The Cubs want for very little when it comes to their expected 25-man roster going into 2017. Many things can change, of course, but they are well built enough to be the World Series favorite again next year—not just contend. It’s easy to make that projection before Christmas of 2016.
However, there’s a developing point of weakness that might not show immediately in 2017, but could become very clear next offseason. The starting pitching staff has two of the best pitchers in the National League in Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks, and it has the 2015 Cy Young winner in Jake Arrieta. The latter is more of a question mark going forward, but even with his regression from his 2015 performance, Arrieta is still a top-tier pitcher.
After that, it’s John Lackey and, for now, Mike Montgomery. Lackey is a fine number four starter, but he’s nearly 40, and Montgomery would be entering the rotation with mixed experience as a starter. Seattle used him exclusively in that role in 2015, but switched him to the bullpen this year before giving him two starts just ahead of his trade to Chicago. The Cubs, of course, used him a handful of times as a starter to spell the rest of the rotation and cover for Lackey’s late-season injury. I’ve written before about the possibility of Montgomery as a starter, and I think he has genuine potential to do it well.
So while I’m plenty confident in the rotation as it stands today, there’s a need to deepen it; not just for 2017, but beyond that—when pitchers like Arrieta and Lackey are gone.
This points to the one type of trade or free agent signing that the Cubs have yet to make. Though they’ve been rumored to have a deal for a young, cost-controlled starter for a few years now, that has yet to truly materialize. Perhaps because when teams like the Tampa Bay Rays and San Diego Padres bandied about names like Javier Baez and Jorge Soler to be included in those swaps, the Cubs just weren’t at a place yet where it made sense to pull the trigger. Since then, of course, Soler has been flipped for Wade Davis, and Baez’s value has only gone up. But, recently, an old name that was not-too-long-ago linked to the Cubs in a trade scenario has bubbled to the service again.
It was Tyson Ross who was a part of trade talks that would have sent the likes of Baez or Soler to San Diego a couple of seasons ago, and now, thanks in part to an injury that limited him to just one start in 2016, he’s available to be signed as a free agent. After the Padres non-tendered him on December 2, a few teams have expressed interest, but the Cubs are the team most likely to sign him at this point (though they are not without competition in this regard).
A quick scan of the numbers Ross put up prior to surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome shows why, even after a surgery that has caused trouble for the likes of Josh Beckett and Chris Carpenter, the Cubs have interest. Namely, in the 2014 and 2015 seasons when he pitched just under 200 innings both years and boasted DRAs of 3.08 and 3.04, respectively. To look at it a different way, his 9.0 WARP across those two seasons is better than Lackey’s collective WARP across 2015 and 2016, two of the better seasons in Lackey’s career.
Simply, Ross would be a low risk, high reward addition to the rotation, and he doesn’t turn 30 until after the regular season starts this year. If he returns to anything close to his previous form, Ross could serve as a very effective bridge to whatever the Cubs need to do to build a rotation into 2019 and 2020.
How He Fits:
This would simply be a bet on the added depth that Ross would supply, provided that his health does not linger as an issue. Not only would he provide competition for the last rotation spot and potentially push Montgomery back to the bullpen—a place where he’d fit again, especially with the departure of Travis Wood, but Ross’s presence would also let the Cubs extend the rotation when necessary. And, like 2016, the upcoming season is one in which the pitching staff will be expected to pitch long into October.
As I mentioned earlier, he’s been a target for the Cubs before, so they obviously like what he could do for the rotation. His three-pitch mix of fastball, slider, and sinker has served him well in the past, and he has occasional use for his cutter and changeup. It’s his slider that can do the most damage when it’s on. In 2015, it yielded a near 24 percent whiff rate and was especially tough on right-handers. When he’s been ahead against them, it’s his out pitch more than half the time—and upwards of 60 percent of the time when he has two strikes on a right-handed hitter.
Why It Won’t Work:
All of this is dreaming is on a shoulder that needed surgery in October, however. Ross was only able to pitch a single start in 2016, and it did not go well (5.1 IP, 9 hits, 8 runs, 5 strikeouts, 1 walk).
The only other reasonable issue is if it gets in the way of Montgomery developing into a starter, but that’s not reason enough not to take a flier on Ross. The Cubs have little to lose in signing him at this point.
The starting pitching market is essentially dried up—unless the Cubs are willing to pony up and send a few good prospects packing for someone like Jose Quintana. Jason Hammel is still floating out there, but the Cubs have moved on, so adding Ross is the cheapest and smartest way to bolster the rotation this offseason.
Lead photo courtesy Mark J. Rebilas—USA Today Sports