At the time of this writing the Chicago Cubs sit at 39-31, bouncing in and out of the second National League wild card spot, and sit 7 1/2 games back of the seemingly perpetual division leading St. Louis Cardinals.
Whether by way of a wild card berth, or a surprise division title, the votes are in: the Chicago Cubs are good (#WeAreGood, indeed). They may not be good enough to win championships yet, or even divisions, but they’re good. Certainly, they’re good enough to be buyers as we approach the upcoming trade deadline.
And it looks entirely like they will be.
With so many elite young talents, it can be difficult to evaluate what the team’s short-term needs are if they opt for competitiveness this year. Is Addison Russell your championship second baseman right now? Probably not, but you aren’t about to bench him seeing as he presumes to be later on.
But as you look at the Cubs’ current roster, beyond the uncertainty that youth inherently brings, there are areas that could stand for upgrades, or at least additional help:
3. Short Relief
The bullpen, despite some ups and downs, isn’t as bad off as some might suggest, hence why it is third on the list of needs. For starters, bullpens, by their nature, are fickle: the same group of relievers can be elite one season and disastrous the next, so it’s unwise to pull the plug on quality arms because of a brief period of inconsistency.
Secondly, the overall numbers haven’t been that bad. The Cubs bullpen is 8th in the majors in ERA (3.09), and despite in the middle of the pack in innings pitched (219.2), they are 8th in runs given up (82). If it wasn’t for the high profile struggles of Hector Rondon, few would even recognize the bullpen as a viable weakness of this team. If you look at the last 30 days, the bullpen has the lowest ERA in the majors (1.56).
Third, the Cubs currently have a number of strong arms already locked and loaded, and that’s before you even consider the impending return of Neil Ramirez, and the wild card sitting in Triple-A (Rafael Soriano). They also recently added Yoervis Medina in the Wellington Castillo trade.
So, even as the Cubs consider possible improvements, there aren’t many spots that could be considered up for grabs. Who would you kick to the curb? Justin Grimm? Jason Motte? James Russell? Rondon? Pedro Strop? You would almost have to expect a trade involving current Cubs relievers if the organization looks to the trade market for upgrades, because when you break down the bullpen arm-to-arm, I’m not sure there are any you specifically don’t want in short relief.
All that being said, you can never have too many quality arms, and the long relievers of Edwin Jackson and Travis Wood could probably stand to be upgraded. If Soriano were to not provide any answers, or the Cubs found themselves in the heat of a tightly contested playoff race (likely) and wanted more experience, suddenly names like Jonathan Papelbon start to make a little more sense.
2. Back-End Starting Rotation
Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta have an iron grip on the top of the Cubs’ starting rotation, even if Lester has been frustrating at times. And Jason Hammel (5-2, 2.65) has continued his ever-surprising performance, which solidifies him as a solid middle-of-rotation arm.
After that things become decidedly dicier.
Kyle Hendricks, after an electric debut across 13 starts in 2014, hasn’t shown to be the same pitcher –the “Maddux-esque” phrase was used in almost every one of his starts last season, less so this season. That doesn’t mean he isn’t the pitcher who went 7-2 with a 2.46 ERA last season, but his ERA is currently 4.46, and his stats are proportionately worse across the board. Small sample sizes, but with two disparate sets of starts to look to for evidence, on which set do you base your evaluation? Hendricks’ last two starts have given no indication that he’s about to turn a corner, either (0-2, 10 IP, 15 h, 10 ER).
The fifth spot hasn’t permanently belonged to anyone all season. Tsuyoshi Wada is currently holding it down after Travis Wood was banished to the bullpen — it could be argued that Wada is pitching better than Hendricks — but Wada, even as a “badass,” remains unestablished as a consistent Major League starter and now finds himself battling some mild injuries. Despite his age (34), he has seven fewer starts (20) than Hendricks (27) at the major league level.
Both of these pitchers have upside, and are probably more reliable than many teams’ fifth options. And as with the bullpen, the Cubs starters have collectively put up, if not elite, then respectable numbers: 7th in ERA (3.67), 2nd in hits allowed, 4th in strikeouts, and 7th in WAR (7.0).
While the back end of the rotation is the focus here, that doesn’t mean that anyone would begrudge them the choice to add to the top of the rotation, because that, in turn, makes the back end that much stronger.
The big names are the obvious ones — Cole Hamels, Johnny Cueto, maybe Jeff Samardzija — but would require the Cubs to part with some pieces they may not want to.
Apart from a blockbuster trade (which is possible given the Cubs’ deep pockets and prospect stockpile), the Cubs could look to many different options towards the middle of the rotation –too many to reliably list here, but more than likely linked to some bottom-dwelling, non-National-League-Central team (Scott Kazmir, Dan Haren, etc.). Someone like Mike Leake would be a possibility as well, but the Cincinnati Reds might be less inclined to trade to a division rival –which seems to make a player like Cueto an even longer shot.
I never thought I’d think the bench was a bigger area of need than the pitching staff. And even now, I’m not sure I can fully justify it, but as we watch this team compete, the bench is pretty clearly the weakest link.
On a given day, it’s David Ross, Mike Baxter, and Jonathan Herrera. Some days, specifically on the return of Jorge Soler, you could add Chris Denorfia. Other days, you might add Matt Szczur or Junior Lake when they are on one of their week-long expeditions to the majors.
That’s just not good enough.
To simplify, we’ll say Ross, Baxter, and Herrera. When Soler comes back, trading out Baxter for Denorfia is an upgrade. You can argue Ross’ value as backup catcher; it’s more difficult to argue his value as a pinch hitter.
Tommy La Stella, who was injured during a rehab stint in May, might eventually come back, but more than likely help will have to come from the outside. The addition of someone like Ben Zobrist could round the bench out nicely. And with Zobrist’s age (34) and injuries this season (41 games played), the price may be reasonable.
When the hypothetical dust settles, the Cubs might be looking at a bench of Ross, Denorfia, and Zobrist. And the jury is still out on whether or not Javier Baez will end up helping the major league club this season. And with Zobrist’s versatility, Chris Coghlan becomes a possibility on a given day.
That starts to look a whole lot better.
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