunk cost, but the Cubs will have to (at least) double that investment if they want to get serious about October and land a top-of-the-rotation starter. It’s absolutely worth trying, but it’s not realistic to think they’ll keep hitting on old names from the Baseball America prospect lists and discount arms recovering from injuries.
The Cubs haven’t been grabbing elite pitchers at the top of the draft, using first-round picks on Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber across the last four years. They cashed in their most valuable trade chip this summer (Jeff Samardzija) to get another shortstop (Addison Russell).
The idea being the Cubs could build a monster core of position players during a time of stricter drug testing, digital-video databases, incredibly detailed advance scouting reports and bullpens stocked with multiple relievers throwing close to 100 mph.
If you have one of the game’s better lineups – in an environment where power is fading and offense is down – can you win with an average pitching staff?
“I think you can,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “The challenge is that average pitching staff can become below average in a hurry. I think a below-average pitching staff and an above-average offense isn’t going to work. But I do think the team that is probably average in run prevention – and really hits the ball in this day and age – probably does work.
“It’s a hard needle to thread, because if you try to go for average, and you end up on the other side of that – the wrong side of that – it’s not a lot of fun to watch.”
Jacob Turner (5-11, 6.25 ERA) wasn’t exactly entertaining on Sunday, making it through five innings, giving up five runs, four earned, and having trouble slowing down Yasiel Puig, Adrian Gonzalez and Matt Kemp.
After getting designated for assignment by the Miami Marlins, Turner became another reclamation project, the ninth overall pick in the 2009 draft the Detroit Tigers used to get Anibal Sanchez.
Between Turner, Felix Doubront and Dan Straily, the Cubs keep collecting pitchers who’ve experienced some success in the big leagues, without firmly establishing themselves for whatever reason. Doubront earned a World Series ring with the Boston Red Sox last year. Straily appeared in the American League’s Rookie of the Year voting with the Oakland A’s last season.
The Cubs also view Eric Jokisch as a future option for the rotation. The 25-year-old lefty out of Northwestern University put up a 3.58 ERA in 26 starts at Triple-A Iowa this season.
For now, Jake Arrieta (9-5, 2.65 ERA) keeps flirting with no-hitters, while Kyle Hendricks (7-2, 2.28 ERA) continues to impress with his poise, consistency and sneaky athleticism. Arrieta’s big-time confidence and Hendricks’ Dartmouth College education make you think they’ll find a way to stick.
“You always want pitching,” Cubs manager Rick Renteria said. “We’ve got guys that have come through the minor-league system that are pitching well and developing, so we also need to give those guys credit down there for everything they’re doing.
“We’ve got places to look, to turn to (and) I know that Jed and Theo will do what they need to do in order to continue to put us ahead. We’ll just wait to see what those things are.”
The Cubs aren’t as rich as the Dodgers, but they have enough financial flexibility that the Jon Lester sweepstakes will dominate the hot-stove headlines in Chicago, and enough trade chips that they shouldn’t be counted out of any big deals.