With the non-waiver trade deadline quickly approaching, it’s fair to assume that the Chicago Cubs are going to make moves to beef up their pitching down the stretch.
And it’s a safe assumption. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have made deals the last three trade cycles to bolster their staff and bullpen. Their five noteworthy deals included:
- July 31, 2015: Dan Haren – Starter
- July 20, 2016: Mike Montgomery – Long reliever/spot starter
- July 25, 2016: Aroldis Chapman – Closer
- July 14, 2017: Jose Quintana – Starter
- July 31, 2017: Justin Wilson – Reliever
On Thursday, the team traded for Texas Rangers reliever Jesse Chavez, and they’re rumored to be interested in Baltimore Orioles reliever Zach Britton and Miami Marlins reliever Kyle Barraclough.
However, there also is a good chance that the Cubs will look to improve the starting staff. And for good reason.
Beyond Jon Lester, the rest of the rotation is questionable at best. While Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana haven’t been horrific this year, neither has been consistently good enough to prove they can be game-changing performers by the postseason.
Tyler Chatwood continues to struggle with his command, leading the National League in walks. And Yu Darvish has dealt with injury setbacks since May, leaving little to no confidence that he’ll be a bonafide No. 2 or 3 starter down the stretch.
With the New York Mets looking to retool on the fly, we wrote last month about why pursuing ace Jacob deGrom would be an aggressive and wise move down the stretch. The speculation surrounding deGrom to the Cubs has grown the last couple of weeks. However, the front office might not be willing to part with the number of major league pieces that would get any potential deal done.
So if deGrom isn’t a realistic option, who can the Cubs turn to? Here are some starters they can target as the deadline approaches.
Matt Harvey – Cincinnati Reds
Before you spit out your drink or hurl your phone across the room, chew on this for a bit. Although he’s had durability and attitude issues in the past, Harvey’s 12-game stint with the Reds has been rock solid. The 29-year-old is 5-3 with a 3.64 ERA and 1.17 WHIP, and he looks close to the pitcher he was earlier in his career with the Mets.
If you’re worried about him reverting to the old, ego-maniacal Harvey, the good news is that Cubs offer a situation to keep him in check and fully engaged. They not only are in a hot division title race, but they also have a great clubhouse culture that most likely would suit his style. Joe Maddon and cornerstone players like Jon Lester and Anthony Rizzo do a masterful job of keeping things light while still maintaining a competitive edge.
It seems like the perfect fit for Harvey. When he’s pitching at peak performance, he can be a top-end No. 2 or 3 starter who could be a valuable piece down the stretch and in the postseason.
Since he’s playing on a one-year deal, Harvey’s price tag shouldn’t be too high for the Cubs. As a rental, it might cost them a couple of mid-level prospects or a package including a minor-league pitcher and a major leaguer like David Bote or Victor Caratini.
While losing Bote or Caratini would take depth off the major league roster, it would help shore up the middle of the rotation. And that can be a huge difference between making the playoffs and competing for a World Series title.
J.A. Happ – Toronto Blue Jays
Happ is the type of pitcher who elicits a resounding “meh” from a lot of fans. He’s 34 and doesn’t have the electric stuff someone like deGrom or Harvey possess. But he always has seasons where he overperforms, and 2018 has been one of those years.
Coming off the heels of a 20-win campaign two years ago, Happ is 10-6 with a 1.19 WHIP in 19 starts through the first half of the season, earning his first All-Star selection. His 4.29 ERA is nothing to write home about. But that number fattened up from his last three starts, which included outings against the high-powered New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
Prior to July, he only had three losses and a respectable 3.62 ERA. During his first 16 outings, he notched five wins against teams that ranked in the top half of the majors in team batting. What’s been even more impressive is that he’s pitched into the sixth inning or later in 10 of those starts.
There have been reports that the Cubs are interested in the Evanston native, and the Blue Jays are reportedly eyeing Bote and a couple of minor league prospects. While he might not be a high-end starter, Happ will certainly tie up loose ends in the back half of the rotation and provide solid starts come playoff time.
Michael Fulmer – Detroit Tigers
Fulmer has been a solid starter in his short three-year career, earning AL Rookie of the Year honors in 2016 and an All-Star selection last season. However, the 26-year-old righty has been in a slump this season.
Through 19 starts, Fulmer is 3-9 with a 4.50 ERA and 1.32 WHIP. To make matters worse, he strained his oblique during a side session Friday and was placed on the 10-day disabled list. Given his health concerns dating back to last season and first-half struggles, he might be the perfect “buy-low” guy for the Cubs.
The asking price will still be a bit hefty. Unlike the other options on this list, Fulmer is arbitration eligible starting next year and won’t be a free agent until after the 2022 season. A package of mid-level prospects and low-end major leaguers aren’t going to be appealing to Tigers team looking to find valuable young pieces.
Would the front office be willing to part with someone like Ian Happ or Kyle Schwarber to acquire a young, cost-controlled starter? We know there was reported interest in Fulmer last season. A change of scenery not only could propel him in the second half, but it also could give the Cubs an affordable starter for the next four seasons.
Still, they should attempt to pry him away at a lower price. His poor performance started in the latter half of last season, when he dealt with lingering elbow issues that eventually ended his season. So offering a package centered on Caratini and a top minor league arm is at least worth trying before tossing in more valuable pieces off the major league roster.
Other possible Cubs targets
The following starters are expected to be available at the trade deadline, and a couple of names have been tied to the Cubs for a few years. Unlike the three key names above, these guys have some question marks regarding asking price and high-level production.
- Zack Wheeler – Wheeler is viewed as a more realistic trade chip for the Mets than deGrom. At 28 with another season of arbitration, he would be an intriguing mid-rotation option for the Cubs. He’s improved significantly in his last eight starts, which is arguably his best stretch since he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2015. The only issue is that the Mets might look to drive up the asking price to include a package of top prospects and a major leaguer off the Cubs roster.
- Cole Hamels – Hamels would make a nice rental for most teams. He has plenty of postseason experience, and his contract includes a team option for 2019. The only downside is that his performance has been very shaky since June. While he could be this year’s Justin Verlander, is it worth trading mid-level prospects and a top minor league arm for someone who’s been inconsistent to this point?
- Chris Archer – Archer has always been linked to the Cubs. Even though he’s 29 and pitches against stiffer competition in the AL, he’s not necessarily a lockdown No. 1 or 2 starter. However, he’s the ace on the Tampa Bay Rays’ staff and has a friendly contract that includes team options in 2021 and 2022. The package might be too rich for Theo and Jed, especially since he’s not a top-tier starter.
- James Shields –Despite a 4-11 record, Shields is having a decent bounce-back season for the Chicago White Sox. He’s another former Maddon guy who’s been linked to the Cubs in the past, so seeing him on the north side wouldn’t be too surprising. Unlike last season’s crosstown trade for Quintana, this one wouldn’t cost as much. But do they really want to give up any pieces for someone who would be a fifth starter at best?