The Chicago Cubs have a strong pitching unit heading into the season. New ace Jon Lester and returning veteran Jason Hammel will combine with Jake Arrieta to form a powerful trio at the top of the starting rotation. Further, Kyle Hendricks looked as "Maddux" as possible in his 13 starts at the end of last season, going 7-2 with a 2.46 ERA. Many assume he has the 4th spot locked up.
After that, the Cubs have so many potential options for a 5th starter that this could turn out to be the best rotation the team has had in a long time. And, of course, the team is likely done making major additions following the great deal that brought Dexter Fowler over last month. Combine all of this with the fact that Chicago is probably planning to land another top starter through trade (Cole Hamels?) or free agency next year (Jeff Samardzija?), and sure, signing James Shields sounds crazy.
But is it?
Shields has averaged 14 wins over the last four years, maintaining a 3.17 ERA in the American League during that time. We saw projections in the $100 million range a couple of months ago. Yet today, that number may be somewhere around $50-70 million.
I'd like to see the team jump on this opportunity right now. The 5th-spot possibilities are all exciting, but signing Shields would blow all of that up and make it irrelevant. There would no longer be a need to trade away prospects for a player like Hamels or spend twice as much money for someone like Samardzija.
But coming back to reality, it looks like the Cubs will have a tough decision to make based on players who are currently on the roster. So here is a quick look at some of the candidates to fill the final rotation spot along with my brief comments.
- Edwin Jackson - It should be Jackson's spot to lose heading into spring training. He is only halfway through a $50 million dollar contract, and yes, it's painful to know that his wasted salary could be applied directly to a Shields offer. But it is what it is right now, and if he can show any value on the field whatsoever, he needs to be out there, preferably as a starter. I understand this, and I will celebrate the day the team receives any kind of return for Jackson. But I hate that he takes away opportunities from everyone else on this list.
- Travis Wood - I honestly wish that this wasn't even a discussion that we need to have right now. If Wood hadn't taken such a huge step back last season, his spot would be secure. Unfortunately, he quickly went from an All-Star with a 3.11 ERA in 2013 to one of the worst regulars in the NL at 5.03. Still his previous success should put him next in line if Jackson were to fail and if Wood isn't dealt away. Of course his .227 average and six home runs over the past two years have also helped the offense.
- Tsuyoshi Wada - Wada winning this spot would probably provide the best outcome for the team. He was a pleasant surprise last season, posting a 2.77 ERA with 10 wins at Iowa before arriving in Chicago and closing out the year at 3.25 through 13 starts. The Cubs gave him $4 million to return in 2015, and I'm hoping he is given a chance to contribute. Wada could also be a valuable trading chip at some point this year.
- Jacob Turner - Who wouldn't love to see Turner become the great pitcher everyone once thought he'd be before falling all the way to the "low risk/high reward" guy the Cubs grabbed last year. Over the past few years, I would've been fine with throwing someone like Turner out there every fifth day to figure out if this is going to work or not. But I guess the odds are currently against him at this point, right? Still, you never know...
- Felix Doubront - The team obviously likes Doubront, and he looked good enough in his few Chicago starts last year. Luckily his versatility as a reliever should keep him on the roster, but a lot would have to happen for him to start the season in the rotation.
- Wild Cards - I think both Eric Jokisch and Dallas Beeler are MLB starters, although this year they will likely serve as insurance at Iowa. But I'm not counting them out.
- Prospects - Finally, how long will it be until we start hearing serious talks about guys like CJ Edwards, Pierce Johnson, and Corey Black, who have all had success at AA. A solid spring training from any of them could throw their names in the mix earlier than expected.
Outcome: Assuming Hendricks holds on at #4, and Jackson and Wood fail to impress in spring training, I would love to see Wada join the rotation. It's easier for me, the person not on the hook for $20+ million, to say, but at some point Jackson may need to be let loose. The Cubs are very close to approaching possible "win now" territory, and they just can't compete if Jackson pitches the way he has since arriving in Chicago.
Wood should have some type of trade value, even if only in the low prospect range, and he should be moved. I think he will spend his career fighting for spots in the back ends of rotations, and the Cubs have better options, both for now and for the future. If he were packaged with Welington Castillo, for example, it would likely be worth whatever the team can get.
If Turner and Doubront can get bullpen roles initially, that keeps two potential starters nearby and seems ideal to me.
Of course, signing James Shields makes all of this unnecessary.