A Pathway for Cubs Contention in 2022: Starting Pitching

Prelude:

The Chicago Cubs took extraordinary measures not to “go halfway” in their trade deadline moves. Jed Hoyer, in his first season as President of Baseball operations, seemingly traded every available player on expiring deals. The returns of those trades are promising, but the question that fans have been asking is “is this another rebuild?”. For his part, Hoyer maintains that the Cubs have plans to compete in the immediacy and they have funds to spend. Scrutiny to that statement is understandable, after all the Cubs just traded all their stars. Are they really going to go all-in? Will they spend the money necessary to compete? There are many roads that lead to the “Next Great Cubs Team”, but this is one possible pathway to compete as early as next season while honoring the future core of the team.

In an ideal world, any contention plans serve two main goals:

  1. Bring in players to help you compete
  2. Don’t jeopardize your future

Disclaimers: I operate on the assumption that all mock trades are bad, including mine. They are. And even though I’ve historically spent a lot of time on them as a fan, I’ll sparingly use them in posts. The larger point is the players acquired. If you’re here from another team’s fanbase, “welcome”.

Part 1: Building the Offense Part 1 with Wisdom, Ortega, and Schwindel
Part 2: Building the Offense Part 2 with an Ian Happ trade
Part 3: Pitching Targets
Part 4: Match-ups and Line-ups

One Small Step… One Giants Leap Forward

The San Francisco Giants were a surprise team this season. After winning percentages of .395, .451, .475 and .483 in the past four seasons, the Giants owned the best record in baseball by winning 107 games. They took the 106 win Dodgers to five games in the NLDS and lost on a questionable check swing. Their current team success was not driven by years of tanking. The top prospects the Giants have acquired with high draft picks are only making a minimal impact in the majors. Rather, their success comes from two important places. First, the Giants’ veteran position players are having a renaissance. That is a difficult path to walk and hard to predict the likelihood of that happening. The Cubs tried to compete with the same core players from 2015-2017 and had inconsistent results. However what the Giants (and other clubs like the Dodgers and Rays) have done is play the match-ups. I detailed that in parts 1 and 2 of the Path to Contention series.

Second, the Giants hit on three key starting pitching acquisitions: Kevin Gausman, Anthony DeScalfani, and Alex Wood. Gausman was originally signed by the Giants in 2020 for a $9 million investment. He pitched well enough to parley that into a qualifying offer of $18.9 million, which he accepted. DeScalfani and Wood signed for a combined $9 million. The trio has combined for 372 1/3 innings of 3.19 ERA with a 26.1 K%. That is how you rebuild a starting staff.

Replicating that for the Cubs will be close to impossible, but even hitting on one or two starting pitchers goes a long way to contention in 2022. Jed Hoyer publicly called out the importance of bringing in power-pitching, which is a substantial departure from the 2021 starting rotation that boasted a 90.5 mph average fastball entering the year.

In order to accomplish the main goals of this exercise, I’ll focus on the two main goals:

  1. Bring in players to help you compete: Pitchers with upside and velocity
  2. Don’t jeopardize your future: Don’t trade away top prospects or sign players who may lose draft picks

Steven Matz, LHP, 30

The Cubs have been tied on and off to the former Mets starter since he made his debut in 2015. After years of battling injuries, Matz had a career breakout for the Blue Jays. In 150 2/3 innings, Matz put up a 14-7 record with a 3.82 ERA (3.79 FIP) with a 22.3% K-rate and 6.6 BB%. The lefthander will only be 30 beginning next season and his years of ineffectiveness should keep his price tag to a reasonable level. What is so exciting is a spike in velocity and multiple pitches (curveball and slider) that appear to have been tremendously unlucky. His curveball led to a .407 weighted on-base average (which accounts for on-base and slugging; the average is about .320) whereas his expected wOBA was .280. Matz’s 94.5 mph average for his 2-seam/sinker is a power offering and he absolutely fits the model that Jed Hoyer discussed in his end-of-season press conference.

Steven Matz’s sinker usage in 2021 via Savant
Brandon Woodruff’s sinker usage in 2021 via Savant

Matz’s sinker should be highly intriguing to Tommy Hottovy and the pitching development infrastructure. Notice the location for his sinker above. Orienting yourself to the image above, this image is from the viewpoint of the catcher where the left side of the plate is the side where a right-handed hitter stands. The Cubs’ pitching infrastructure has embraced elevated sinkers and Matz’s usage indicates he utilizes a similar strategy. Compare that to Brandon Woodruff’s (right) sinker usage.

He is unlikely to receive a qualifying offer. If he does, I would not recommend signing him until the new CBA is signed and it’s known whether the signing club would lose a draft pick.

Yusei Kikuchi

Kikuchi is a top target to bet on this offseason. Averages 95 mph with the fastball. The overall 2021 line is a solid if unspectacular 7-9 record with a 4.41 ERA with 163 Ks in 157 innings pitched (24.5 K%). He was betrayed by his cutter in 2021 with hitters producing a .476 SLG and .382 wOBA against it. The Cubs have proved to be successful in fixing cutters and sliders in recent years. Fixing (or even scrapping) Kikuchi’s cutter could lead to a breakout in 2022 for the 30-year-old lefthander.

One note, Kikuchi’s spin rate didn’t change after the ban on sticky stuff. However, it should be noted that his results did worsen. In particular, his BB% jumped from 8.1% to 10.4% after the June 21 ban. Pitchers spoke about the inability to grip the ball as well after the ban and while egregious substances like Spider-tack need to be removed from the game the next CBA may clarify what can be added to assist with grip (such as the common sunscreen and rosin combo). I have no knowledge if Kikuchi or any other pitcher used any substances. He hardly seems like an obvious candidate in the first place, but it’s worth noting when projecting 2022 and beyond performances for pitchers. Kikuchi is absolutely one of my favorite targets.

Garrett Richards

Richards has a surprisingly solid profile for a player who could fill a number 4 role on the 2022 Cubs. His price tag should be very affordable. The Red Sox possess a $10 million team option (with a $1.5 M buy-out), which they are expected to decline.

Unlike Kikuchi, Richards had a significant spin-rate drop that corresponds to when the foreign substance ban took place. Again, this article makes no claims that any pitcher was using a substance prior to the ban, but the spin-rate drop is something to watch. But diving even deeper, his fastball and curveball averages post-ban still would rate as above-average spin. There are workable pitches with Richards and he’s a classic case of a pitcher who could benefit from decreasing his fastball usage. He threw his 4-seam 40.1% of the time, but it was hit at a .487 SLG and .388 wOBA clip.

Richards is expected to come cheap, shouldn’t block Adbert Alzolay, Justin Steele, or Keegan Thompson from getting starts if they’re throwing it well, and could be an ideal candidate to move mid-season if pitchers like Caleb Kilian, Ryan Jensen, Anderson Espinoza, or even Max Bain and Jordan Wicks are ready to jump into the rotation.

What about Alec Mills?

Mills had a fairly successful season in 2021 and finished the season second in the rotation for fWAR with 1.1 (Kyle Hendricks led the starting pitchers with a 1.3 fWAR). Mills is also cheap and under team control for several more seasons. He also is a divisive player due to his low velocity (88.7 MPH) who succeeds due to very strict reliance on game-planning and pitch-mix. With the Cubs’ stated plan to increase velocity on the starting staff, Mills fits the picture of a player that pitched well on a cheap contract while also being a player that can be moved. Not every team is interested in lower-velocity starters, but a few teams have had more success with players. Seattle, Arizona, and the Los Angeles Angels (along with the Cubs) all targeted lower velocity starters, possibly viewing these pitchers as undervalued assets. I’m inclined to pursue a trade with the Mariners. While I would absolutely LOVE LHP Brandon Williamson, I am skeptical that Alec Mills would be able to bring in the Mariners’ 7th ranked prospect.

But a pitcher that I could see Seattle being possibly more willing to move that also offers intrigue is Levi Stoudt. The nearly 24-year-old righthander fits the mold of older RHP with premium stuff and starter/reliever questions the Cubs targeted heavily at the trade deadline. Alexander Vizcaíno, Daniel Palencia, and Anderson Espinoza all fit that mold. Stoudt would likely have been drafted higher, but it was known he’d need Tommy John surgery after signing. The righthander struggles with command but throws in the mid-90s with a dynamite changeup and an okay slider. With Gilbert, Hancock, Williamson, and Kirby all slotted in ahead of Stoudt, it’s possible they would move him. I’ll admit this trade may border on unrealistic, though the Baseball Trade Values simulator felt it would be accepted.

The trade is accepted! By Baseball Trade Values

The 2022 Rotation

Without worrying about the specific order, the Cubs would enter the 2022 season with Kyle Hendricks, Steven Matz, Yusei Kikuchi slotted into the first three slots. Garrett Richards would have the first crack at number 4 in the rotation, and Adbert Alzolay and Justin Steele both have ample opportunities in the 5th/6th spots in the opening day rotation. Keegan Thompson could fit in anywhere in the above plan if the Cubs feel so inclined. With just the six members of the listed rotation, the 2022 rotation would have an average fastball of 93 MPH, which now sits as the major league average. It is a far cry from the well-below average velocity of 90.5 MPH entering the 2021 season.

Wrap up

None of the above three players should be viewed as better choices than other names like Noah Syndergaard, Kevin Gausman, Marcus Stroman, or other premier pitchers. The Cubs should pursue all of the above and more but with the mindset of bringing in three SPs for 2022, Matz, Kikuchi, and Richards provide three options that are likely affordable, available, and have upside.

Published by

Greg Zumach

Following the Cubs minor leagues and the MLB draft has been my passion since I became a fan. I try to focus on deeper dives into players along with MLB Draft content throughout the year.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s