Quietly, Miguel Montero and Jason Hammel have been huge parts of the Cubs’ success over the last two seasons. Montero was worth 3.9 WARP in relatively modest playing time last year, and has been worth 1.3 WARP already this year—in addition to which, he’s been Jake Arrieta’s partner in crime, Willson Contreras’s mentor, and one of the team’s fountains of veteran energy and intensity. Hammel, of course, has provided three straight first halves of brilliant pitching at bargain free-agent rates, and was part of the package that brought Addison Russell, Billy McKinney, and Dan Straily to the organization in 2014. Neither his second-half struggles in each of the last two years nor his recent rough stretch should obscure the fact that he’s given the Cubs a large number of good starts, especially at times (like early on last season, when the fifth slot in the rotation was entirely up for grabs, Jon Lester was struggling after an abortive spring training, and Kyle Hendricks was still finding the pitch mix that would eventually allow him to become a consistent starter) when they’ve badly needed them.
Montero has hit much better than most believe (his low batting average and 96 individualized Park Factor masking a very good walk rate and a .259 TAv), and more importantly, is a much better defensive catcher than Contreras. (He may have a weaker throwing arm, a problem compounded by the general inability of Cubs pitchers to slow opposing runners, but he’s a far, far better framer and game manager than Contreras is right now.) In a vacuum, the optimal Cubs lineup (once Dexter Fowler returns to full health) will often include Montero as the catcher, with Contreras’s strong bat in left field. Hammel’s hold on the fifth spot in the rotation is looser, but the transaction cost of adding a starting pitcher at the deadline this year might be more than the front office can justify in order to improve on him. In a vacuum.
Let’s escape the vacuum. No baseball team worth its salt makes its decisions that way. No player is an island, no transaction an atomic decision. Context matters. In this case, there are two key contextual factors (money and the future) the Cubs need to consider, and once they do, what’s true in a vacuum might prove untrue in the real world.
The Cubs are spending $171 million and change on payroll this season. That’s nearly double what they spent in 2014. It took many by surprise when they proved able to spend so much this winter, enough to land Jason Heyward, John Lackey, and Ben Zobrist, and to bring Dexter Fowler back into the fold at the last second. Because of that, there’s considerable optimism that the Cubs’ coffers more or less bottomless. We do know that the half-renovated Wrigley Field is generating more revenue than the old one, not only because a better team calls it home and fans are pouring through the turnstiles at a record rate, but because advertising spaces and specialized, club-style seating and all the other things that make a ballpark a cash cow are finally filling up the place.
But it would be silly to assume that the team can spend without limitation. We know they were operating on a tight budget as little as three years ago. The team did trade Starlin Castro to help facilitate the Zobrist acquisition, and Chris Coghlan to make room for Fowler (both financially and logistically). Even after those moves, they needed to get creative to make Fowler’s deal work, bumping $5 million of the $13 million they’ll pay him onto their 2017 ledger. We should assume, given all the signals we have with which to work, that the team will find it very difficult to add anyone significant to the payroll this season.
We should also assume, because it’s in the nature of this front office, that this season isn’t the only thing on their mind. Looking into next season, and well beyond that, the Cubs are a little thin on pitching. You can trace this back, in part, to the gigantic whiff that was the deal they signed to acquire Edwin Jackson in December 2012. They’re still paying for that mistake. Jackson’s salary remains on the books until the end of this year, and is one reason there’s little wiggle room financially. The resources expended in that direction also help explain the lack of organizational pitching depth (although if Jackson had panned out, it’s likely that either Hammel or Lackey would be somewhere else right now). One priority for Theo Epstein and company will likely be shoring up the long-term outlook on the mound.
The Cubs have plenty of position players they could trade to land a great pitcher with multiple remaining seasons of team control. They have that luxury. But any pitcher good enough to make a difference for the future of the franchise will cost big, in terms of talent, or money, or both. The less they cost, the more future value the Cubs will have to surrender to land them. The more they cost, the more they cost. And this need to make a move, it comes at a moment when the Cubs are not only a bit limited in their potential financial maneuvering, but out of chances to bolster their farm system for a while. They worked hard to mine the college ranks for undervalued pitchers in the Draft this year, but with no picks in the top two rounds and the league’s smallest bonus pool, they almost certainly infused their organization with less talent than any other team. They spent plenty in the international amateur market over the last year, but are now relatively sidelined there for a while.
So now the dilemma comes into focus. The Cubs need to bolster their pitching staff, now and into the future, but they need to make it something close to a cost-neutral improvement. It would also be good if they could add a little lining, some small scrap of insurance to the farm system, keep the pipeline ready to flow for the days to come, when the high draft picks have dried up, the money is tied up in the big-league roster, and growing stars is harder.
Could Montero and Hammel be moved this deadline, or this offseason, to accomplish that goal? I don’t know. But also, in a broader sense, of course they could, because nothing is off the table with this front office, and their roles on the 2016 squad make them uniquely and perhaps inevitably expendable.
Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports.