The Chicago Cubs will welcome the Philadelphia Phillies to the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field this weekend. Cole Hamels may start for the Phillies on Saturday afternoon . Or maybe, as many around baseball are beginning to believe, he will watch from the home dugout wearing a freshly pressed Cubs’ jersey [ed. note: Hamels turned in a no-hitter, striking out 13 on 129 pitches. The writer’s opinion remains unchanged, the Cubs do not need Cole Hamels.]. The Cubs are in hot pursuit of the Phillies’ ace, and have reportedly offered both Starlin Castro and Javier Baez to the Phillies. Whether that package of middle infielders who have fallen out of favor in the Chicago organization will be enough to pry Hamels away from Philadelphia remains to be seen.
Here’s the thing though.
The Chicago Cubs do not need Hamels. Same goes for David Price, another pitcher they have been connected to in trade rumors. The Cubs are chugging along in the National League wild card race locked in a fierce battle with the San Francisco Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates. The division title is out of the question.
Despite what you may be led to believe about the Cubs pursuing Price and Hamels so fiercely, starting pitching is not an area of weakness on this team. The Cubs have the fifth-best starting rotation ERA in all of baseball at 3.38. Their starters are second in the league in strikeouts, have allowed the second-fewest walks, and have the best WHIP. If there is one thing to knock Cubs’ starters for this season, it is their inability to go deep into games, as they rank tenth in the National League in innings pitched.
The reason that the Cubs are in such hot pursuit of an arm like Hamels or Price is that they have been in search of a fifth starter for the entire season. Clayton Richard has a tenuous grip on the spot right now [ed. note: Richard was optioned to the minors immediately after this was written], but it could just as easily go to Tsuyoshi Wada when he returns from a minor league rehab assignment. Wada has pitched very well in 20 starts for the Cubs over the past two seasons, but health will always be a concern for him.
The top four in the Cubs’ rotation — Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Jason Hammel, and Kyle Hendricks — have all been very good this year. Their ERA combined is 3.07, which would rank second in the league. That the fifth spot in the rotation has been a constant shuffle should not worry the Cubs. It’s actually because of the starting rotation that the Cubs are even in position to be buyers at the trade deadline. The bullpen has blown 13 saves, third most in the league. The offense has batted just .239 and scored 361 runs on the year, thirteenth and twelfth in the league, respectively. The Cubs have an abundance of exciting young talent on the roster, but players like Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler and Addison Russell are still figuring out Major League pitching. Give it a year, and both will be superstars, but not yet.
The real areas of need for the Chicago Cubs are the outfield and bullpen, and there are plenty of options available on the trade market to be had at those positions. Rather than pursuing Hamels, the Cubs would be better suited acquiring a closer like Jonathan Papelbon, to whom they have also been linked. After acquiring Papelbon, the Cubs can turn their attentions on a corner outfielder. The Cubs have gotten by with mostly replacement level types in the outfield this year, a motley crew of .250 hitters that includes such notable names as Chris Coghlan, Junior Lake, and Chris Denorfia. Just as the Phillies have a trade target that makes more sense for the Cubs, so to do the Detroit Tigers. Instead of Price, Yoenis Cespedes provides a substantially higher upgrade to the Cubs’ roster.
The Chicago Cubs already have the horses in the starting rotation to make a run at the postseason. Adding a starter like Hamels or Price seems redundant. If the Cubs do want Price, the better move would be to pursue him aggressively this winter in free agency. It’s not hard to envision Price reuniting with Joe Maddon in Chicago, but the Cubs do not need to deal prospects to make it happen.
There are greater weaknesses on the roster that may have higher influence on whether or not the Cubs make the playoffs, and those need to be addressed. The Cubs have the prospects to upgrade their roster and improve their playoff hopes this season, but they should not be spent on starting pitching. Count on Theo Epstein to make the right decision and address his team’s most pressing needs before July 31.