The Chicago Cubs made a big splash in the age of the pitcher. The front office traded their best hurlers, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, for a package highlighted by top shortstop prospect Addison Russell. It didn’t matter that the Cubs already had the 24-year-old Starlin Castro excelling at short or that minor league SS Javier Baez was ready to jump to the majors.
After their 2011 hiring, Cubs President Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer set their sights on restocking the organization with highly touted position players like Russell, but have traded starting pitchers like Scott Feldman and Matt Garza, Samardzija and Hammel. Pitching supposedly wins championships, but one year after trading away their best starters, the Cubs think they have the tools in place to end their six-year playoff drought. It’s not crazy; they’ve just taken a different approach to finding an ace.
The Cubs have been spurned before by putting their faith in young pitchers. They were five outs from clinching the National League pennant in 2003, and despite their heartbreaking postseason collapse, the future at least looked bright thanks to a pair of first-round pitchers: Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. Wood threw a career-high 266 strikeouts in 2003 while Prior won 18 games in his second season, and both looked to carry Chicago to the World Series in 2004. Injuries cost the 27-year-old Wood and 23-year-old Prior part of the following season, though, and that dream rotation was never the same. The Cubs’ bright future got a little dimmer every time “Mark Prior” and “disabled list” or “Kerry Wood” and “surgery” appeared in the same sentence between 2004 and 2006. And both happened a lot. Chicago paid Wood $8 million in ’04, $9.5M in ’05, and $12M in ’06; they paid $3.15 million in each of those three seasons.
Nearly a decade later, the club’s best pitcher Jake Arrieta — acquired from the Baltimore Orioles the previous season — won 10 games and cost $500,000. The big-market Chicago Cubs only spent $92.7 million last season, down $14 million from the previous year. So they can splurge this offseason in a free agency pool that includes Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, and James Shields.
It’s not that bold of a strategy to anchor a rotation with free agents, though. Of the 199 pitchers in the last five seasons to win at least 10 games and/or have an ERA below 3.50, 20 percent joined their team via free agency. Likewise, 20 percent have been drafted in the first or second rounds. Teams are just as likely to pick up their ace in free agency as they are to drafting one early and grooming him in the minors for two or three years. The former requires money, which the Cubs have; the latter requires patience, which the Cubs have run out of after five consecutive losing seasons.
The rotations that carried franchises to the postseason this year were built on a combination of drafting and spending. Clayton Kershaw and Jared Weaver were top draft picks for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Angels, respectively, but Zack Grienke and CJ Wilson joined them in the rotation as big time free agent signings. The Washington Nationals and the Detroit Tigers have gotten 10 wins or more from all five members of their rotations at some point in the last five years. In both cases, though, three starters were acquired via trade and two from the first rounds of the draft.
Success gets hazy for starting pitchers after the second round. The Cubs selected Samardzija and 26 other pitchers in the fifth round of the 2006 draft, the same year the Dodgers drafted Kershaw. Samardzija is one of only 29 pitchers drafted after the second round to win 10 games or have an ERA below 3.50 in the last five seasons.
Success hasn’t come for the Cubs pitchers in the draft beyond Samardzija. None of the four Chicago pitchers to win 10 games — Carlos Zambrano (amateur signing), Carlos Silva (trade), Travis Wood (trade) and Arrieta (trade) — joined the org via the draft. Chicago hasn’t totally abandoned drafting pitchers under Epstein and Hoyer, of course. They added two in 2012’s first round with supplemental picks.
Eleven years after their last NLCS appearance, the Cubs front office believes the next great Chicago team is on the way. They’re just not investing too much hope in homegrown pitchers this time.