Higher Risk Tolerance on Pitching Side Could (Should?) Lead Cubs to Andrew Heaney

If your first response is to make some quip about how this is a perfect match because the Cubs love to sign oft-injured pitchers, maybe consider finding more original material. That trope is uninspired and lazy at its core because pretty much every team is going to look for value from a talent pool replete with players who’ve been injured at one point or another.

Look, I get that it’s cool and trendy to bag on Jed Hoyer for being frugal with the meager allowance he’s given from ownership. However, there’s a big difference between signing players just because they’re cheap and targeting players with huge upside who just happen to be cheap based on their health history. For a team that should have quite a bit more risk tolerance on the pitching side, Andrew Heaney could fall into that latter group.

The Cubs had actually targeted the lefty last season and a brief note in a recent piece from Sahadev Sharma and Patrick Mooney in The Athletic called him “another name to file away.” Heaney ended up signing with the Dodgers and made just three starts prior to July 27 due to shoulder issues that did not require surgery. He then finished strong with 13 appearances (11 starts and two relief appearances of four innings each) over the last two-plus months of the season.

We’re talking a 3.77 ERA and 2.88 xFIP with 87 strikeouts and just 15 walks over 57.1 innings. Heaney struck out eight or more batters five separate times in that stretch despite never throwing more than six innings. Heck, he only managed five or more innings in four starts, which can be seen as either good or bad depending on the context.

The other issue is that the 31-year-old southpaw surrendered 13 homers over as many appearances down the stretch, a trend that was only slightly worse than his career mark of 1.63 HR/9. It’s actually pretty incredible that he’s been able to miss so many bats while running into so many barrels, something he does better than almost any other pitcher in the game.

Since 2018, Heaney’s 13.2% swinging-strike rate ranks 13th while his 8.7% barrel rate is tied for fourth-highest among 75 pitchers with at least 500 innings in that time. Only Robbie Ray, who ranks 11th with a 13.8% SwStr and first with 9.1% barrels, bests Heaney in this regard. Yes, that’s the same Robbie Ray who was named AL Cy Young in 2021. At the risk of making a direct comp between the two, my point is that Heaney’s stuff plays at least as well as Ray’s.

But the best ability is availability, or so the saying goes, and Heaney has pitched in 30 games only twice in his career due to various health issues. That’s a ton of risk for a team looking to bolster the rotation, particularly for a team looking to contend quickly, though the Cubs might be perfectly suited to take it on.

We’ve mentioned multiple times over the last few months how the Cubs may be looking to tweak their pitching philosophy a bit to incorporate a larger rotation that includes extra days off, piggyback starters, and even openers. They have plenty of depth, they just lack the kind of elite velocity and ability to miss bats that you see from top rotations. Unless they go against what’s been reported to this point, they’re not going to spend what it takes to land those traits with a big splash for an ace.

Koudai Senga is probably the Cubs’ best shot at a big-ticket arm, but his suitors may number in the dozens and he’s far from a sure thing. After that, their list of potential targets includes mid-level starters like Jameson Taillon, Chris Bassitt, and Taijuan Walker, or even former greats like Corey Kluber. If what we’ve heard so far is accurate, Heaney might be their best shot at getting ace-like production on a budget.

I can almost hear your eyes rolling.

Think of it like going on Amazon and searching for Air Jordans only to find the results populated by brands like Pozvnn, Socviis, WELRUNG, and NCNDB. Now add in the context that you’re buying for a kid who’s going to grow out of those shoes within six months. The Js look better and will give the kid a lot more street cred, but what happens if they get dirty or scuffed even before they become too small?

Now consider how those purple CUYIOM shoes you copped for $32 or so match your kid’s school colors and have gotten questions from people at the gym about where you got them. I’m not saying Heaney is as good as Jacob deGrom or should be viewed as a fallback option should the Cubs miss on an ace. I am, however, saying that Heaney is capable of pitching at a very high level and that the Cubs are well-suited to provide the ideal landing spot for him to do so.

Ed. note: We did actually find my son a pair of 1s at Plato’s closet for a decent price, but he’s not getting any new Js until he’s in a size 12 and I can wear them when he outgrows them.

Setting aside my weird analogy, let’s look at the team’s recent history as proof that Heaney makes sense. The Cubs claimed Wade Miley off waivers and picked up his $10 million option, then signed Drew Smyly for $5.25 million and were reportedly hoping to work out a new deal for 2023 and possibly beyond. That’s over $15 million for 31 combined games (30 starts) from a pair of southpaws who probably won’t return.

If the Cubs were willing to bring back either or both of those oft-injured pitchers, it stands to reason that they’d be more than comfortable signing Heaney for what might be an even lower price tag. And with a ceiling that is significantly higher than either Smyly or Miley, the former No. 9 overall pick (Marlins, 2012) could provide exactly the kind of boost the Cubs need if they indeed go with six starters or acclimate some of their prospects in more long-relief roles.

Alright, I’ve talked myself into this being a good idea even though I’m reasonably sure a lot of folks will hate it. The key here is that Hoyer has to go out and get one more starter in that 2-3 range who provides a little more consistency. And they absolutely must add in a very big way to the offense, where there can be almost no risk tolerance because that unit was bad last year and has gotten worse with the departure of Willson Contreras.

With Mike Clevinger joining the White Sox over the weekend, we could start seeing movement on the pitching front here shortly. Position players may remain in limbo a while longer, but perhaps we’ll get some actual news even before the Winter Meetings begin.

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