The Cubs have been very busy in the free agent pitching market this offseason. They started by adding starting pitchers Scott Baker and Scott Feldman in November, followed by signing Japanese relief pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa. The Cubs likely ended their major offseason pitching acquisitions last week, signing starter Edwin Jackson and swingman Carlos Villanueva to four and two year contracts respectively.
Of the group, Jackson was the only surprise, due to the longer commitment and $52 million total price tag. But a lot people are talking about this added pitching depth as though the Cubs had no plan for this last year, and that the plan has significantly changed heading into this season. I don’t think that’s correct.
The argument heading into 2012 was that the Cubs had 7 Major League quality starting pitchers: Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm, Chris Volstad, Jeff Samardzija, Randy Wells and Travis Wood. There were of course question marks, particularly in the forms of Volstad and Samardzija. While Volstad could not have been more disappointing, Samardzija exceeded even the most bullish expectations. However, Volstad’s failure combined with Randy Wells’ ineffectiveness due to decreased velocity actually left the Cubs with only 5 legitimate, MLB caliber starters. Then the Cubs traded Maholm and Dempster, Garza went on the DL, and Samardzija hit his innings limit, leaving the Cubs to trot out the likes of Chris Rusin and Justin Germano for a large percentage of their final 60 games or so.
The Cubs again have 7 pitchers who could be viewed as legitimately worthy of turns starting games: Garza, Samardzija, Wood, Jackson, Baker, Feldman and Villanueva.
But is this a change? Baker and Feldman are clearly question marks, as Baker is coming off of Tommy John Surgery and Feldman has struggled match results to his peripherals (although leaving Arlington could help that). Villanueva has generally struggled as a regular starter, and is viewed by most as more of a multi-innings reliever who has the ability to start a few games here or there.
And how many of these guys are guaranteed to be Cubs on August 1? The current debate du jour in the Cubs blogosphere is if the Cubs should extend or trade Garza. It is also generally presumed that the Cubs will try to move Baker and Feldman for prospects if they succeed. You could very well see a rotation at the end of next season comprised of Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood, Carlos Villanueva and a question mark, and that’s if no one gets hurt.
Indeed, the only pick up the Cubs made that was different from their prior signings under Epstein and Hoyer was the Edwin Jackson signing, meaning they actually had to pay someone who didn’t appear to be undervalued by the market. I think only 3 things could be taken from that signing: (1) the Cubs think Edwin Jackson is likely to hold his current value as a 3/4 type in a good starting rotation over the next four years; (2) the Cubs think they will need a solid 3/4 starter over the next 4 years, a solid indicator that they intend to compete for the majority of those 4 seasons; and (3) the Cubs are concerned about their ability to develop middle to back end of the rotation starters in the next couple of seasons from the farm system.
But the Edwin Jackson signing should not be taken as a sign that the Cubs are going to shift away from their current strategy of prioritizing the farm system over Major League wins for thew 2013 season. If I had to guess, though, 2014 will be a different story.
On a final note, I hope all of you who celebrate it are having a wonderful Christmas.