Pitching rotations can appear to be sure things when it’s the offseason or even when it’s spring training, but they have a nagging penchant for never finishing the same way that they started. Teams need depth in this way, and sometimes it comes from within the organization, and sometimes it must be acquired from without.
The 2017 Cubs rotation is set up to be one of the strongest in baseball, but as an organization they are not currently deep enough to effectively carry that rotation through injury and fatigue down the stretch.
Mike Montgomery currently stands to take the final spot in the rotation and is probably suited to do so, and Tyson Ross remains an intriguing option in free agency if he chooses Chicago. But if Montgomery is ultimately more needed in the bullpen, and if Ross heads elsewhere, there is another option for the Cubs to bolster their staff: C.J. Wilson.
He is absolutely as great a question mark in terms of injury as Ross is, but like Ross, Wilson has a very strong track record. Wilson did not pitch at all in 2016, but for four straight seasons, he pitched over 200 innings and hit 175 in the fifth. In the stretch that runs up to the 2014 season, his season-by-season WARP ranges from 1.5 at the worst, to 5.4 at his peak in 2011.
In short, there’s definite injury concern there to go with attention-getting potential, and if Cubs fans are willing to dispense with the expectation or even hope that he will pitch to 2011 or 2012 levels, there’s plenty of reason to give careful consideration to Wilson as an option.
How He Fits:
Given the aforementioned tempered expectations, Wilson is a fine option for adding a left-handed option to the end of the rotation. He brings a loaded quiver of pitches to the mound and has two that are potentially effective “out” pitches in his slider and in his curve.
Before injury reduced his effectiveness, Wilson was the kind of pitcher who plays well with the Cubs’ defense. His 58 percent groundball rate from 2009 is not likely to be replicated, but even the lower number of roughly 50 percent in the seasons that followed is one that the infield behind him would be able to gobble up.
None of his pitches ever came in particularly fast—at his 2011 best, he was hardly topping 90 with his fastball and sinker—but the sinker moved nicely and his four-pitch secondary arsenal was enough to compensate for less-than-overwhelming primary stuff.
If it came to him, Wilson’s role would be to grab 150-170 innings in 2017 and strive to extend his starts to the fifth or sixth inning. Hardly a tall order with a healthy arm.
Why It Won’t Work:
This assumes that he will actually be healthy for 2017, of course. His shoulder plagued him all season before he was shut down for surgery in July 2016, and his 2015 season officially ended in August after he required elbow surgery to remove loose bone spurs.
Wilson is intending on throwing a showcase next month, so obviously no team is going to extend an offer of any kind until they’ve seen that, and even then there will still be questions. Wilson’s ERA+ has not been league-average in three seasons, so even if he is fully healthy, he just might not be very good anymore.
This is all compounded by the fact that Wilson is 36 years old and even if healthy, his best years are certainly not ahead of him.
Both Wilson and Ross would come with injury and effectiveness questions, so an addition of one (or both?) of them would not be the move that seals a repeat World Series victory, but it would be a small part of a larger whole that puts the Cubs in the best position to extend the 2017 season at least beyond the first of October.
The market here is certainly thin, but there are names like Colby Lewis—if they want to take on another injury concern laden with potential—that present possibilities for deepening the rotation. Otherwise, this might be the season to further cash in on a deep farm system and add to the staff via trade during the summer when the playoff picture is a bit clearer.
Lead photo courtesy Thomas Shea—USA Today Sports