Update: This article was published prior to the news Theo Epstein was stepping down as Cubs’ President.
This year’s non-tender deadline (December 2) is perhaps more harrowing than any in MLB’s labor history. After a 60-game season in which revenues were sharply impacted by the ongoing pandemic, the unfortunate assumption is that clubs will be uniformly cutting payroll. This clearly has a negative impact on every free agent, save for Trevor Bauer, J.T. Realmuto, Marcell Ozuna, DJ LeMahieu, and George Springer. Yet a lingering fear runs deeper than that for the Players Union. Budget cuts across the league might very well lead teams to non-tender players at a rate with which we’ve never before seen.
Such an influx in newly minted free agents will saturate the market at several positions, eliminating any leverage second and third tier free agents might have. The result will likely be players accepting deals below their ordinary market rate, or further still, signing a minors deal with the hope they earn a roster spot.
A depressed financial market for players has an inverse effect on MLB clubs, of course — despite how much money they actually lost during the 2020 season. The end result appears to be a wave of capable MLB talent at bargain prices.
Concerning the Cubs, Sunday night produced rumors they will be listening to offers on any player, signaling further a desire to shed payroll and revamp the roster:
I had planned to write on this development yesterday, but I had already lamented the state of the Cubs on Friday, and Evan Altman of Cubs Insider properly excoriated this development yesterday morning.
What we’re left with is the reality the Cubs will be doing whatever they can to cut costs. The challenge is how the front office achieves that ownership mandate while maintaining playoff aspirations in 2021.
Truthfully, few teams stand to benefit from a saturated market as much as the budget-conscious Cubs. The roster on the Northside could use starting pitching depth, an impact (preferably lefty) reliever, and contact-oriented hitters, all while slashing a payroll that has crossed the Luxury Tax threshold in each of the last two seasons. It’s a tall order for the front office, to be sure, but the flood of curious talent that would result from an abnormally long list of non-tendered players enhances the odds they might unearth gems at team-friendly prices.
To that end, I will be looking at non-tender candidates for each of these roster needs in succession. Today, let’s look at three starters that, if they become available, could be of interest to the Cubs.
(For more on the impending non-tender deadline, Tim Dierkes provides excellent commentary over at MLB Trade Rumors.)
Steven Matz (LHP), New York Mets
While the Mets have been notably adept at building a system flush with young, talented rotation pieces, Matz has simply not discovered consistency in Queens. Entering the 2015 season he was ranked second overall in an impressive farm system, just behind the mighty Noah Syndergaard. Now? he’s staring at the possibility of being non-tendered as he prepares to embark on his last round of arbitration.
Matz is projected to earn just over $5 million in 2021, a steep number for a pitcher that lost his place in the rotation. His struggles in 2020 (9.68 ERA, 7.76 FIP) were impossibly pronounced, including a career-low ground ball rate (32.6 percent) and an absurd home-run-to-fly-ball-ratio (37.8).
Those numbers have led to numerous outlets pegging Matz as a non-tender candidate. This, in spite of the fact (or perhaps even because of it?) that newly minted owner Steve Cohen is prepared to build a winner, and appears eager to do so beginning this winter. It stands to reason the Mets save the $5 million on Matz for more pressing roster needs.
His 2020 repertoire consisted primarily of a sinker (53.9 percent), with a changeup (26.4), curve (15.0), and occasional slider (4.7). Despite the notable struggles in the abbreviated campaign, he actually averaged a career high 94.5 mph in 2020 with his heater — a rare plus in the midst of a disappointing season.
What’s interesting with Matz is that despite the quality velocity from the left side, his fastball was exclusively a sinker in 2020. I imagine the Cubs would reinvent his repertoire to include the usage of a four seamer, enhancing the value of his sinker down in the zone while providing a new look with a top-of-zone heater. It could also create a more efficient curve and changeup.
With his still talented arm, a ground ball rate 15 points lower than his career average and HR/FB ratio nearly 20 points above his career norm suggest some terrible luck in the shortened 2020 campaign. Add to that an ungodly .341 BABIP, it’s clear to see Matz had an unfortunate year as opposed to being a clearly diminishing talent.
Matz turns 30 next year, and is the ideal candidate for a one year ‘prove it’ deal. Since his market would be set below his arbitration value, I think a one year, $4 million deal would be a wise gamble.
Ross Stripling (RHP), Toronto Blue Jays
Stripling owns an impressive career line: 3.77 ERA, 3.89 FIP, 23.0 K%, 6.0 BB%, 47.6 GB% in 436.1 innings. A full-time Dodger since 2016, he proved to be the epitome of LA’s depth — pitching effectively as a starter and reliever, poised to produce wherever Dave Roberts needed him.
It’s a shame for him personally that his struggles in 2020 (5.84 ERA, 6.14 FIP, 18.2 K%, 8.2 BB%, 39.9 GB%) led to his trade to Toronto, the year the Dodgers finally won it all. (And, if you recall, he was nearly traded preseason to the Angels — along with Joc Pederson — as part of the Mookie Betts whirlwind.)
The pandemic shortened season was difficult for Stripling, who witnessed an increase in exit velocity, decrease in strikeouts and an increase in walks, all of which bloated his numbers in spite of the fact his BABIP (.291) dipped below his career rate (.299).
Stripling throws almost exclusively a four seamer (43.9 percent in 2020) that sits in the low-90’s, followed by a curve (23.9), change (17.3), and slider (14.8). It’s a sturdy mix of pitches that, until 2020, allowed him to thrive in any role asked of him. I don’t think the Cubs would tweak his arsenal all that much, but I do think the Pitch Lab could suggest an explanation for his down season — and influence a return to form for the veteran.
Stripling is projected to earn anywhere from $2.5-$3.7 million in arbitration, and would still be under team control in 2022. While that’s an appealing contract situation, the Blue Jays have already signaled they will be buyers this winter, re-signing Robbie Ray for one year, $8 million. Hyun Jin Ryu fronts their current staff, with promising youngster Nate Pearson and veteran Tanner Roark also slotted, and they maintain a desire to add another starter still.
That would put Stripling into non-tender limbo, despite his previous effectiveness and cost control. Toronto only surrendered two PTBNL in the deal with with Dodgers, making such a roster cut more than palatable after a quick playoff exit.
Stripling will be 31 during the 2021 season, and likely still has a lot left in the tank. His previous durability and consistency signifies he could be a steal if he becomes a surprise free agent. If he is indeed cut loose I like a contract reflecting he currently has two years of team control: 1 year, $3 million with a mutual option in 2022 for $6 million.
José Ureña (RHP), Miami Marlins
At one point Ureña was considered a future Ace of the Marlins. The raw stuff has always been present, but has rarely produced numbers becoming of such talent. Despite a fastball that sits in the mid-90’s, his career K% sits at just 15.9. While his career BB% (8.1) is just fine, it jumped (12.5 percent) in 2020, leading to an abysmal 5.40 ERA and 6.06 FIP.
The Marlins, of course, have a three headed monster at the top of their developing rotation in Pablo Lopez, Sixto Sanchez, and Sandy Alcantara, with plenty of young talent behind them. With Ureña set to earn roughly ~$4 million in his last year of arbitration, he’s a prime non-tender candidate for the ever budget-minded Marlins.
As with Matz, Ureña relies primarily on a sinker, and I think the Cubs would alter his repertoire to more heavily feature a four seamer at the top of the zone. The secondary offerings are decent, and his sinker produces ground balls (47.3 percent over his career); what he needs is the ability to strike hitters out at a rate commensurate with a mid-90’s heater.
A fractured forearm at the end of the season left him off the Marlins’ playoff roster, but doesn’t appear to be an issue heading into the 2021 season. For the Cubs, a one year ‘prove it’ deal could yet again be worthwhile, and $3 million should get the job done for the 29 year old.
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