Won? Oh! Marcus Stroman’s ‘Top Moment’ Overshadows Questionable Lineup, Fuels Extension Talk

Marcus Stroman picked a great time to throw what was arguably the best game of his career. With the Cubs reeling from four straight losses and feeling the weight of the rest of the National League sitting above them in the standings, the righty proved height don’t measure heart as he spun a one-hit shutout against the best team in baseball. Stroman’s game score of 99 was six points higher than he’s ever posted and it was just the third time he’s eclipsed the 90 mark.

This was the fifth complete game of his career and his second shutout, the first of which actually came against the Cubs during his rookie season with the Blue Jays back in 2014. But those Cubs were a pretty awful group, so that one isn’t quite as impressive.

Depending on where your optimism lies, the outing was either a sign that the Cubs can get back into the race in the NL Central or a bigger for-sale sign in terms of Stroman’s trade value. The front-loaded deal he inked just before the lockout in late 2021 guaranteed $25 million in each of the first two years, then drops to $21 million with a player option next season. That structure gave him a higher AAV than comparable free agent starters while also allowing him to hit the market again at a younger age in order to boost his overall earnings.

If the Cubs continue to struggle, they could well engage in yet another sell-off with Stroman as the most coveted prize. He recently told Ken Rosenthal he’d rather not be traded and would prefer to stay in Chicago with an extension, but that playing elsewhere would be fine. Monday’s effort showed how valuable Stroman can be to the Cubs one way or the other, and it reinforced his reasons for wanting to stay.

“I mean, throwing a complete game at Wrigley, that’s like one of the top moments of my career,” Stroman told reporters after the win. “The energy. When I walk out there 40 minutes before the game, there’s a massive cheering section already. The bleachers are usually filled, everyone’s just like ready to roll. That gives me so much momentum and motivation.

“I can’t put that into words. I’m very, very thankful for the home crowd and the fans. I truly, truly think they’re the best fans in the game. I’ll say that to the death of me.”

The Cubs needed that stellar performance because they were only able to scratch out one run on three hits with a lineup that didn’t make sense on the surface given the opponent. Righty Taj Bradley had pitched to massive reverse splits through his five previous starts, yet David Ross had six left-handed batters in the lineup. Sure enough, all three hits the Cubs mustered on the afternoon came from the righties in the top five spots in the order.

Miles Mastrobuoni and Matt Mervis walked to give the home team its only other baserunners and Mike Tauchman came through with a sac fly to plate the lone runs, so the lefties weren’t completely impotent. That said, they went 0-for-15 with eight strikeouts in the game against Bradley and a pair of relievers. As careful as I’ve been to contextualize these lineup decisions by noting that we don’t have the same data the Cubs do, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to understand what Ross is doing.

It’s not good enough to point to the win as evidence that the lineup “worked,” nor is it enough to say previous lineups weren’t getting it done so change was necessary. When looking at a 162-game season, we can’t let individual results — either good or bad — obscure the greater process. That means understanding that Mervis needs to keep playing through his struggles in order to adjust, and it also means questioning the way the Cubs have handled these reverse-split righties.

The result was a good one, however, and it’s impossible to be upset about getting back in the win column. It’s even better that the Cardinals lost to move behind the Cubs in the division while also assuming the mantle of worst team in the NL. Who knows, maybe Stroman and Co. can stay hot through the remainder of this series and their upcoming West Coast swing to climb the ranks a little further and make all the recent hand-wringing look silly.

Should they manage to bounce back in June, it makes a whole lot of sense to keep Stroman around and secure his services beyond next season. A quick look at a pair of those aforementioned colleagues tells us the cost might not be all that high. Kevin Gausman got $110 million and Robbie Ray landed $115 million, both for five years, so it’s possible it’ll only take $40-45 million in new money to make a Stroman extension work.

The low end of that figure would put him at five years and $111 million while the high end would get him to $116 million through his age-35 season. Maybe there’s another option for a sixth year at $15-20 million and/or various performance incentives. That’s a small price to pay for continuity in a rotation that will be getting younger over the next year, it just depends on how much faith Jed Hoyer has in being able to turn this thing around quickly.

It’s already looking like a damn aircraft carrier rather than a speedboat, but extending Stroman would help to prove the ship isn’t rudderless.

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