With as many as four spots needing to be filled in the rotation, it figured that Terry Ryan – with his traditionally risk-averse nature in free agency – would target low-cost pitchers with upside who could be acquired on one-year deals. This strategy makes sense for a couple reasons: it adds multiple options to the starting pitching mix without requiring huge commitments, and hurlers looking for the one-year make-good deal ought be more apt to sign with a club that offers such wide-open opportunity in the rotation.
If that was indeed Ryan's intended tack, he can't be pleased to see the Cubs aggressively following the same course. Already, Chicago has snatched up two of the most intriguing pitchers in this category.
A few weeks ago, it was Scott Baker. And yesterday, the Cubs announced that they had inked Scott Feldman to a one-year deal. Much like Baker, Feldman is a pitcher with stretches of past success who is coming off a down year and looking to recoup some value. And much like Baker, Feldman hauled in more guaranteed cash than expected at $6 million.
Yes, six million bucks for a guy who posted a 5.09 ERA last year, owns a 4.81 career mark, and has only once thrown more than 151 innings in a major-league season. Feldman offers some appeal as a guy who can operate in a swingman role and generally posts pretty decent peripherals, but he's nothing close to a reliable bet. His ERA has been above five in four of the past six seasons.
The total seems somewhat extreme, at least from the perspective of an organization with less money to throw around than the Cubs, but perhaps only by the preset standards we entered this offseason with. As early names have come off the board, the numbers have ranged from eyebrow-raising to jaw-dropping. Purported reclamation projects are commanding as much as established mid-tier guys have in the past. We're to the point where Feldman's deal is actually being lauded by some as a value signing
. If the trend continues, the Twins' money isn't going to go very far in free agency even if they hold steady with their budget, which is hardly assured.
The inflated prices on the open market will also surely have an auxiliary effect on the trade market, where clubs with cost-controlled pitching can now increase their demands. At one point I thought a player like James Shields might come at a relative discount given that he's owed $21 million over the next two years, but now his contract is starting to look like a real bargain that many general managers could be competing to acquire.
This environment leaves a team with finite funds and few palatable internal pitching options in an extremely tough spot. Even if Ryan has the green-light to spend, it's not clear that he should
be splurging on the kind of deals that may be required to lock up adequate starters unless ownership is willing to commit to long-term payroll increases that will enable him to continue to build around large contracts for aging players.
Yet, if Ryan shies away from the market, he's most likely submitting to at least another year of lousy on-field performance and the inevitable revenue drains that will come along with it. Additionally, he'd be doubling down on the ability of his own personnel to identify and develop young pitching talent for a rebuild, something they simply haven't done in recent years.
The Cubs' signings of Baker and Feldman are bad news for the Twins, and not necessarily because Minnesota should have signed those players. The financial terms are highly troubling and indicative that there's going to be no such thing as a low-risk signing on the pitching market this winter. That will leave Ryan and Co. with almost no room for error.