Going into this offseason, there wasn’t much that the Chicago Cubs needed to do. Collecting 97 wins in 2015 was due in large part to the solid play of a young roster that Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, & Co. had been building for nearly half a decade. All they needed to do was add an outfielder to replace the departed Dexter Fowler (in the case where they do not re-sign the departed Dexter Fowler, that is), upgrade the bullpen with a couple arms, and try to snag a good starting pitcher.
Well, actually I never really have understood that last one. Teams are always looking to make upgrades and, believe me, if the owners have money they should spend it. However, a starting pitcher? Here is where Chicago’s rotation ranked last season:
Obviously this isn’t an area of weakness for the north-siders. Jon Lester did very well in the first season of his new contract. If that isn’t a big enough deal, then you could also look to the continual budding of Kyle Hendricks. Jason Hammel had another productive season in a Cubs uniform. Oh yeah, the Cubbies also had this guy named Jake Arrieta who won some award or something. I hear he’s pretty good.
One-two-three--so that is four solid starting pitchers, but last time I checked Joe Maddon prefers to work with a five-man rotation. Last season the Cubs deployed a combination of Dan Haren and Travis Wood among others for the fifth spot. However, the former is now retired, while the latter looks better suited for the bullpen. The need for one more starter forced them out onto the free agent market, where they found John Lackey in a hopeless place. Well maybe that last part isn’t true, but on Friday the Cubs signed Lackey to a two-year, $32 million deal.
Lackey posted a phenomenal 2015 for the NL Central-champion St. Louis Cardinals. Striking out 19.5 percent of the batters he faced and walking only 5.9 percent, the righty owned a 2.77 ERA and 3.57 FIP over the 218 innings he threw in 33 starts. Lackey’s 3.6 fWAR was good enough for 24th out of the 141 pitchers who threw at least 100 innings last season.
For that amount of time and that amount of money, Lackey really does seem like a perfect fit. By no means does that mean we can assume this will be a sure-fire successful move in which Lackey will outplay his pay and become surplus value for the Cubs. Not at all. Being 37 years old, there is no guarantee that the Cubs didn’t just pay $32 million for John Lackey's decline years. They probably did. However, when the contract is only for two seasons it doesn’t necessarily harm the team.
Should Lackey live up to his Steamer projection in 2016 (2.6 fWAR), the Cubs would actually receive $4.8 million in surplus value. Of course that is just a projection, and living exactly up to that doesn’t always happen, but that type of value is a welcome addition to a young Cubs team who will soon begin paying their prospect-turned-veterans a dollar amount closer to their actual value as a result of arbitration. To me, I think this is where the true value of Lackey’s deal lies.
There weren’t many solid starting pitchers available for fewer than three years on the mid-tier market. Yes, J.A. Happ went for three years. Yes, Scott Kazmir will probably go for three or four. Yes, Doug Fister might be a one-to-three year candidate. Those are just a few, but, like I said, there was/is a plethora of starting pitchers available for three years or more. However, three years is simply too much for the Cubbies.
For the next two years the Cubs have cheap, cheap control of players like Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Kyle Hendricks before they (likely) receive their first arbitration payouts. The year after that Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez are (potentially) set to follow in the footsteps of the aforementioned. Translation: that is a lot of money the Cubs are going to have to dish out--even if it is only the first time.
Although the Cubs are a large-market team, allocating their money to younger players is a better option than having some still tied up in another aging pitcher (Lester is signed for awhile, and the Cubs probably want to sign Arrieta to an extension. They likely don't want another long-term contract for a pitcher in his 30s). The Cubs still have young prospects waiting in the wings. C.J. Edwards (although the Cubs might not want to start him), Duane Underwood, and Pierce Johnson are three guys we could see in the bigs over the next couple seasons. In a sense, signing Lackey is the Cubs' attempt to go out and sign the best possible bridge guy on the market who can pitch well for them as their prospects mature.
The Cubs' strong farm system is one of the reasons that the draft pick compensation tied to Lackey doesn’t hurt them; the forfeiting of their 28th overall draft pick is less of a burden than it would be for most. Also, should the Cubs not re-sign Fowler, they will receive a draft pick in compensation.
This is the second time a Theo Epstein-ran team has signed Lackey to a deal with an AAV of at least $16 million. The hope is that it will work out better this time. It makes perfect sense for the Cubs to sign Lackey, which should scare the rest of the NL Central. The best rotation in baseball just got even better.
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Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score as well as a sophomore pitcher at Howard Payne University majoring in Business Management. He has the current misfortune of being a Red Sox fan. If you would like to get a hold of him, please feel free to email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody.