Internal and External Options for Cubs’ Sixth-Man

As the Chicago Cubs look to repeat as World Series champs, they are currently seeking a little extra help in the starting rotation. With Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, John Lackey and Mike Montgomery as the expected starting five, the need isn’t urgent, but adding quality depth now could be the difference between another parade in November as opposed to the Cubs hitting the fishing pond.

It was a tactic that worked last year, albeit arbitrarily. By starting Trevor Cahill, Adam Warren, Mike Montgomery, Rob Zastryzny, Jake Buchanan and Brian Matusz at various points throughout the season, they were able to give the rotation some extra rest. While Jon Lester didn’t really benefit (he started 32 games both in 2015 and 2016) the rest of their would-be playoff starters did. Arrieta ending up throwing 21.1 fewer innings and 314 fewer pitches, Lackey 19.2 fewer innings and 279 pitches and the tactic helped Hendricks throw only 190 innings in his second full season.

The Cubs have been pretty transparent about their plans to use as a sixth-man again this season. After letting Jason Hammel go due to a reported gentleman’s agreement, Trevor Cahill recently signing with the Padres, and Tyson Ross inking a deal with the Rangers, what are the remaining options for the Cubs to consider?

Internally, Jake Buchanan and Rob Zastryzny could both be utilized as spot-starters as they were in 2015. Buchanan was signed at the end of Spring Training in 2015 after he was released from the Houston Astros, and he was successful in an extremely limited stint in Chicago when rosters expanded in September. The 26-year-old started one game for the Cubs and had one inning of relief allowing only one earned run. With Iowa, he was average at best, posting a 4.34 ERA, a 1.362 WHIP, a 6.7 K/9 and a 2.4 BB/9 over 141 innings pitched.

Zastryzny was drafted back in 2013 with the hopes of turning into a middle of the rotation starter, but he had been kind of the forgotten man before reemerging late last year. Over eight games and 16 innings, Zastryzny posted a 1.12 ERA with a 1.062 WHIP, a 9.6 K/9 and a 2.8 BB/9 with the Cubs.

The difference between these two guys is that Zastryzny will certainly be a contributor at the MLB level this season and Buchanan may not be. Since the Cubs are still kicking the tires in the free agent market, that could be a strong indication that they’d like Zastryzny to remain in the bullpen as a LOOGY option or a long man (he went two innings or more in half of his September appearances in 2016).

Pierce Johnson and Aaron Brooks are the wild cards as the two appear to be extreme longshots to help the club in a starting capacity. Johnson is set to begin his sixth season in the minors, but he had his worst season yet with Iowa posting a 6.14 ERA, a 1.635 WHIP, and walking 6.1 per nine, though he was battling injuries. He managed a 10.7 K/9, which is something to dream on, but he hasn’t managed to put it all together at this point.

Brooks was acquired from the Athletics for Chris Coghlan when Dexter Fowler signed during Spring Training, and he barely pitched due to injuries with the I-Cubs. With a career 8.38 ERA over 58 innings in the majors, he seems less likely to break out than Johnson.

In terms of free agents, the latest rumors all point to the oft-injured Brett Anderson.

In his final season with the Dodgers, he never really got going, throwing only eleven innings and starting three games. Over the last five seasons, Anderson has started in just 53 games (and 31 of those came in 2015, so 22 games over the remaining four seasons — yikes), so counting on him to pitch at all might be too risky for the Cubs. But as a flyer who can spend the first half of the year getting healthy, it makes sense if the money is lines up with expectations.

Travis Wood looks like the Cubs backup plan if everything else falls through, but he could be looking for more years and more money than the team is willing to give. However, he is that known quantity and he has been a solid player for the Cubs over the last couple of seasons. Over five seasons he started 98 games and pitched to a 3.94 ERA, a 1.267 WHIP, and he owns a career 113 cFIP. With his reliever/starter versatility (and ability to play in the field in a pinch), it’s easy to see him back in Cubbie blue.

Another guy the Cubs are awfully familiar with who could come back is Edwin Jackson, Jason Hammel. After betting on himself, Hammel’s market clearly hasn’t yet developed like he thought it would. Is a Dexter Fowler-esque Spring Training reunion on the table for Hammel? Probably not, but don’t rule him out as a long-shot depth option.

Other interesting names would be potential Bosio projects, each with their own red flags: Doug Fister, Tim Lincecum, and Jered Weaver are all looking for a chance to regain some lost magic. There are also names like Henderson Alvarez and Jarrod Parker, but both might be too injured to contribute in a meaningful way in 2017.

The last guy who could make sense is Jorge De La Rosa. The former Rockie got shelled at home (5.23 ERA) and even worse on the road (5.84 ERA) last season, but in 2015 the split was a lot better (5.40 ERA at home, 3.26 on the road and he posted a 95 cFIP on the season). De La Rosa has also expressed a willingness to pitch in any role, be it a starter, reliever or swing man, which is exactly what the Cubs are looking for.

Any of these options are all guys the Cubs could gamble on for a couple of spot-starts in 2017, but they aren’t in a position of need which gives them the luxury of waiting for the right man to fall to them at the right price.

What we know for certain is that the Cubs will grab another arm, maybe two, with the hope that they can rest their regular starters throughout the regular season after a taxing postseason. Ideally, this is someone who can contribute in the bullpen when not starting, but if they find someone who isn’t as flexible, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Montgomery transition back into that swing role for at least a little bit.

As always, you can never have too much talent, so the Cubs will do what they can to put themselves in a better position moving forward when it comes to their aging rotation.

Lead photo courtesy Gary A. Vasquez—USA Today Sports

Related Articles

Leave a comment

Use your Baseball Prospectus username