The Cubs need to acquire ace-caliber pitching to save this season and perhaps future ones.

Should the Cubs trade a young player such as Javier Baez or minor league prospects for a front-line starting pitcher?  Yes, but only if the pitcher they acquire is under club control for several seasons.

The correlation between winning championships and solid pitching remains airtight.  The last 20 World Series participants (2007-2016) have produced a team ERA better than the league average.  In many cases, they sported some of the league’s best staffs.

Entering play June 7, the Cubs’ 3.97 ERA was the seventh best in the Major Leagues, but only a little better than the league average of 4.23.

The correlation between championship success and pitching can be be seen in the chart below.  We post each of the last 10 World Series matchups, each participant’s regular-season ERA, each team’s league ranking, and the league’s average ERA.

2007: Boston (3.87 ERA; first) defeated Colorado (4.32; 14th). League average: 4.46

2008: Philadelphia (3.88; sixth) defeated Tampa Bay (3.82; third). League average: 4.32 

2009: The New York Yankees (4.26; 12th) defeated Philadelphia (4.16; eighth). League average: 4.31

2010: San Francisco (3.68; first) defeated Texas (3.93; ninth). League average: 4.07

2011: St. Louis (3.74; 12th) defeated Texas (3.79; 13th). League average: 3.94

2012: San Francisco (3.68; seventh) defeated Detroit (3.75; ninth). League average: 4.01

2013: Boston (3.79; 14th) defeated St. Louis (3.42; fifth). League average: 3.86

2014: San Francisco (3.50; 10th) defeated Kansas City (3.51; 12th). League average: 3.74

2015: Kansas City (3.73; 10th) defeated the New York Mets (3.43; fourth). League average: 3.95

2016: Chicago Cubs (3.15; first) defeated Cleveland (3.84; seventh). League average: 4.18

In light of this correlation, the Cubs could soon be facing a crisis if they do not develop and/or acquire front-line pitching.  The only starting pitchers from the Cubs opening day rotation who are currently under club control next year are Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks.

Ideally, the cavalry of starting pitching would come from within the Cubs organization, and the Cubs certainly possess several intriguing pitching prospects.  But the vast majority of those prospects are playing at Double-A or lower.  Even if there is an in-house cavalry, it is at best two years away from paying dividends.

The Cubs don’t have two seasons to wait if they want to keep contending for titles.  And even management has to have some doubt about in-house options after only two pitchers drafted by the current regime, in place before the 2012 draft, made it to the Cubs:  Rob Zastryzny and Pierce Johnson.  Neither is with the team now.

This season, Lester, Hendricks and fellow starters Jake Arrieta and Jon Lackey are all performing well-below their 2016 production.

 

A pitching addition might be necessary, not only for the Cubs’ long-term plans but, as the above chart demonstrates, to viably defend their championship.

Last year, the Cubs used duplication at the shortstop position within their system to acquire closer Aroldis Chapman to fill a void in the backend of the bullpen.  Chapman became a half-season rental when he re-signed with the team the Cubs acquired him from, the New York Yankees, during the offseason.  While Gleyber Torres was the Cubs’ top-rated prospect at the time of the trade, he was blocked at the major leagues by Addison Russell, Javier Baez and Ben Zobrist.  They traded three players in addition to Torres.

With the emergence of rookie Ian Happ, the Cubs have duplication at second base, which is currently being manned largely by Zobrist and Baez.  Baez reportedly has more trade value than Happ.

Two pitchers the Cubs should prioritize in trade talks are the Giants’ Johnny Cueto and the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Zack Greinke.  Cueto signed a six-year $130 million contract prior to the 2016 season.  The contract does allow for Cueto, 31, to opt out after this season, which incentivizes a trade for the Giants given that they are 14 games out of first place in the National League West and 11.5 games behind the leader in the wild card race.

Speculation is that Cueto will exercise his option to become a free agent at season’s end.  If the Cubs trade for Cueto, they would need Cueto to agree not to opt-out, in which case the Cubs would have the incredibly durable right-hander,  who  sports a 3.28 ERA in 10 seasons, under contract through the 2021 season.

Greinke, 33, would be the far more-appealing option because the six-year, $206.5 million contract he signed with Arizona before the 2016 season does not contain an opt-out clause.  There is speculation that the Diamondbacks are looking to par salary and that Greinke’s is at the top of the chopping block.

The Diamondbacks, one of baseball’s biggest surprises thus far at 35-25, are still looking up at the Los Angeles Dodgers and Rockies.  If the Cubs were willing to absorb all of the outstanding money on Greinke’s contract, over $120 million, perhaps Baez would be enough to make a deal palatable for both sides.  Greinke, now in his 14th season, has eclipsed 200 innings six times and has a career ERA of 3.41 and season ERA of 3.06.

Baez might have appeal to the Diamondbacks because the earliest he can become arbitration eligible is 2019, and the soonest he can become a free agent is 2022.

A rotation of Lester, Hendricks and Cueto or Greinke could help keep the Cubs competitive until (or if) some of their minor league pitching is finally ready to fill rotation voids.

The Cubs could pursue the Rangers’ Yu Darvish, who is 30 years old and a three-time All-Star.  This season, he has a 3.13 ERA through 12 starts.  However, before they complete any trade for Darvish, whose Rangers are not competitive in the American League West, the Cubs would have to extend Darvish’s contract, which only runs through this season.

Perhaps the best trade option for the Cubs is Chris Archer, who is under club control through the 2021 season for the bargain price of approximately $33 million.  Yet Archer, who is well on his way to exceeding 200 innings for the third consecutive season, would likely command more than just Baez.

Archer was in the Cubs minor league system in 2009 and 2010, and was the organizational pitcher of the year in 2010 before the Cubs dealt him to Tampa Bay.  As long as Chicago does not mortgage its future, acquiring the right-hander with a career ERA of 3.53 would make the most sense.

 

Yet another option is Chicago White Sox’ left-hander Jose Quintana.  Sure, Quintana, 28, is having a poor season, but he has a career ERA of 3.54, and he has thrown 200 or more innings four consecutive seasons.  Just as importantly, he is under club control through 2020 at a cost of approximately $30 million.

The Cubs are prohibitive favorites in the watered-down National League Central.  If they want to contend for a championship this season, they must upgrade their starting rotation.  If they want to contend for many more championships, they must acquire ace-caliber pitching under club control for several seasons.

Hopefully, there will come a time when the Cubs can fill rotation spots with homegrown talent without skipping a beat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cubs, Arrieta look to extend winning streak to five

The Cubs (29-27) enter play tonight having won four consecutive games following a six-game losing streak.  They sit atop the National League Central,  percentage points ahead of the second-pace Milwaukee Brewers.

They will host the Miami Marlins (24-32), who are 12 games behind the Washington Nationals in the National League East and who the Cubs defeated 3-1 last night.

Jake Arrieta (5-4, 4.60 ERA) is pitching for the Cubs.  Arrieta pitched well in his last outing at the San Diego Padres on May 31.  He tossed six innings of one-run ball, walked two and fanned seven.  He will be seeking consecutive quality starts for the first time since his first two starts of the season.

Despite his well-documented reduced velocity, Arrieta’s strikeout rate is comparable to that during his 2015 Cy Young season.  His strikeout rate in 2015 was 27.1 percent, and this season it is 26.5 percent. Arrieta’s walk rates in 2015 (5.5 percent) and 2017 (6.3 percent) are also nearly identical.

The obvious reason for Arrieta’s diminished production is the spike in his fly ball and home run rates.  In 2015, Arrieta’s fly ball ratio was an exceptional 22.8 percent, and only 7.8 percent of those fly balls were homers.  This season, Arrieta’s fly ball rate is 37.3 percent, and his home run to fly ball rate has jumped to 22.8 percent.

Moreover, Arrieta’s BABIP in 2015 was .246.  This season, it’s .337, the 11th highest among 86 qualifying pitchers.  This suggests that Arrieta is pitching behind a slightly less leather-tight defense than in 2015, that he is yielding harder contact, and that he is allowing more home runs.

The Marlins appear to be a good team for Arrieta to try to regain his erstwhile success.  The bearded right-hander has made two career starts against Miami, producing an ERA of 0.69 and yielding an OPS of .431.

His mound opponent is a familiar face to the Cubs, left-hander Jeff Locke.  Locke signed as a free agent with the Marlins this past offseason after six seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates.  A biceps injury delayed Locke’s Marlins debut to June 1, when he pitched 5.2 innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks and limited them to one run, and he allowed no walks and fanned seven.  Locke sports a career record of 35-38 with a 4.39 ERA.

The Cubs in general, and Wrigley Field in particular, have been difficult challenges for Locke.  In 12 career games against the Cubs, Locke’s ERA is 6.00, and he has yielded an OPS of .872.  In six appearances at Wrigley Field, Locke has yielded an OPS of .969 and produced an ERA of 8.42.

The Cubs’ lineup against Locke includes six right-handed hitters.

 

Locke’s career splits are not as dramatic as those of many left-handed pitchers.  He has yielded a .725 OPS against lefties, and only a slightly higher OPS of .752 against righties.

Let’s enjoy some interesting trivia linking the Cubs and Marlins organizations as we work our way to opening pitch.

 

Here is the lineup that Arrieta will face:

 

Unless the wind patterns change, we might not see any home runs hit to left field.  Then again, Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton could probably hit a home run through a tropical storm.

Play ball!

 

 

Through five innings, Arrieta has avoided the problems that have plagued him most of this season.  He has induced seven groundouts, fanned five and allowed no home runs.  The Cubs have stranded two men in scoring position, including one who reached second with nobody out in the second inning.

 

 

 

Arrieta’s night is over.  He pitched six plus innings.  He was lifted after giving up a deep triple to the first batter he faced in the seventh. It’s now up to the Cubs bullpen to rein in the Marlins.

 

 

Through seven innings, the Cubs have now tallied 10 runs and five or more in three of their last four games.  It is premature to declare that their bombs-away offense from last season has been fully restored.  They averaged 5.02 runs per game last season (808 in 161 games), and, entering play tonight, the Cubs were averaging 4.61 runs per game (258 in 56 games).  The needle is moving in the right direction.

 

Cubs manager Joe Maddon lauded the clutch pitching of Pedro Strop, the three-run homer (“a staggering blow”) off the bat of Anthony Rizzo and the exceptional pitching by Arrieta. 

 

Arrieta theorized that the Cubs’ six-game, West Coast clunker might have reinvigorated the team and given it a greater sense of “urgency.”

 

 

 

Wrap up:  Their 10-2 victory over the Marlins preserves the Cubs (30-27) percentage-points, first-place division lead over the Brewers (31-28), who defeated the San Francisco Giants.

Arrieta in particular, and the Cubs in general, succeeded in keeping the ball out of the not-so-friendly sky in their 10-2 victory.  Arrieta allowed only three fly balls to ten grounders, and three Cubs relievers allowed no fly balls while inducing five grounders.  During their current five-game winning streak, the bullpen, a strength of the team all season, has pitched 14.1 innings and yielded only two runs, both by Hector Rondon on June 4 against St. Louis.

Rizzo is showing signs of emerging from a season-long slump.  His three-run blast, which erased a 1-0 deficit, and four RBIs follow a three-hit performance against St. Louis on June 4.  With 34 RBIs through 57 games, Rizzo, who has driven in over 100 runs in each of the last two seasons, is now on pace for 97 RBIs.  Jason Heyward, who worked during the offseason to overhaul his hitting mechanics, has raised his OPS to .737, a marked improvement over last season’s .631.  Albert Almora, who entered June 4 with only 62 plate appearances against right-handers, has now banged out hits against against them in three consecutive games.  Maybe he is shedding the label of being a platoon player.      

Strop has now thrown 8.1 consecutive scoreless innings, and Justin Grimm has tossed four, all since returning from his latest demotion to Iowa.  If they continue to pitch well, the Cubs bullpen could be a dominant force.

No question, Arrieta’s second-consecutive quality start –he induced seven grounders to three fly outs and fanned seven in his previous start –is the best takeaway from tonight’s win.  There is simply no way the Cubs can contend for a championship with a mediocre starting rotation.  Arrieta’s success will hopefully be a contagion that afflicts the struggling Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and John Lackey who, like Arrieta, have grossly under-performed relative to last season.

Next up:  The Cubs will take aim at their second-consecutive series sweep with Lackey scheduled to oppose Marlins’ right-hander Jose Urena.

 

Cubs should promote three Double-A pitchers this season.

Last week, we discussed the necessity of the Cubs protecting their top prospects from the Rule 5 draft (the draft) by placing them on the 40-man roster before the draft is held this December.  The Cubs must take the same measures with farmhands who are eligible for free agency who they want to avoid losing.

In the last two drafts,  2015 and 2016, the overwhelming number of players selected had reached at least the Double-A level.  With this trend in mind, it behooves the Cubs to prioritize those players in the upper levels of their system, with the obvious exception of phenom Eloy Jimenez.

Today, we will profile two draft-eligible prospects and one impending free agent who have more than paid their Double-A dues and should be promoted to Triple-A Iowa this season.  If the Cubs are going to do their due diligence on these farmhands before the draft, they need to test them at a level they have not already dominated.

Baseball is no different than poker.  The more cards you see, the more informed your judgment.

Jen-Ho Tseng

The Cubs signed the Taiwanese right-hander in July of 2013.   He was the organizational pitcher of the year in 2014, when he produced a 2.49 ERA in 19 appearances for Low-A Kane County, walking only 15 in 105 innings.  Tseng, 22, hit a roadblock last year at Tennessee, when he posted a 4.29 ERA in 22 starts. He allowed 138 hits in 113.1 innings.

Tseng has flipped the switch this year.  In 59 innings, covering 10 starts, he has produced a 2.95 ERA and an exceptional 4.27 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He ranks fifth in the Southern League in both ERA and WHIP.

Tseng possesses a low-90’s fastball, a knee-buckling curveball and a changeup.  He also pitches with exceptional command and effectively changes speeds.

Tseng is Rule 5 eligible at season’s end.

Trevor Clifton        

The right-handed Clifton is the reigning organizational pitcher of the year.  Last season for High-A Mrytle Beach, the Cubs’ 12th round pick in the 2013 draft produced a Carolina League-leading ERA of 2.72 in 119 innings and allowed only four homers.

The Tennessee native has arguably improved his performance at Double-A this season.  He is fourth in the Southern League with an ERA of 2.43, covering 55.2 innings.  He has yielded only two homers.

Clifton entered the Cubs organization with a mid-90s fastball and curveball, but has expanded his arsenal to include a slider and a changeup, the latter pitch which he now considers his best offering.

Clifton is Rule 5 eligible at season’s end.

Daury Torrez

The right-hander has been in the Cubs system since 2011 but is still only 23 years old. Torrez, a native of the Dominican Republic, was a starter in 2014 and 2015.  For Kane County in 2014, he produced a 2.74 ERA in 131.1 innings, and for Myrtle Beach the following year, he fashioned a 3.75 ERA in 134.1 innings.

Yet, the Cubs converted him to a reliever for the 2016 season.  While his ERA of 3.56 was far from jaw-dropping, the Cubs promoted him to Tennessee this season, where he has been Dennis Eckersley-like for the Smokies.

In 16 games, covering 27.2 innings, Torrez has allowed only 12 hits and no homers and fanned 20.  He sports a mid-90s fastball and a plus slider.

Translation of the above tweet:  Torrez is working on a streak of 23.2 consecutive scoreless innings.  That’s impressive in any language.

Yet Torrez is a minor league free agent at season’s end.

Several of Iowa’s pitchers are not only performing dreadfully, but have almost no chance of pitching for the Cubs.  Williams PerezManny Parra, and Aaron Brooks are currently serving up batting practice to opposing Pacific Coast league hitters.  The only good reason to keep these three on the roster is to entice youngsters to the ballpark with the hope of catching a home run ball.

The Cubs should replace them with Tseng, Clifton and Torres so that they know, when it comes time to decide whether to add them to the 40-man roster, whether they should fold their hand or go all in.

Could Triple-A Iowa’s Caratini and Frankoff be on the precipice of their major league debuts?

The Triple-A Iowa Cubs are nearing the halfway mark of their season.  Today, we will delve into the significance of two players who have had remarkable campaigns to date.

Victor Caratini

Victor Caratini, Iowa’s switch-hitting catcher and reserve first baseman and third baseman, continues to make a case to replace veteran Miguel Montero as Willson Contreras‘ primary backup.  Caratini belted his fifth home run and and 13th double and raised his batting average to .347 in Iowa’s victory on June 3.

Brett Taylor of Bleacher Nation reported that Caratini recently earned catching prospect of the week honors for the second consecutive week from MLB Pipeline.  Taylor noted that Caratini’s high BABIP (.386 through June 3) is probably not sustainable, and that he will need to improve his walk rate (seven percent) to maintain his his current clip on- base-percentage. Although the sample size is very small, 35 plate appearances, Caratini’s walk rate is a modestly improved 8.6 percent since May 19.

Caratini’s defense had been a question mark, according to a February 2017 piece written by Luke Blaize of Bleacher Nation.  Yet the converted third baseman has earned the praise of his Triple-A manager for his work behind the plate, according to the Des Moines Register’s Tommy Birch.

Montero, on the books for $14 million this season, is eligible for free agency at season’s end, according to spotrac.  Blaize of Bleacher Nation suggested that Caratini could fill Montero’s role next season, fill in for him this year if he suffers an injury, be used as a trade chip if he is deemed to valuable to be a backup, or even displace Contreras.

If, as expected, Montero is not back with the Cubs, the team will have a need for a backup catcher.  Instead of trading Caratini or Contreras to make room for the other, the Cubs should embrace the possibility of having a backup catcher in Caratini who can switch-hit and play multiple positions.

Seth Frankoff

Another pleasant surprise for the Cubs has been the performance of starting pitcher Seth Frankoff.  Frankoff, a 27th round pick of the Oakland Athletics in 2010, pitched in the Athletics and Los Angeles Dodgers organizations from 2010 to 2016.  He was signed by the Cubs as a minor league free agent during the offseason, as reported by Tony Crumpton of CubsHQ.com last November.

As discussed by the Iowa Cubs official web site, Frankoff started and earned the win in Iowa’s game on June 3.  Frankoff, 28, has now pitched 55.1 innings for Iowa and yielded only 37 hits and 15 walks while fanning 59.  Blaize of Bleacher Nation recently wrote about an oddity in Frankoff’s statistics.  He noted that Frankoff’s home run to fly ball rate of 21.9 percent through 35 innings was almost impossible to reconcile with Frankoff’s solid groundball rate.

Blazie suspected the home run rate was likely the result of poor luck or Frankoff missing badly with his mistake pitches.  He predicted that if Frankoff maintained his impressive groundball rate, his home runs allowed per nine innings would drop precipitously.  Since Blaize’s piece, Frankoff has allowed only one home run in his last 19.2 innings, according to FanGraphs, and his home runs allowed per nine innings has dropped from 1.77 to 1.3.

Tom U., of Chicago Cubs Online, reported last December that Frankoff features a fastball in the “high 80s/low90’s.”  Yet the fastball possesses sneaky velocity because he employs a “delivery that has him literally jumping off the mound.”  He also throws a curveball.

In a 2014 interview with Lee Hayward of the Midland Reporter-Texas, Frankoff, who was then pitching for Double-A Midland in the Athletics system, said that he is a four-pitch pitcher whose arsenal also includes a cutter and a changeup.

So where does that leave Frankoff?  Since Chicago’s fifth starter Brett Anderson was placed on the disabled list with a back injury on May 7, as reported by Jesse Rogers of ESPN, Eddie Butler has made four starts in his place.  Butler has produced a 4.42 ERA, which is a marked improvement over his 6.50 ERA between 2014 and 2016 with the Colorado Rockies, though his major league sample size this season is very small.  But his 13 walks in 18.1 innings for the Cubs are excessive, and he could be pitching for his spot on the 25-man roster when he faces the Miami Marlins on June 5.

CBSSports.com reported on May 24 that Anderson had a successful bullpen session the previous day in extended spring training in Arizona.  The next step was for Anderson to go through a live batting practice.  Patrick Mooney of CNS Chicago reported that Joe Maddon was adamant that Anderson would need to go on a rehabilitation assignment before he could rejoin the Cubs.

In other words, Anderson’s potential return to the Cubs could be several weeks away.  If Butler continues to struggle, Frankoff could get an audition in the Cubs rotation.  At a minimum, the Cubs will have to decide whether to add Frankoff to their 40-man roster after the season to avoid risking losing him in free agency.

We will continue to chart the progress of Caratini and Frankoff.