Ranking the Cubs’ Avenues for Acquiring an Ace

The word has been out for a while now. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have made no secrets about it. The Cubs are looking outside the organization to acquire a veteran, top-of-the-rotation arm, either this offseason or the next.

We all know the names, and we all know that each would come at a steep price. But price doesn’t only mean money. Sure, the dollars an ace commands are virtually always exorbitant. There’s no denying that the back-end years of the mega-extensions given to pitchers are among the hardest swallows an organization can make.

However, in a league where the avenues for acquiring assets are perpetually shrinking, there is no sting as severe as sacrificing young talent in the pursuit of veteran talent. Trading for a top-of-the-rotation arm will cost the crown jewel of your farm system. Just ask Billy Beane. And that prized free agent who rejected his team’s qualifying offer? Sure, you can have him. All you have to do is outbid everyone else, and then sacrifice your next first-rounder if you didn’t finish in the bottom 10 of the league.

In short, trading top prospects and forfeiting drafts picks should be last-resort outlets for a rebuilding team looking to surround its nascent core with veteran talent. Spending to acquire high-end veterans is costly enough. Spending and sacrificing young assets is potentially devastating, especially when the vast majority of that foundation has yet to establish itself at the major-league level. Trade the wrong infielder and suddenly that once-impressive “glut” of  talent is nothing more than a monumental heap of regret.

For the purpose of this exercise, I’ve highlighted the five “ace” pitchers that are either free agents currently, free agents next season, or on the trade block. Let’s assume relatively similar projected performance, and in the case of the free agents, relatively similar market value. Let’s also assume the Cubs won’t finish in the bottom 10 of the league in 2015, meaning their subsequent first-round pick will not be protected in the event of signing a free agent who turned down his team’s qualifying offer.

So, with that established, here are those five available aces, ranked from from least-desirable to most-desirable in terms of the preferred avenue of acquisition:

5. Cole Hamels (under contract)

Pro: Already signed through 2018 (age 34 season)

Con: Will have to be acquired via trade, will cost at least a top prospect


tied-3. Jordan Zimmermann (free agent after 2015 season)

Pro: Entering age 29 season

Con: Will cost a first-round draft pick, will command premium dollars on open market


tied-3. David Price (free agent after 2015 season)

Pro: Entering age 29 season

Con: Will cost a first-round draft pick, will command premium dollars on open market


2. Max Scherzer (currently free agent)

Pro: Will not cost a first-round pick, will not cost a top prospect

Con: Will cost a second-round draft pick, will command premium dollars on open market


1. Jon Lester (currently free agent)

Pro: Will not cost any draft pick, will not cost a top prospect

Con: Will command premium dollars on open market


These rankings actually surprised me a bit. Scherzer has largely been off the radar for most Cubs fans this offseason, a product of a) concern that the bidding for his services will skyrocket past the point of reason, and b) fear that his velocity-driven approach, similar to Justin Verlander’s, won’t age well. But in terms of sheer asset preservation/surrender, signing Scherzer would scarcely eat into the Cubs’ talent pipeline, as the team would only have to forfeit its second-round pick.

On the flipside, while the idea of having Hamels under contract through 2018 could seem appealing, especially given that he signed two years ago and MLB inflation is relentless, the Cubs would undoubtedly have to part with an asset like Starlin Castro, Javier Baez or Addison Russell. The question is: Why force the issue just yet and expose the organization to the double-jeopardy risk of getting burned by a pitcher contract and giving up on the wrong kid? There’s no less-efficient method of acquiring frontline pitching than by trading prized, young talent for it. Again, just ask Billy Beane.

I considered Zimmermann vs. Price a coin flip. Both will enter their age 30 seasons in 2016, and both will cost a draft pick once each pitcher undoubtedly rejects his respective team’s qualifying offer. If either one makes it to free agency, the winning bidder will have gained a legitimate workhorse starter, but at the cost of a valuable asset if that team did not finish 2015 in the bottom 10.

Ultimately, it comes as no surprise that Jon Lester represents the Cubs’ single-best option for acquiring a veteran ace. He is the only pitcher on the above list who will not cost a prospect (he’s a free agent) or a draft pick (Oakland doesn’t receive compensation because he was acquired mid-season). He’ll command a premium salary over more seasons than an organization would prefer to commit to a starter, but so will every other pitcher on this list.

The Cubs won’t be able to do much about it if Lester simply intends to return to the Red Sox, which could still have every intention of capping their already-monstrous offseason with the return of their homegrown ace. And there’s no doubt that the extension of the Lester Free Agency Tour into St. Louis and Atlanta will only further drive up the bidding, pushing the final cost far beyond everyone’s comfort.

In full context, though, the Cubs should see the opportunity to sign Jon Lester as a relatively rare one, a chance to acquire that top-of-the-rotation presence without having to sacrifice the game’s scarcest, most valuable commodity: young, cost-controlled talent. We can assume they do indeed see it that way, and within reason, they’ll bid aggressively for his services.

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