I made a conscious effort to take a break from the site for about a day and a half, so I apologize if this news is a little stale. But hey, maybe you took some time away as well and this will abll be perfectly fresh. Either way, I’m going to dig into this like it’s the leftover ham and smoked turkey calling my name from the fridge.
First up is Marcus Stroman, who many believe will command a contract that excludes him from Jed Hoyer’s shopping list. Initial reports were that he was seeking around $25 million annually for five years or so, and subsequent projections have him in the low nine-figure range. Even if he comes down from that, it’s a lot more than the $44 million over four years that was too rich for the Cubs to guarantee Steven Matz.
A report from Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors listed the Cubs among the teams that were “interested in” Stroman, but exactly what that means is up in the air. While it certainly could indicate that the Cubs are actually intent on pursuing the righty in earnest, it could just be that they’re kicking the tires as a matter of due diligence. Or maybe Stroman’s agent is creating buzz in the media.
Sources say the Red Sox, Giants, Cubs, Mets, and Angels are interested in free agent righty Marcus Stroman.
— timdierkes (@timdierkes) November 24, 2021
As much as I like Stroman as a person and pitcher, I’m kind of hoping this is one of the latter two situations. That’s got nothing to do with cost, which really shouldn’t be an issue for the Cubs even if we all know it will be. It’s more that, for as much as the perception of them might be different, Stroman and Matz aren’t all that different as pitchers when it comes to what the Cubs are looking for.
They’re only four weeks apart in age — Stroman is slightly older — and both have spent their entire careers with the Blue Jays and Mets. Okay, that last bit is completely irrelevant even if that Mets stank takes time to wash off. Neither is known for putting up big strikeout numbers, though the deviation in their performance in that regard is where I’m very wary of the Cubs committing significant time and money to Stroman.
Hoyer talked about the need to fundamentally reshape a rotation that wasn’t good enough in 2021, or in several previous seasons if we’re being honest. So far, however, they’ve actually moved backward relative to his proclamation.
“You need power pitching,” Hoyer said during his end-of-season press conference. “You need power arms to win in today’s game. You need to be able to miss bats. The makeup of our staff this year was too contact-oriented, so to speak, and that’s something that needs to change.”
They went out and added Wade Miley, who barely hits 90 mph and fell below the league average for starters in terms of swinging-strike rate (10.1% vs 10.9%), strikeout rate (18.1% vs. 22.6%), and K/9 (6.90 vs. 8.62). While Stroman generated more swinging strikes (11.6%) last season, his 21.6% K-rate and 7.94 K/9 still fell below the average and can’t be expected to increase as he ages. He’s a pitch-to-contact guy who relies on grounders to get outs and wipe mistakes off the board.
That’s great if you’ve already got a rotation that can get lots of whiffs, but the Cubs have the exact opposite issue. If they are going to be making a nine-figure offer to a pitcher, Kevin Gausman makes more sense. He’s a few months older than Stroman, but his 95 mph fastball is a couple ticks harder and he misses bats at a much higher rate.
Gausman has been over 10 K/9 each of the last three seasons and has averaged around a 30% K-rate over the last two. His nasty splitter has led the way in averaging over a 15% swinging-strike rate since 2019, with his 15.3% this past season ranking fifth in MLB (min. 100 IP). I’m not saying Gausman is the answer, but he appears to be a much better fit than Stroman at this point.
If the Cubs are not willing to fork out that kind of cash, Jon Gray becomes an obvious target. They will likely have to push to at least the level of the Matz deal to get it done, particularly if the Rangers have “legitimate interest,” but that middle tier of starters has been picked over pretty thoroughly and it’s time to make a move. The Rangers have put out clear signals that they intend to spend, so they’re not going to be a passive bidder here.
Gray has been inconsistent since being drafted one spot behind Kris Bryant in 2013, but his 3.91 FIP and 3.80 xFIP are much better than his 4.59 ERA. That means his numbers are probably much worse than they should be, though it’s not because of pitching in Denver. Gray’s career splits are actually better on the road, which seems like something his suitors would find enticing.
He’s also got a mid-90’s fastball that might benefit from better location or even a minor tweak in the grip to generate more movement. His slider is nasty and his curve is passable, then there’s a changeup that is totally meh and might yet be ripe for improvement. Gray isn’t Gausman when it comes to missing bats, but he’s above league average in all the categories listed above and it’s entirely possible he’s got room to get much better in that regard.
Ed note: I discovered the below Twitter thread the day after publishing this piece and wanted to include it because it goes into greater detail on Gray’s pitches, particularly the fastball.
at 1:15 would have to be shifted (very difficult/risky to due IMO) to change the shape of the pitch. Even though raw spin may rebound, the lack of whiffs won't.
The slider already bangs. There's no confidence in a third pitch. And leaving Coors won't help a slowly declining velo
— Doug (@FTLO_Baseball) November 26, 2021
Oh, he’ll also cost less than half the total amount over fewer years. Out of the pitchers widely considered to be among the top 50 free agents, Gray probably best fits what the Cubs need in terms of stuff and what they want in terms of price range. In the event that they are out-bid for him, which is all too likely, the next-best fit might be Yusei Kikuchi. He’s also 30 and is a bit riskier due to some scary batted-ball results, but he’s got that same mid-90s heat with above-average strikeout numbers.
Time is running pretty thin here when it comes to making a move to improve the rotation and I still believe the Cubs will do something, but I guess we’ll see.