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John Lackey, Trevor Cahill And What They Mean For The Cubs

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The Cubs have inked two free agent pitchers thus far. What does it mean going forward?

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Some folks might think that I'm a bit paranoid sometimes, and I can handle that characterization. One area in which that manifests itself: I never like to talk about deals in sports until they are actually done. Too many of them fall apart at the eleventh hour.

Nevertheless, with only physicals standing in the way at this point, let's talk about John Lackey and Trevor Cahill.

It's no secret that the Cubs entered the offseason hunting for a starting pitcher, and they seem to have gotten their man in Lackey. Lackey is not without his flaws: he's 37, he costs the Cubs their first-round draft pick, there have been some off-the-field issues in his past, and his $16 million salary is $16 million that can't be spent anywhere else. Free agents are often the best examples of opportunity costs.

Lackey also brings significant value. He's been remarkably consistent throughout his career save for a disastrous 2011 and an injured 2012. Lackey has produced at least 1.9 WAR in 11 of his 13 seasons in the Majors and his average of 2.8 per year over the three previous years is highly encouraging. The Steamer projection system projects Lackey to be worth 2.9 WAR in 2016. If he gives the Cubs that production, this contract will be a rousing success. Lackey's 2016 projection is better than fellow middle class free agents Mike Leake (2.0), Wei-Yin Chen (2.6), and even Jeff Samardzija (2.8). All three of those arms come with greater long-term upside than Lackey, but for the immediate future, Lackey should offer similar-or-better production without the long-term downside risk.

Personally, I'd still much prefer Samardzija, but even I admit that the Lackey deal looks strong on paper.

In the end, it appears to have three primary benefits for the Cubs. First, Lackey offers the Cubs tremendous leverage as they discuss trade proposals for young starting pitchers. If the Cubs don't add a pitcher in a deal, they can roll with a superb starting five of Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Lackey, Kyle Hendricks, and Jason Hammel. That's as strong as any other rotation in the game. As the Cubs talk about possibilities for acquiring Tyson Ross, Shelby Miller, Jose Fernandez, and the like, they can do so out of a position of power rather than desperation. That has value.

Second, the Cubs have added the playoff-caliber starting pitcher that they missed last October. Jason Hammel has a ton of value even when he only pitches well for half of a season: each of the last two years he has been so good in the first half that even his poor second halves couldn't keep him from being an average qualified starter. That's great value for $9 million. Kyle Hendricks was very good last year, but he faded down the stretch, sitting in the mid-80s in his final start against the Mets. The hope is that Hendricks maintains his strength better going forward and grows into that third October arm. With Lackey in tow, that is now an aspiration for the Cubs as opposed to a requirement. Like many of us, I wanted David Price to come to the Cubs to add another ace for the playoffs. But as we see every year, having pitchers who are of playoff-caliber gets the job done. The postseason is a place where the gap between Edinson Volquez and Price can be relatively small, especially over only six or seven innings.

Third, Lackey's short-term commitment won't get in the way of the Cubs keeping their core together as guys like Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Hendricks, and Kyle Schwarber barrel into arbitration and toward free agency. A monstrous deal for Price or Zack Greinke came with complications in 2019 and beyond that aren't present with Lackey.

Of course, as with any deal, there are drawbacks. With Lackey, the primary drawback is obvious: his $16 million took up most of the Cubs' free cash for 2016. By my imperfect calculations, the Cubs set a franchise record by spending approximately $160.4 million last year on baseball player expenses, a new franchise high. If $20 million of that was rolled over from 2014, they spent $140.4 million last year after having spent an adjusted $130.4 million in 2014 and $121.4 million in 2013. After signing Lackey and Cahill, and assuming that the Cubs keep all of their arbitration-eligible players (no guarantee), they're on track to spend approximately $158.2 million in 2016. There just doesn't figure to be much left in terms of flexibility.

Now, there are certainly permutations by which the club could create payroll space. For example, trading Hammel and Chris Coghlan would free up approximately $12.9 million and dealing Travis Wood would open up another $6.4 million. The Cubs already have replacements for each member of that trio on hand, but dealing from them would cut into the team's depth. There's always a trade off. And this front office certainly seems to love their depth. Understandably so.

It's entirely possible that Lackey's signing will be the only big move of the offseason. While that would be disappointing to some, it's hardly the worst-case scenario.

Cahill's signing is obviously a smaller move, but I think that it brings many of the same implications of the Lackey acquisition. By virtue of suffering a barrage of injuries, Cahill's effectiveness as a starter appears to be a thing of the past. However, as we all saw last September and October, Cahill's arm still has plenty of juice when he's healthy. Sometimes a pitcher needs to velocity boost that comes with working in short stints, and this appeared to benefit Cahill in a major way. All four of his pitches were delivered at an average velocity in 2015 of at least one full mile per hour faster than his previous career high for such pitch. He unleashed his arsenal in the bullpen and it worked. Four-pitch relievers with plus velocity tend to do really well. While the injury risk remains real, don't be surprised to see Cahill pitching in the eighth inning by mid-season.

And that brings us to the real question with these two deals: do they represent tinkering with a superb roster or are Theo and Jed about to go haywire? If it's the former, that's fine. The 2016 Cubs look tremendous on paper. But it may very well be the latter. Signing Lackey opens up the Cubs to deal Hammel and his salary, and given that Hammel appears to have lost Joe Maddon's trust last year, that would be no surprise. Pedro Strop has been superb for the Cubs and his salary is still suppressed via arbitration, but his usage suggests that a big injury is coming in the not-too-distant future. Cahill could handle Strop's job. While there's plenty of risk that Cahill flops and the Cubs desperately miss Strop, Strop would also likely fetch a solid prospect or two in a deal. It's hardly impossible to see the Cubs trading Jorge Soler for a young starting pitcher to fill the spot vacated by Hammel and then making a huge splash by signing Jason Heyward or Alex Gordon to play a corner outfield spot with the dollars saved in previous moves. I'm sure that this front office loves Heyward, and I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Joe Maddon salivates at the possibility of having him.

Here's why I think that this could happen: Heyward would be an ideal leadoff hitter for this regime. He runs well and he gets on base, and that's before we address his elite defense an average power. If they're angling for Heyward, they've set up the rest of the roster well to prepare for such a move. I assume that they'd target a short-term option for right or center -- whichever spot Heyward isn't occupying -- with the likes of Albert Almora, Billy McKinney, and Ian Happ in the system. But the real catch is nabbing Heyward.

Then again, these moves could have been as simple as they appear on their faces, grabbing a couple of useful arms at market rates.

What do you think?