After the end of the 2014 season, Theo Epstein made clear that the front office would seek to add impact pitching from outside the organization that offseason, while also acknowledging that two nine-figure commitments in one offseason were not going to happen. Epstein stayed true to his word, adding Jon Lester on a major contract but passing on the rest of the top end of the market. At the time, it appeared to be a foregone conclusion that the Cubs would use the money they hadn’t spent in the 2014-15 offseason to add an additional front-of-the-rotation arm from the loaded 2015 free agent class, thereby fortifying the top of the rotation (alongside Lester).
The 2015 season, as it turned out, brought with it serious contention for the Cubs for the first time in years, and also a flirtation between soon-to-be free agent ace David Price and members of the Cubs front office. It became increasingly popular to believe that Price signing with the Cubs was inevitable, but after John Lackey signed a short-term contract to shore up the third spot in the rotation, that belief began to wane. After the Cubs missed out on Price (or, perhaps, chose not to pursue him aggressively), we now know that Epstein was content to ignore the bulk of the starting pitching market and instead allocate major funds to improving his club’s offensive and defensive flexibility.
So what changed? There wasn’t a prospects-for-pitching trade as has often been speculated upon. The team didn’t have a surprising pitcher emerge from the farm system. Instead, what happened is this: on the front end of the spectrum, Jake Arrieta becoming an ace allowed the front office to avoid committing another massive sum to the fickle health of a single human arm. On the back end, Kyle Hendricks’s growth gave the Cubs’ brass the confidence to simultaneously ignore second-tier starters such as Jeff Samardzija and Ian Kennedy, instead opting to retain tremendous flexibility both financially and on the field by adding affordable super-utility types Adam Warren and Trevor Cahill.
Starting with Arrieta, let’s review the progress each man made to instill such confidence from Epstein, while aiding their chief baseball officer in his quest to add lower-risk talent on the other side of the ball.
Arrieta’s story has been documented countless times this year, but it bears repeating that he and he alone is the reason the Cubs didn’t make a major, long-term commitment to a premier starting pitcher this offseason. After breaking out in the second half of 2014, Arrieta followed up on that season by having an unthinkable 2015, complete with a no-hitter, a mustache onesie, and a Cy Young award to top off one of the greatest second half performances in history.
With two years of team control still remaining, chances are solid that Arrieta remains a top-10 starting pitching option across the entire league for the duration of his time in Cubbie blue. Pairing him with Lester gives the Cubs arguably the best 1-2 punch in the game for the next two seasons, especially now that Zack Greinke spends his summers in Arizona rather than Los Angeles. It remains to be seen whether Arrieta can expand upon his historic season to become more than just a late-bloomer with a brilliantly rapid ascendance to the peak of his career, but rather one that transforms into a sustained body-of-work that commands historic attention.
As reports continue to trickle out regarding Arrieta’s workout regimen and warrior-like preparedness, it’s reasonable to believe that he can have a dominant run well into his 30s that few in this game have been able to achieve. That doesn’t mean that he will, of course, and whether or not that sustained success happens in a Cubs uniform remains to be seen, but for at least the next two seasons the North Siders are blessed to have one of the game’s brightest stars fronting their rotation.
Hendricks is another story entirely, as his has been one of an underwhelming arsenal leading to under-appreciation of his accomplishments at every stop in his career. While the average fan’s fancy may not be tickled by the fact that his advanced feel for his changeup may be the most eye-opening improvement he made in 2015, the results speak louder than any words you’re likely to hear Hendricks himself utter.
His K/9 shot up to 8.3 from just 5.3 in 2014, while his H/9 stayed relatively constant at 8.3 compared to 8.1. He was bitten by the longball more often than preferable, but continued development of his off-speed offerings could alleviate the issue somewhat moving forward. It should also be noted that Hendricks ate up 180 innings out of the four-spot in the rotation; this despite an inability to work deep into games with regularity.
As fans and pundits alike discuss the possibility of Adam Warren moving him off of a spot in the rotation, how many folks would be surprised by the fact that Hendricks has already collected 4.5 WARP in just 260 big-league innings? That’s a serious total for a starter that is often considered below-average. To this very point, his career ERA- is 91, leaving him squarely above the literal definition of league average.
The next step in his career is finding the stamina to maintain effectiveness the third time through the order, lasting into and beyond the sixth inning and eclipsing 200 frames in a season. We have the pleasure of finding out firsthand whether he can make this leap, but it certainly appears he has given the front office enough confidence to believe that he can. The additions of Cahill and Warren speak of their desire to complement what Hendricks brings to the table, rather than replacing him entirely.
Ultimately, what Arrieta and Hendricks have combined to achieve is to give the Cubs much greater depth by alleviating the need to allocate massive resources to just one player. This will also have the ancillary effect of allowing the front office to zero in on specific free agents in the loaded class of 2018, rather than having to commit to a long-term path today. This will give them a more obvious second window of contention, when the veterans surrounding this young team are likely to cycle out.
Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports.