A Premature Assessment of the Cubs’ 2021 Rotation

With the trepidation of losing the 2020 season, next year’s Cubs squad starts to take on added significance. Certainly, reflecting on what may happen this season (should it exist at all) maintains relevance, but under the circumstances it doesn’t feel too early to look even further ahead.

To that end, a quick examination of the 2021 Cubs roster reveals one major weakness: starting pitching. Tyler Chatwood is set to become a free agent regardless of what happens in 2020, as does Jose Quintana. For Jon Lester, the Cubs have a $10 million buyout or a $25 million club option, and while it’s reasonable to think they could work out a deal with Lester for what might be his final season in 2021, as it stands we don’t know if he’ll return.

Added up, that leaves only 40 percent of the current rotation guaranteed to return in 2021. And while the two remaining starters, Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks, also happen to be rotation anchors, the front office will be tasked with re-stocking the rotation through whatever means necessary.

Those means certainly might involve trades, yet it’s too difficult to project what trades the Cubs might make to address the rotation. Much of the organization’s direction will likely be decided by the 2020 season, in that a hot start would lead to the Cubs possibly being buyers at the deadline, whereas a slow start could induce a stripping down of the core, beginning with Kris Bryant.

There are some internal options to address the rotation for 2021 and beyond, with the caveat that said options aren’t altogether inspiring. Of current roster options, Alec Mills would be the most viable — though depending on how this season unfolds the front office may prefer him in that invaluable long-man/emergency starter role.

From the minors, we’re running out of time on one-time celebrated arm Adbert Alzolay. Injuries have hampered his development, and while he’s only 25 and will certainly see action in some capacity this season, how he performs is of extreme importance concerning his place with the Cubs.

Brailyn Marquez, the organization’s star pitching prospect, is expected to be up as early as 2021 — even if scouts are mixed on his viability as a starter. The Cubs seem convinced of his ability to develop into a top-of-rotation starter, and I share that optimism. Ideally, Marquez slots into the fifth-starter slot in 2021.

Finally, that leaves 2019’s first round selection, Ryan Jensen. A solid college arm with a good fastball, it’s unclear if Jensen will develop the secondary pitches necessary to reach his ceiling as a mid-rotation starter. Further, his projection to reach the majors is likely 2022, leaving his presence in this discussion moot — at least for now.

With an uncertain trade market, and at-best two in house rotation pieces to fill the void, the Cubs will be left with at least one slot to fill in the rotation in 2021. As the market currently stands, one name stands out for the Cubs: Marcus Stroman.

Stroman Would Fill a Huge Void

Entering his age-30 season in 2021, Stroman has shown relative durability en route to an impressive career. Until last year’s curious trade to the Mets, he pitched his entire career in the daunting AL East. All told, Stroman has pitched to a pretty tune: 3.76 ERA (3.69 FIP), 6.9 BB percentage, 19.6 strikeout percentage, .259 BAA, 58.6 ground ball percentage.

While the strikeout rate isn’t eye popping, Stroman’s success has been found in limiting walks, generating ground balls at an obscene clip, and limiting hard contact. Equipped with a terrific spin rate and a well above average expected slugging percentage, it stands to reason he will prove effective as he pitches into his thirties.

With a five-pitch arsenal that’s mixed freely, a low-90’s sinker is complemented with a curve, slider, cutter, and a rarely employed changeup. Stroman relied more heavily on his slider until the 2019 season, when the curve and cutter took on greater relevance, successfully so. Even with a lack of top-end velocity, he generates significant movement with his signature sinker:

Credit: Rob Friedman

Stroman’s reliance on ground balls requires a sturdy infield defense, and in 2021 the Cubs will likely employ Bryant, Javier Baez, Nico Hoerner, and Anthony Rizzo — arguably one of the best infield compositions in the National League. His durability, ability to pitch relatively deep into ball games, and veteran presence indicate an ideal fit, nestled behind Darvish and Hendricks in the rotation.

Stroman will also fit the Cubs from a financial standpoint. Before arbitration, the Cubs currently owe a guaranteed ~$96 million in 2021, allowing for roughly $110 million in salary space before approaching the Luxury Tax. That number will clearly decrease, as it doesn’t account for arbitration salaries (of which there will be plenty), but the reality remains the Cubs will have money to spend in 2021 and beyond.

Stroman’s value on the market is somewhat muddied by recent history. Ranked by mlb.com as the sixth best free agent entering the 2020-21 offseason, second-best starting pitcher behind Trevor Bauer, Stroman’s services will likely be in high demand. It is hard, however, to know if the impending 2021 market will be a boom like last offseason or a bust after 2017 and 2018. Still, it’s worth examining and projecting what Stroman might end up commanding.

Stroman’s underrated athleticism is another reason to like his fit with the Cubs.

First, let’s look at last offseason. Zach Wheeler‘s five year, $118 million deal with the Phillies is likely out of reach for Stroman. Wheeler was a year younger than Stroman will be when he enters free agency, and employs a velocity and swinging strike rate that teams covet for a top-of-rotation type arm.

Ironically, Wheeler’s career FIP (3.71) and fWAR (12.8) are slightly worse than Stroman’s career numbers (3.64, 15.8 respectively). And although Wheeler missed the 2015 and 2016 seasons due to Tommy John surgery and recovery setbacks, he has since shown durability. The promise of his stuff and peripherals allowed him to fetch a higher-than-expected contract; certainly numbers well out of reach for Stroman.

A more likely contract comparison would be Nathan Eovaldi‘s four year, $68 million pact with the Red Sox after their 2018 World Series run. While entirely different pitchers, Eovaldi leveraged an iconic playoff performance into a solid, long-term contract. The numbers align with Stroman not because of similar repertoires, but because Boston was seeking rotation stability when they resigned him.

Clearly that pact has yet to pan out for the Red Sox, but the numbers make sense for Stroman. Currently in his last year of arbitration, Marcus agreed to a one year, $12 million contract for this season. A four year pact with an AAV roughly around that of a Qualifying Offer (~$17 million) would net security for Stroman while not breaking the bank for the team that signs him. It would also afford Stroman one more chance at a multi-year contract should his health and effectiveness remain.

For the Cubs, Stroman would offer rotation stability at an affordable rate, and a four year deal would run his contract throughout the duration of Hendricks’ extension. In short, the deal makes perfect sense at the right price.

Clearly this is all highly speculative, but it’s a worthy thought exercise nonetheless. While it’s imperative the Cubs finally develop homegrown starting pitchers, they can do so while utilizing the free agent market to round out, rather than highlight, their starting five.

Come winter the Cubs would be wise to invest in Marcus Stroman.

Follow Austin Bloomberg on Twitter.

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