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Marcus Stroman, the top available free-agent starting pitcher, signs with the Chicago Cubs: ‘I knew how much I would love pitching in Chicago and pitching at Wrigley’

Hours before the expiration of Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement and an expected lockout, the Chicago Cubs locked in the best available free-agent starting pitcher.

Right-hander Marcus Stroman made the last flight out of Los Angeles on Tuesday night to Chicago, where he had a full day of physicals, MRIs and getting checked out on no sleep. The whirlwind sequence culminated in reaching terms on a three-year contract, the Cubs announced Wednesday night.

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Stroman’s deal is for $71 million, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported, with an opt-out after the second season and $2 million escalators in 2022 and ‘23 for pitching 160 innings. Stroman will earn $25 million in the upcoming season, according to Passan.

Stroman — a 2019 All-Star who had a 3.02 ERA in 33 starts for the New York Mets this year — broke the news of his signing on Twitter, describing Chicago as one of his favorite cities.

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The deal came together quickly. The Cubs checked in with Stroman’s agent at the beginning of the offseason, and after a lull, their conversations picked up last week, leading to more serious talks Sunday night into Monday with the lockout looming.

Stroman tried to stay out of free-agent negotiations as much as possible and learned of the Cubs’ serious interest from from his agent Tuesday night. The franchise’s history and fan base made the Cubs extremely appealing to Stroman.

“Once (my agent) told me the Cubs were in play, my senses were heightened because I knew how much I would love pitching in Chicago and pitching at Wrigley,” Stroman said on a Zoom press conference Wednesday night.

Stroman is the caliber of free agent the Cubs need to make a significant improvement coming off a 71-91 season. He becomes their most notable acquisition after they reached agreements with outfielder Clint Frazier on a one-year deal and veteran catcher Yan Gomes on a two-year contract with a club option and claimed veteran left-hander Wade Miley off waivers.

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Stroman’s athleticism, passion and aggressive style of pitching appealed to president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer and the Cubs front office.

“I really like the fact that he can manipulate the ball in so many different ways,” Hoyer said Wednesday night. “You watch him pitch, I think he’s evolved a lot as a pitcher. ... He’s got a real desire to evolve as a pitcher. We’ve already seen it since his college days and he keeps adding new tricks. I like guys that are always trying to get better.”

Stroman immediately brings credibility to the Cubs’ offseason approach of retooling rather than rebuilding, though they likely need at least another impactful player to be a threat in the National League Central. As for whether Stroman received any clarity from the front office on the Cubs’ competitive timeline, he believes their move to sign him is telling.

“I mean, them going out and getting me kind of speaks to that point,” said Stroman, who met with Cubs executives Wednesday night at Wrigley. “They’re definitely not in a full rebuild. They definitely want to win now.

“You never know what you’re going to get into any year. So I truly don’t think you could go into any year and say it’s necessarily a rebuild because you can have a bunch of young guys play to an incredible level and you can outplay how you’re predicted to play. So I’m excited to compete here and I’m coming in here to win. I’m not just coming in here just to come in here.”

Mets pitcher Marcus Stroman during a game against the Red Sox at Fenway Park on Sept. 22, 2021, in Boston.
Mets pitcher Marcus Stroman during a game against the Red Sox at Fenway Park on Sept. 22, 2021, in Boston. (Charles Krupa/AP)

After the CBA expired at 10:59 p.m. CST Wednesday and MLB owners locked out players, a leaguewide transaction freeze is in place until a new CBA goes into effect. Stroman said it was not a priority to get a deal done before baseball shuts down. He said other teams were involved in trying to sign him, though he didn’t mention any specifically.

“I was in no rush,” Stroman said. “It’s something that just came about, and the Cubs showed a lot of interest in me and very strong — more than most teams. So I love that and I’ve heard nothing but great things about the organization. So it was a perfect fit. I can’t wait to compete.

“Mentally I had prepared myself that I was going to go until March without signing. Me and my family, that’s how we prepare. We’re just going to train and focus on family and then we’ll see how that plays out. So everything happened extremely fast (Tuesday) night, so I haven’t even processed honestly anything.”

Stroman, 30, gives the Cubs another top-of-the-rotation arm to pair with right-hander Kyle Hendricks. Stroman’s slider was one of his most effective pitches last season with a 37% swing-and-miss rate, while hitters managed just a .184 average and .309 slugging percentage against the pitch.

His 179 innings pitched ranked 16th in the National League in 2021, right behind Max Scherzer and Brandon Woodruff. Stroman’s workload was impressive after he opted out of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

Stroman explained how he always has prided himself on his durability, highlighted by making at least 32 starts in four of his six full seasons. Even so, Stroman admitted he was “definitely a little worried” entering free agency last offseason and then into the 2021 season having not pitched in 2020.

“I was always a very confident person, but this made me even more confident,” Stroman said of his performance. “Honestly, it was a more of a testament to the people I put around me. ... I truly believe that you can’t be great on the field unless you have a good home life, a good family life. Everything has to work in tune.”

The Cubs planned to improve the rotation after the unit rated among the worst in the majors in multiple areas. Hendricks, Stroman and Miley already represent an upgrade from pairing Zach Davies and Jake Arrieta with Hendricks. Adbert Alzolay, Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson should take steps forward in their development and help the Cubs in either the rotation or bullpen.

The front office has more work to do, both on the pitching side and bolstering the lineup, but adding a pitcher like Stroman is a good step toward strengthening the roster and positioning the Cubs to be competitive in 2022.

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