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The Chicago Cubs should not press the panic button just yet.
Following a championship triumph over a century in the making, the Cubs entered 2017 with lofty expectations. A young nucleus, some reasonably thought, would only improve with more seasoning. Instead, they trail the surprisingly proficient Milwaukee Brewers for the National League Central lead at an underwhelming 25-27.
Since the potential dynasty has merely looked average, the Cubs must seek reinforcements this summer. Yet their chances of repeating shouldn’t hinge on completing a blockbuster. They’re far healthier than most squads, and positive regression from established contributors (Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey) should soon spur a hot streak.
Last year, relief pitching stood out as their unmistakable weakness. With Wade Davis fortifying the late innings, they will likely instead seek a starting pitcher to ignite another postseason pursuit. While they shouldn’t make a bullpen move near the magnitude of last year’s Aroldis Chapman acquisition, a right-handed-heavy group could use a left-handed specialist.
Don’t think of these trade targets as belonging to a desperate team seeking a catalyst to turn the season around. Instead, view them as extra boosts to help claim the division and combat potent adversaries seeking their throne.
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Cubs fans would probably rather acquire Chris Archer, but the franchise would have to pay a king’s ransom to pry away an ace who will make $38.5 million from this season through 2021 (including club options) with the Tampa Bay Rays. Alex Cobb is a more realistic choice for the Cubs, who primarily need depth more than a high-impact stud.
Depending on how one feels about John Lackey—this author isn’t overly concerned about a dependable veteran with a 3.89 skill-interactive ERA (SIERA)—the Cubs could make do with a mid-tier starter who offers solid innings during the season. Teams typically procrastinate until the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, but the sooner Chicago finds this piece, the better.
Cobb isn’t the flashiest choice, but he fits this credo. After injuries limited him to five starts in 2016, the 29-year-old righty has registered a 3.67 ERA this season. He’s pitching more to contact, striking out 6.42 batters per nine innings (K/9) with a career-low 7.3 swinging-strike percentage, but moving to the Cubs would offset some potential regression.
Aside from playing in the National League for the first time in his career, the ground-ball pitcher would benefit from a stout defensive infield. Although it’s his personal-worst clip, a 47.9 ground-ball rate should still entice the Cubs.
Even if the Rays remain competitive, the small-market organization will likely shop Cobb, who is improving his stock before entering free agency this winter. A lifelong Ray, drafted when they were the Devil Rays in 2006, Cobb acknowledged as much to the Tampa Bay Times‘ Marc Topkin in March.
“It’s just the way things unfold here,” he said. “If you were a betting man, that probably would be the way to go.”
Reuniting with former Rays manager Joe Maddon would help both parties, and the Cubs wouldn’t have to pay a premium for a mid-rotation starter with an injury history on an expiring contract.
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Once again, this is not the team in question’s pitcher who sparks the most trade chatter. While the Pittsburgh Pirates trading Gerrit Cole is more feasible than Tampa Bay moving Archer, they don’t have to sell a 26-year-old ace in his arbitration years.
They also may not feel compelled to trade Ivan Nova, who inked a three-year, $26 million deal last winter that looks like a colossal bargain. Edinson Volquez received a higher average annual salary after posting the second-highest ERA (5.36) among all qualified starters.
Nova, meanwhile, has authored a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts since Pittsburgh acquired him last summer. Over those 141.2 innings, he has issued nine walks and tossed five complete games. A rare workhorse, his 77 innings pitched leads the NL.
His impeccable command and valuable durability would fetch a high return on the trade market, which could motivate the middling Pirates to sell high on a 30-year-old with a 4.18 career ERA. They have also witnessed his pitch-to-contact style implode in May, during which he allowed 51 hits and 19 runs.
Regression aside, Nova still wields a 2.92 ERA and 50.2 ground-ball rate this season. Such success from someone with a 4.68 K/9 is even wilder considering Pittsburgh has produced minus-17 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), MLB’s fourth-worst tally. Nova needs better fielding to stay sharp, and the Cubs have a rotation spot to fill and a division to win.
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The Cubs currently roster two left-handed relievers. Former starter Mike Montgomery has compiled nearly as many walks (20) and strikeouts (23), and opposing lefties are 10-for-30 with three doubles and a home run against Brian Duensing.
Maddon can trust his right-handed bullpen arms (Davis, Carl Edwards Jr., Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Koji Uehara) to handle batters from both sides, but an affordable southpaw would certainly help in a playoff series against the lefty-heavy Los Angeles Dodgers or Bryce Harper’s Washington Nationals. The New York Mets’ troubles may make an elite one available.
At 23-28, with Noah Syndergaard and Yoenis Cespedes headlining a long list of injuries, don’t be shocked if the Mets sell some veterans in late July. If so, contenders should line up for Jerry Blevins, as fellow lefties wield a microscopic .124 wOBA against the LOOGY extraordinaire.
New York’s bullpen has compelled manager Terry Collins to insert Blevins into 28 games. Chicago—who wouldn’t need to wear him down, with a deeper bullpen and healthy starters who go longer into games—would take greater measures to preserve his arm for October.
Unless the Mets have concocted a magic health potion, it may make sense to move the 33-year-old specialist, who signed a one-year contract last winter with a $7 million club option for 2018. Although Blevins excels at his role, that’s expensive for a veteran reliever typically tasked with recording one or two outs at a time.
The Cubs, meanwhile, can fill a niche need without sacrificing a significant prospect—as long as Collins doesn’t wear Blevins out before the organization is ready to sell.
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Is Jason Vargas for real? It depends how high one sets the bar for the Kansas City Royals’ late bloomer.
The 34-year-old southpaw stunned the league by cementing a 1.41 ERA through April. Despite oddly allowing a .354/.367/.542 slash line to fellow lefties, his 2.39 ERA ranks sixth among all qualified starters.
That won’t last. Those who won’t accept his 4.15 SIERA as a warning sign should at least concede that a veteran with a career 4.01 ERA and 6.01 K/9 didn’t wake up a front-line starter.
Yet there’s no doubting his noticeable improvements since returning from Tommy John surgery late last year. In those 13 starts, he has compiled a 2.36 ERA and 62 strikeouts over 72.1 frames. Despite infrequently hitting 90 on the radar gun, he holds an 11.5 swinging-strike rate in 2017.
He’s not a Cy Young candidate, but Vargas is a viable starter who could help a contender if the Royals sell high, the probability of which increased with Danny Duffy out for between six to eight weeks with an oblique injury. According to the Boston Globe‘s Nick Cafardo, Vargas is drawing “considerable interest” during the final year of his four-year deal.
While he will earn a massive raise this offseason, a deep-pocketed contender like the Cubs will view his $8 million salary as chump change for a capable starter. Age and an uninspiring track record should nonetheless lower his trade cost to a tolerable rate.
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Were those other options too boring? If the Cubs want to make a short-term upgrade while bolstering their aging rotation beyond 2017, Sonny Gray is their most realistic choice.
The Oakland Athletics rarely display loyalty to their players, and last season’s 5.69 ERA could have them questioning Gray’s future as a top-line starter. If any uncertainty lingers, vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane may pounce on some recent promising signs.
The 27-year-old looked sharp before yielding seven runs to the Cleveland Indians on Tuesday. His ERA skyrocketed from 3.34 to 4.72, but he previously accumulated 19 strikeouts in two starts.
Inconsistencies aside, the once-prized pitcher is again a valuable trade commodity. Following May 24’s 11-strikeout gem against the Miami Marlins, ESPN.com’s Buster Olney said Gray “could become the No. 1 target in the trade market in the weeks ahead.”
The Cubs should be first in line. Arrieta can leave this winter, and Kyle Hendricks is their only regular rotation member younger than 30. Assuming Archer and Cole are only attainable for a Godfather offer, Gray is the top target to maintain an inspiring dynasty.
He has outperformed his peripherals by avoiding hard contact, and the Cubs’ athletic defense could elevate that trend to new heights. Russell and Rizzo would optimize his 60.0 ground-ball rate far better than Jed Lowrie and Yonder Alonso. Just ask Hendricks, an unlikely 2016 NL Cy Young Award contender.
If Gray stays healthy and effective, look for his name to pop up in Cubs trade chatter all summer.
Note: All advanced stats courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.