Right now, few things are likely to be much further from the mind than the state of our starting pitching, which presently represents a definite strength. But by this time next year things could easily have changed, and the front office needs to be looking very closely at the future of our rotation, showing some foresight for once.
Just so we're clear, Cubbies, as to what's meant by "foresight", this is not it...
"Look, it's Monday July 25th 2005, we're 50-48, four and a half games out of a wild card race in which we're running fifth out of seven teams. We've placed Kerry Wood on the disabled list today after he left his last start with stiffness in his right shoulder, which has been troubling him all year, and which we now know will at some stage require surgery to correct the problem. But, damn it, Neifi hit a grand slam against the Cardinals on national television last night, we can still do this, we can still win the World Series! Oh my, I've just had a fine foresightful idea: how about we delay Wood's surgery until August 31st and use him as a middle reliever in the meantime?!"
The company line has recently become that no one should count on Wood being ready for Opening Day. May heads roll.
The increasing likelihood that Wood will not be ready in time for the start of the season is particularly significant because Wood is entering the final guaranteed year of his contract, and he needs a big season to make the Cubs' big decision a little easier: we hold a $13.5m option on Wood for 2007 versus a $3m buyout that would make him a free agent. It's entirely plausible that Wood will not have that big year, especially if he returns with the season already underway, hitters in their stride, without a proper Spring Training. So it's also entirely plausible that Wood won't be back in 2007, much as it pains me to say it when talking about such a ridiculously talented pitcher with time still on his side.
Trouble is, Kerry Wood's not the only possible departee. Greg Maddux's deal is now entering its final year, and he probably shouldn't be re-signed, at least not to pitch. He eats his innings, but he's no longer the pitcher he once was, and he'll turn 41 within the first fortnight of the 2007 season. Glendon Rusch meanwhile, if he hasn't been traded, may well have pitched himself out of the rotation anyway. So this time next year, it's entirely possible that our starting pitching will consist of Zambrano and Prior, assuming good health, and three pitchers to be named later. Hendry needs to be alive to the possibility.
Acquiring pitching via free agency has become prohibitively expensive. Before, next April rolls around, major league baseball teams will in the space of two offseasons have committed in the region of $600m to the following twenty free agent starting pitchers: Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, AJ Burnett, Kevin Millwood, Matt Clement, Jarrod Washburn, Brad Radke, Jon Lieber, Derek Lowe, Jeff Weaver, Paul Byrd, Esteban Loaiza, Kris Benson, Carl Pavano, Odalis Perez, Matt Morris, Kenny Rogers, Jaret Wright, Eric Milton and Russ Ortiz. And I'd only consider the first two bona-fide top of the rotation aces. At nearly $30m each for these twenty, the market is well established, and it's simply not worth getting involved with, which is why teams are already trying to ditch these contracts in spite of them scarcely being a year old!
The Cubs, thankfully, have been able to avoid forking out such crazy money (Maddux perhaps aside) by virtue of drafting and developing their own young pitching. This is a far, far more cost-effective way of doing things, and it's given the Cubs a huge advantage over the last few years that they've spectacularly managed to squander. But if there's one thing that the Cubs shouldn't take from their recent failures, it's that they've got their pitching priorities wrong. Far from it, and that's why, especially with Zambrano and Prior starting to earn the big buck, if or when the Cubs have pitching holes to fill in 2007, they should look to fill them using the minor league system, using young, cheap pitchers. Spend the money on the offence.
As of right now, with Andy Sisco, Ricky Nolasco, Renyel Pinto and Sergio Mitre recently gone for good, the Cubs are down to five young pitchers that are viable options for the 2007 rotation: Jerome Williams, Rich Hill, Angel Guzman, Sean Marshall and Jae-Kuk Ryu. It is possible that top prospect Mark Pawelek will fly through the system far quicker than expected, but his mechanical issues make that unlikely. It's possible that Carlos Marmol will continue with his giant leaps and bounds, but it would be a lot to ask. It's possible that Chadd Blasko and Billy Petrick will come back strong from injury, picking up where they left off in 2003 and 2004 respectively, but that's optimistic. And it's possible that someone completely off the radar, like Rich Hill last year, will break out and put his name forward, but don't hold your breath. Realistically, at this stage, it comes down to the first five names: Williams, Hill, Guzman, Marshall and Ryu. With potentially three spots to fill in 2007, even though these young pitchers could fetch a ransom with the widespread need for pitching, and could net us the right right fielder, Hendry needs to be conscious of our own need for pitching, in 2007, and balance that with our need for offence in 2006. In other words, it's not worth the Cubs using The Five to pay for a hitter that's not really going to make that much of an impact. You know, in the same way it wasn't worth using The Eight to pay for Juan Pierre.
Speaking of impact hitter Arizona Phil yesterday was. And I agree: the Cubs should extend Derrek Lee this winter. I see the chances of Lee walking away after another fine year in 2006 as too high, and the consequences of that - the hostile fan reaction, the price and difficulty that would come with replacing him - as too dangerous. That said, I think a deal for Lee such as the one Arizona Phil was proposing is just as dangerous. So here's the pretty complicated new contract I propose the Cubs try to get Lee to sign this winter...
In 2006, a guaranteed $13m, a $3.5m improvement or so on what he's owed for 2006 under the terms of his current deal. From 2007-09, a guaranteed $7m per year, with another $2m per year if he reaches 550 plate appearances, another $3m bonus for each top ten placing in NL MVP voting, another $3m bonus for each top three placing (such that a top three placing would earn him $6m in total). A $15m mutual option for 2010 versus a $3m buyout. Finally, a full no-trade clause up until the end of the 2007 season, and the right to block a trade to, say, five teams of his choice thereafter. In total, the deal could be worth anywhere between $37m/4yrs and $73m/5yrs. I did warn you it was pretty complicated. [UPDATE: Trying to build in protection against injury is somewhat superfluous because of the existence of such a thing as insurance, it now occurs to me. Duh! Given also that Lee's recent health history is as good as they come, I'd have little problem guaranteeing the money tied to plate appearances, as such taking the guaranteed money up to $43m/4yrs.]
Why might Lee jump at it? Well, he can boost his 2006 salary here and now, and so start reaping the rewards of his superb 2005 right away, which he'd otherwise have to postpone until free agency. He also guarantees himself a very considerable amount of guaranteed money from 2007-09, money that he could quite easily never see if he pushes for free agency but succumbs to injury or has a terrible year in 2006. At the same time though, Lee isn't having to give up on a big pay day for the sake of immediate long-term financial security: this deal allows him to earn $15m a year every time he puts up MVP calibre numbers over a full season, which is roughly what he'd be looking at via free agency based on recent deals given to Konerko, Delgado and Thome. Neither is he completely giving up on the idea of ever seeing free agency, since the deal only ties him to the Cubs through his age 33 season. At that point, if he wanted, he could decline his half of the mutual option and try to get a another big contract on the free agent market. Finally, by signing this contract now, Lee shows loyalty to the Cubs and the city of Chicago, doesn't portray himself as a free agent mercenary, and he can book himself a nice long break in the Caribbean next winter rather than worrying about where his next home will be, where his next paycheck's coming from.
Why should the Cubs jump at it? The Cubs show the same loyalty to Lee, they commit to him in advance and they offer him a no-trade clause. But the real key to this particular deal for the Cubs is that has its own built-in insurance. If Derrek Lee was for real in 2005, and Lee rattles off .300/.400/.600 seasons over the next few years, he gets paid accordingly, up to $73m/5yrs. But there's also the very realistic possibility that Lee reverts back to his old .270/.370/.500 self, that he gets injured, that he simply declines with age. Because a lot of the money in the deal is tied up in bonuses and the option, such that Lee would end up with no more than the equivalent of a $27.5m/3yr [UPDATE: $33.5m/3yr) free agent deal from, say, the Dodgers next winter if he were to go Todd Hundley on us, the Cubs can avoid a good chunk of the bad contract-ness. That's still actually better than Lee's current deal, and an awful lot of money, a bad contract still to be sure.
Not that Lee's agent is likely to see things that way, maybe arguing that his client can get a much more guaranteed money if he just holds out for free agency. That though would raise the interesting contradiction that Lee trusts his ability to stay healthy and to hit for one year (long enough to get to free agency), but not for three or four. In that case, why should any team, presumably less subjectively bullish than Lee himself as to his career prospects, make him any kind of long-term big-money commitment? In other words, if Lee rejects this kind of deal on the grounds that there isn't enough guaranteed money involved, he's forsaking loyalty and earning his corn for the possibility of financially exploiting the sheer stupidity that strikes other General Managers when the free agent market gets in motion. Greed. I really don't think that that's what Lee's about, which is why I'd offer him this deal, confident that he'd like it, but if it is what he's about, he's probably not what the Cubs really need anyway. No, if that is what he's all about, maybe what we need is some non-tendered Hee Seop Choi! Well, maybe not. I rant and I rave at you these days, Jim, but credit where credit's due, great trade.