Baseball fans, and baseball teams, for that matter, overrate pitching. There’s no point in my leading this piece with any other thesis. I think the details of what is to come make for an interesting, multi-faceted, nuanced debate, and the particulars always matter. Underpinning my entire argument, though, will be that first sentence.

In football, you’ll rarely watch even a full quarter on television without hearing one of the commentators say, “To win in [the NFL, the SEC, the WAC, Dallas Independent School District, doesn’t matter], you have to run the ball, and you have to stop the run.” It’s a cliche with very real staying power, and you can tell it has staying power, because it has survived even being totally disproved. Passing efficiency is almost the sole determinant of overall offensive success in the NFL, and pass defense matters more than run defense, too. We have the stats to prove that you don’t have to run the ball, or defend all that well against the run, to win football games, but the cliche lives on.

So it is with “Good pitching beats good hitting,” “You can’t win without pitching,” and a half-dozen other tropes. While it is, of course, true that no team can win without pitching, it’s provably untrue that no team can win without pitching, or *pitching* or Pitching. Pitching, for one thing, is about half of run prevention, a bit more if the pitchers are good, a bit less if they’re bad, and run prevention is about half of the recipe for winning. Offense, or run scoring, is the other half, and the same guys who are responsible for that half also do some percentage of the work of preventing runs. Studies, albeit studies undertaken nearly a decade ago now, have pegged the contribution of pitching to overall team quality around 40-44 percent, and have found that the typical sweet spot for pitching expenditures, as a percentage of total team payroll, is in the same range, or a bit lower.*

*The studies to which I refer can be found in Baseball Between the Numbers, a seminal study of baseball from a statistical vantage point, a joint effort from Baseball Prospectus.

I don’t want to overrun the point. Obviously, pitching does matter. By Baseball Prospectus’s WARP (Value Over Replacement Player, the approximate number of runs better than a typical fringe Major League performance), the 10 best pitching staffs in baseball were:

10 Best Pitching Staffs, BP WARP, 2013

Team

WARP

Finish

Detroit Tigers

217.0

First, AL Central, 93-69, Lost ALCS

Atlanta Braves

161.6

First, NL East, 96-66, Lost NLDS

Colorado Rockies

144.3

Fifth, NL West, 74-88

Washington Nationals

143.4

Second, NL East, 86-76

Cleveland Indians

139.0

Second, AL Central, 92-70, Lost AL Wild Card Game

Texas Rangers

135.6

Second, AL West, 91-72, Lost Tiebreaker for Second Wild Card berth

St. Louis Cardinals

129.0

First, NL Central, 97-65, Lost World Series

Kansas City Royals

126.2

Third, AL Central, 85-77

Boston Red Sox

119.9

First, AL East, 97-65, Won World Series

Cincinnati Reds

118.8

Third, NL Central, 90-72, Lost NL Wild Card Game

That’s nine teams with records over .500, plus the Rockies, and Im not totally sure a distorted park factor isn’t the reason they look so good. I won’t give the full bottom 10, but only the Rays were good despite having what rates as a bottom-third pitching staff. Pitching is important.

Offense matters more, though:

10 Best Batting Teams, BP WARP, 2013

Team

WARP

Finish

Detroit Tigers

415.0

First, AL Central, 93-69, Lost ALCS

Boston Red Sox

360.8

First, AL East, 97-65, Won World Series

Los Angeles Dodgers

347.9

First, NL West, 92-70, Lost NLCS

St. Louis Cardinals

347.2

First, NL Central, 97-65, Los World Series

Cleveland Indians

332.2

Second, AL Central, 92-70, Lost AL Wild Card Game

Oakland Athletics

322.8

First, AL West, 96-66, Lost ALDS

Atlanta Braves

306.9

First, NL East, 96-66, Lost NLDS

Tampa Bay Rays

294.3

Second, AL East, 92-71, Lost ALDS

Cincinnati Reds

293.1

Third, NL Central, 90-72, Lost NL Wild Card Game

Texas Rangers

292.2

Second, AL West, 91-72, Lost Tiebreaker for Second Wild Card berth

Not a single one of the top 10 failed to win 90 games. The top nine made the playoffs, and the only team that reached the playoffs without making this list—the Pirates—finished 12th.

These results are extreme and not terribly typical. The 2012 Brewers, Diamondbacks and Phillies had top-10 offenses but mediocre records, and the 2012 Orioles were a bottom-10 offense but a playoff team. Those Brewers and Phillies also rated among the best pitching staffs in the league, but for naught.

In 2011, the Dodgers and Mets had offenses in that range but weren’t very good. The White Sox, Giants and Dodgers were .500ish teams despite top-10 pitching staffs. It would be unfair to pretend that either element of the game, but especially offense, predicts overall success as well as it did in 2013.

Still, the premise stands. Offense is more predictable, better understood and more easily analyzed. Injuries to position players are more rare and easier to work around. Even to the extent that good pitching is a prerequisite to success, it’s harder to build around it, because pitchers are less predictable than batters in many ways. Teams can more reliably build better teams by focusing on position players, and filling in solid pitching.

That’s the general principle. The specific situation to which I want to apply it, with the Cubs and David Price, is this:

  • The Tampa Bay Rays face a rapidly-rising cost for keeping Price, their perennial Cy Young candidate, the best left-handed pitcher this side of Clayton Kershaw.
  • The Chicago Cubs are a bad team across the board, with no hope of contending in 2014. In 2013, they had baseball’s 10th-worst offense and ninth-worst pitching staff.
  • Tampa Bay has a clear intention to at least entertain offers for Price, and would like to move him now, before the clock ticking down to his free agency begins to work against them.
  • Chicago is one of only seven teams with both the strength in their farm system to interest the Rays, and the financial wherewithal to sign Price to a contract extension that would really make the deal worthwhile. At that, one of those (the Boston Red Sox) is a practical impossibility as a destination.
  • As a result of this rumor, long and winding Twitter debates are taking place almost daily over whether the Cubs should step up and be the team that acquires Price.

Price is a sensational pitcher. He’s as good as it gets, really. Kershaw, Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander also have a claim to the title of Best Pitcher in Baseball, but the margins are too thin to say that any one of them is better than the others. Pitcher or hitter, Price is an impact player. Were he a free agent, he would be neck-and-neck with Robinson Cano for the honor of being the best one available.

I do think some teams should consider trading for Price. He makes a big difference, and the differences between making or missing the playoffs over the next year or two will be quite small, for many clubs. Projecting baseball is an exercise in managing risk, embracing variance. When looking forward, a 20-run potential difference means almost nothing. Price is a 50-run pitcher, one of the rare guys who represents a real, concrete, irrefutable short-term improvement, as long as he’s on the mound.

In the long term, though, absolutely no projection for a pitcher makes sense. A pitcher is a short-term asset. A pitcher can get hurt at any time. Price even missed time in 2013, with a biceps issue, and as a general rule, a biceps issue in a pitcher is not a stand-alone injury. It indicates a problem with either the shoulder or elbow, however minor it may be. There’s also no reliable aging curve for pitchers, outside the fact that pitcher strikeout rate and velocity decline virtually from the second one enters the league.

The Cubs would need to add both Price and Robinson Cano in order to resemble a contender in 2014, and that’s probably still too kind. They’re firmly a year away from winning more games than they lose, and the near-certain escalation of Price’s salary into the $20-25 million range even as his predictability drops exponentially beyond that compromises his value.

Chicago has four elite positional prospects, in Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora. To trade for Price, they’d certainly have to surrender one, and perhaps two. Losing any of those players puts pressure on the Cubs organization to choose well, because even as highly as these players are thought of, one or more is sure to fail. When dealing with prospects, as when dealing with pitchers, volume lends margin for error.

The Cubs would get little out of Price in 2014, even if he’s his usual, dominant self. They might win 77 games, instead of 72, but that wouldn’t change the way their season feels, or what it means. After that, he will become very expensive, such that even if he does maintain his dominance, he will only just outpace his salary and return surplus value.

The prospects in question would see their salaries rise very slowly, relatively speaking. None has debuted in the big leagues yet, but even once they do, the Cubs will control them at a league-minimum rate for three seasons, then have them under team control through arbitration for three more. Those players will return wins, in time, at a cost that shouldn’t hamstring the team when trying to make other improvements.

Trading for Price means paying for him twice. This isn’t an objection i raise exclusively because Price is a pitcher. In all cases, a trade for a player on the verge of free agency that hinges on a contract extension means spending both the talent to acquire the player and the money to control him for the long term. The prospects, these long-term assets loaded with value, become a posting fee, paid for the right to stop a player from hitting the open market or going elsewhere. I detest the idea of paying a posting fee in anything other than cash.

Cash, you see, is a renewable and abundant resource in baseball today. It’s everywhere, and you can always make more of it. Teams can’t spend it fast enough, especially under new rules that limit their expenditures in amateur markets. Even teams that hint at or complain about money troubles, like the Cubs and Rays, for instance, could spend $20 million more than they do without breaking a sweat. Owners lie, but drill down to the facts and you’ll see that teams are operating with big profit margins.

Players aren’t like cash. Good players are long-term, fixed assets. They are rare, and acquiring them is harder than ever, especially if you’re not lucky enough to have a pick at the top of the first round of the draft. It takes a strong scouting and player-development staff to acquire good players at reasonable prices, and to get to them before other teams acquire them and lock them up for life. It also takes luck, which makes repeating even the most admirable success difficult. Trading players like that must net other players whose value is certain and immediate.

There’s just no way to be that certain about a pitcher, be it Price, Kershaw, Roger Clemens, Walter Johnson or Cy Young. If Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad were elite pitchers, within three years, one would be badly hurt and one would be in irreversible decline. Price isn’t God, and even if he were, I wouldn’t bet multiple solid position players on his staying good for years to come.

It’s important to manage the roster, from the top of the organization to the bottom. The highest use of prospects is frequently to trade them. In the Cubs’ case, though, given all the holes at the Major-League level, the time to deal from farm-system depth is not yet here. Given an overflow of position players, it’s okay to trade it for pitching. The Cubs, though, have too little offense and defense as it is. If they were to wisely trade one of their best prospects, it would be for a position player in the mold of Troy Tulowitzki or (if they thought he could catch anymore) Joe Mauer, not a pitcher.

The best teams ever, the ones they write books about, look like the 1927 Yankees (Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri and Bob Meusel), the late-1940s Red Sox (Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky giving way to Vern Stephens), the 1970s Reds (Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Tony Perez), the 1990s Braves (David Justice, Ron Gant, Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Javy Lopez, Fred McGriff) and the late-1990s Yankees (Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams). Dynasties happen when a team acquires and retains multiple elite-level position players.

Did those teams also have great pitching? Sure. Any good team must pitch at least fairly well. The pitchers turned over a lot faster than the hitters, though (except in the case of the Braves, whose best arm, the one who made them transcendent, was a free-agent signee), and the teams didn’t stretch themselves in an effort to add pitching.

The Cubs shouldn’t do so, either. Their approach has been to strengthen their core of young talent by aggressively adding guys who could turn into elite position players, and it’s working. Their approach has also been to add pitching on the cheap, and to find creative ways to maximize the value of their arms, and that has worked, too:

  • Ryan Dempster was a scrapheap signing 10 years ago, a reclamation project. He relieved for four years, then successfully moved back into the rotation, then became trade bait.
  • Travis Wood cost the Cubs part of Sean Marshall. Wood still has three years of team control remaining, and posted a 3.11 ERA in 2013.
  • Jeff Samardzija was a relief pitcher throughout 2011. Given a chance to win a starting job in 2012, he did, and has racked up nearly 400 strikeouts since.
  • Paul Maholm pitched surprisingly well on a two-year free-agent deal, though the Cubs swapped him out for a pitching prospect four months into that deal.
  • Scott Feldman was also a Cub for just a short while, but brought back two solid pitchers as he left.
  • Despite ugly numbers, Edwin Jackson and Carlos Villanueva provided volume, and will be back in 2014 to try to pair that with quality. Both remain talented. Neither cost anything but money.

If the Cubs had put any real effort into building a bullpen, or if they had been good enough offensively to justify keeping some of the pitchers they dealt away, they would have had perfectly acceptable pitching staffs each of the past two seasons. If they’re patient and opportunistic enough, they can repeat these successes with much, much better teams in a year or two, and build viable groups of arms without giving up the chance to be the next Big Red Machine.

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