Close your eyes. Imagine it’s Game 7 of the NLCS, and the Cubs have a one-run lead heading into the ninth inning with Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy coming up to bat. Aroldis Chapman, baseball’s best relief pitcher who has held opposing left-handed hitters to a .122 batting average in his seven-year career, takes the hill to send the Cubs to their first World Series since 1945.
Open your eyes. How do you feel? Confident? At ease? You should.
Close your eyes again. Imagine it’s Game 7 of the NLCS, and the Cubs are down one run heading into the ninth inning. Aroldis Chapman, baseball’s best relief pitcher who has a mere six blown saves combined in his past 151.2 innings of work, takes the hill to send the Nationals to their first World Series since they left Montreal. The Cubs are batting .226 as a team when behind in any game, second worst in the Majors, and they’ve entered the ninth inning with a deficit 35 times and have never left the inning with a lead. They have 19 come-from-behind wins all season; comparatively, the Giants, Dodgers, Nationals and Cardinals have 30, 28, 27 and 25 such wins, respectively.
Open your eyes again. How do you feel now? Scared? Apprehensive? You should.
This, in a nutshell, is why the Cubs had to get Aroldis Chapman, and they didn’t really have a choice. There are other reasons, of course, that we’ll get into soon, but, if anything, acquiring Chapman’s services keeps him away from the opposition in October. Instead of preventing them from getting to, and winning, the World Series, he’ll (hopefully) do just the opposite.
You may be wondering how you’ve been reading this for a minute and haven’t seen any mention of Chapman’s domestic abuse issue that cost him 30 games to start this season. My response: it has zero impact on whether or not the Cubs win the World Series, so I’m not going to discuss it. I am as harsh as any when it comes to cheating the game and committing domestic abuse. The current penalties in place in all sports are not strong enough. Players should be suspended an entire season for their first offense – no ifs, ands or buts about it. But I don’t make the rules, so we take what we’re given. Chapman served his time, and it’s now in the past. If Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer trust bringing the man into the clubhouse, then I’m cool with it, too.
One of my biggest pet peeves with talking heads and sports fans is when they preface their analysis on a move or transaction with “from a purely baseball perspective.” What the hell else kind of perspective am I looking for? A hygiene perspective? A baking perspective? No shit a baseball trade should be analyzed from a baseball perspective. Just because Chapman did something terrible (and he did do something terrible), you’re not a bad person for actually wanting him on this team. This isn’t Dr. Phil. This is baseball, and the sad reality is, if you have uber talent and you aren’t named Aaron Hernandez, you’re going to be highly coveted, and you’re going to be on a team. That goes for any sport. So leave the non-baseball analysis to the front office, and stop analyzing from anything other than from a baseball perspective. Carry on.
If you’re skeptical of the expensive package the Cubs had to send to New York in order to strike a deal, that’s another story, and your skepticism is valid. The Cubs gave up an absolute haul to get this thing done – there’s no denying that – and it’s all for a three month rental. Gleyber Torres, the organization’s top prospect and the 26th overall prospect according to Keith Law of ESPN, is the big ticket item on the move, but as high as his ceiling might be, he’s still a raw, 19-year-old shortstop who had no clear path to the Cubs big league roster, so long as Addison Russell and Javier Baez are around. The kid is still a good 2-3 years away from the Majors, and he has as good a chance to be a bust as he does to be a star.
Along with Torres goes Billy McKinney, a once highly-touted prospect who the Cubs received from Oakland in the Addison Russell trade. McKinney has really struggled in his second season in Double-A and continues to show no power whatsoever – not a good thing for an every day corner outfielder. Adam Warren, who can surely take his 5.91 ERA back to New York where it came from (he has given up 19 earned runs in his past 15.2 innings of relief work – not a joke), and Rashad Crawford, an unknown High-A prospect who I’m not even going to pretend to know anything about, are the last two pieces included in the deal.
But what Chapman brings to the table cannot be understated. The Cubs have seen their bullpen ERA rise every month, from 2.72 in April to 4.64 in July. Their left-handed relief pitchers have allowed a .956 OPS in July – the sixth-highest OPS allowed by such pitchers this month – while Chapman has allowed a .351 OPS in July, fourth lowest in MLB. He throws harder than any pitcher who has ever played the game, having thrown 1,513 pitches at 100.0 mph or faster, more than the next 18 pitchers on the list combined. Of 533 qualified pitchers over the past seven seasons, not one has allowed a lower opponent batting average (.157) than Chapman, who also owns the highest K/9 (15.2 – min. 250 innings) in MLB history. And perhaps most importantly, Chapman has not allowed a run to the hated St. Louis Cardinals since – get this – 2011. That’s 25 straight scoreless appearances with 46 strikeouts to boot. This dude is nasty. And he’s now a Cub.
Acquiring the flame-throwing Chapman gives Joe Maddon the luxury of sliding Hector Rondon to a setup role, which is a great luxury to have considering the four saves he has blown in his last 10 save opportunities. It also allows Maddon the flexibility to slide the electric Pedro Strop into a 7th inning role, as he has proven to be better served in low and medium leverage situations throughout his career anyways. That trio, along with the slowly improving Justin Grimm (hasn’t given up a run since June 26), Carl Edwards Jr., Travis Wood, Mike Montgomery and either Joe Nathan or Trevor Cahill, helps form the most formidable bullpen in baseball. In October, that will mean everything.
The package the Cubs gave up to bring in Chapman may be a tough pill to swallow now, but that’s the sacrifice you have to make when you’re trying to win a World Series. The front office’s ability to stockpile so many valuable assets over the past four years has put them into the enviable situation that they sit in today. The time to win is now – not five years from now – and at some point, some of these young assets have to be leveraged for the present. Nothing is guaranteed in sports, and championship windows are almost always shorter than originally perceived. Today, the Cubs acquired the best relief pitcher in baseball, and when Aroldis Chapman records the last out of the World Series in a Cubs uniform, the price they paid to make that happen will be nothing but a distant memory.
- 2012 Deadline
- Traded Geovany Soto to Rangers to Jake Brigham, whom they flipped back to Rangers for Barrett Loux. Advantage: probably no one.
- Traded Ryan Dempster to Rangers for Christian Villanueva and Kyle Hendricks. Advantage: Cubs.
- 2013 Deadline
- Traded Alfonso Soriano to Yankees for Corey Black. Advantage: Soriano did hit 17 homers in 58 games with the Yankees that season, but they missed the playoffs. Only the Cubs can win this trade, as Soriano has since retired and Black is still in the minors.
- Traded Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop. Advantage: Lol.
- Traded Carlos Marmol to Dodgers for Matt Guerrier. Both players are currently out of the league. Advantage: wash.
- Traded Matt Garza to Rangers for CJ Edwards, Mike Olt and Justin Grimm. Advantage: Cubs. Not even close.
- 2014 Deadline
- Traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the A’s for Addison Russell, Billy McKinney and Dan Straily (whom they flipped to Houston with Luis Valbuena for Dexter Fowler). Advantage: Cubs. Couldn’t have worked out worse for Oakland.
- Traded Emilio Bonifacio and James Russell to Braves for Victor Caritimi. Russell is now back with the Cubs, and Caritimi is a borderline top 10 prospect in the Cubs system. Advantage: Cubs.
- Traded Darwin Barney to Dodgers for a bag of peanuts. Actually. Advantage: Cubs.
As outlined above, the Cubs have made nine deadline deals (unless I’m missing any) since the summer of 2012, and that trend will almost certainly continue in 2015. The difference now is that, for the first time since 2008, the Cubs finally look like buyers. However, it’s not quite as easy to outsmart other GMs when you’re a buyer and desperate for help that can improve your chances of winning a World Series ring immediately. The thing is, Theo and Jed aren’t desperate – at least not this year. They are not willing to mortgage their future for the present, especially with the position they’re in now. They’ve got one of the youngest cores in the league and have put together a legitimate offensive juggernaut in the making. If and when the Cubs make a deal this summer, it will be on Theo and Jed’s terms, trading guys who they don’t see fitting into their future plans, as opposed to going all in and praying it works out. Condolences to Billy Beane.
All that said, Theo and Jed are not blind. The Cubs needs pitching help, and they need it badly. Through seven weeks, the back of the rotation has been an inconsistent mess, and the bullpen has been a borderline disaster. Although they rank a solid 3rd in the NL in starter’s ERA, their bullpen ERA ranks 10th, bringing them to a mediocre 7th place ranking overall. If you’re thinking to yourself that it could be worse, you’re right – it can. Kyle Hendricks has been fantastic his past two starts, lowing his ERA nearly a run and a half over that span, from 5.15 to 3.76. Neil Ramirez will also be back soon (hopefully) to help the bullpen, although who knows how he’ll be with that shoulder.
The problem is that the Cardinals and Pirates rank ahead of the Cubs in every aspect of pitching, and they have to play them only, what, 20 more times combined this year? The Cubs are 8-8 against those two teams thus far, and if they plan on making it to October, they’d best be served acquiring some pitching help and getting on their levels.
Next winter’s free agent class will be very strong as far as starting pitching goes, and a number of top-of-the-rotation starters will be on the market over the next two months. Whether the Cubs go after one before the deadline remains to be seen, and a lot may be riding on whether or not Tsuyoshi Wada continues to hold down the fifth spot successfully in place of Travis Wood. If things take a turn for the worse, though, or Theo and Jed get an offer they can’t refuse, they’ve proven they won’t be afraid to pull the trigger.
Below are names of various starters/relievers that will be thrown around nearly every day until the end of July, categorized by probability that they’ll end up a Cub.
Scott Kazmir, SP, Oakland A’s
A three-time All-Star, the 31-year-old Kazmir has dealt with his fair share of injuries and adversity throughout his career. Over a four-year span early in his career, Kazmir was one of the best pitchers in the American League – the bona-fide ace of the 2008 pennant-winning Tampa Bay Rays. Injuries temporarily derailed his career during 2011 and 2012 before he signed a minor league contract with the Cleveland Indians in 2013.
After his resurgent season there, the A’s signed Kazmir to a two-year contract, where he was arguably the American League’s best pitcher for the first four months of 2014 before getting shelled in August and September. Nevertheless, Kazmir was a huge reason for Oakland’s incredible first half last season, and he would bring a lot of value and leadership as a veteran southpaw to the top (or in the Cubs’ case, middle) of any rotation.
Given Kazmir’s inconsistency over the past year+ (2014 splits include 2.38 ERA pre-All Star break and 5.42 ERA post-All Star break; 2015 splits include 0.99 ERA in April, 5.14 ERA in May), as well as Oakland’s complete fall from grace (17-32 record, good for dead last in the AL), all signs point to a very trigger-happy Billy Beane – shocking news to baseball fans, I’m sure. I can’t imagine Beane asking for too much for Kazmir – Duane Underwood and another prospect would probably be the ceiling – so if the price is right, Theo and Jed will likely pounce.
Tyler Clippard, RP, Oakland A’s
Clippard is one of the best eighth-inning relievers in baseball, and it has been that way for the past six years (with one season at closer thrown in). The A’s acquired him from the Nationals for next to nothing back in January, and he’ll be a free agent at season’s ended. With Pedro Strop struggling mightily this month (6.57 ERA in 12.1 IP) after a ridiculous April (0.00 ERA in 9.1 IP), the Cubs may look to scoop up a setup man who has posted 147 holds since 2010 in Clippard. Given the current state of the A’s, you can bet your ass that Clippard will be gone before he knows it.
Cole Hamels, SP, Philadelphia Phillies
To be honest, the chances of the Cubs acquiring Cole Hamels are lower than 50/50 – it just seemed like a good category name. Those chances are completely contingent on whether or not Phillies’ GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has finally removed his head from his ass; it’s been stuck there for years. Last season, rumor had it that Amaro was demanding Kris Bryant or Javy Baez in some kind of an absurd package in exchange for Hamels. He demanded at least two of the Dodgers top three prospects, all of whom are top 30 prospects overall. Now he apparently wants Bryant or Addison Russell – obviously not happening. At some point though, something’s gotta give.
Given his serious struggles at the plate in limited at-bats last season, it is widely believed that the Cubs are now willing to part ways with Baez. As high as Baez’ ceiling is, he likely will never truly patch up the high K rate. He needs to figure out how to adjust to major league pitching, and last summer proved it may take a bit longer than expected. On top of all that, the Cubs are clearly loaded with position players up and down the system, with pitching being their achilles’ heal. I doubt Theo would be willing to package Baez for two months of Hamels, and I don’t think he should. A team like the New York Mets, who are loaded with pitching prospects but lack hitters, would be a perfect fit, but that’s another story for another day. If the Cubs were to saddle up for Cole Hamels, what does he bring to the table?
For one, Hamels has been one of the ten best pitchers in baseball over the past decade. He’s finished in the top eight of the Cy Young voting four times, sporting a career 3.26 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 8.50 K/9. More importantly, he has a career postseason record of 7-4 with a 3.09 ERA in 13 starts. He also won the NLCS and World Series MVPs in 2008. Decent track record, I’d say.
Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports feels there is no better time than right now to acquire Hamels:
Hamels’ average fastball velocity in May is 93.59 mph, a monthly figure he did not reach last season until August. His strikeout rate, over a full season, would rank among the best of his career.
His walk rate is dropping, and after allowing seven homers in his first three starts, his home run rate also is returning to normal. Hamels has allowed only one homer in his last seven outings, none in his last four.
And as far as his contract as concerned:
Hamels is owed about $90 million over four years or $105 million over five, depending upon whether he is traded to a club on his no-trade list and requires the club to exercise his option. Thus, he already is a bargain by today’s standards and will become even more of a bargain if Amaro kicks in, say, $10 million, to get better prospects.
Point being: get him while he’s hot.
Jonathan Papelbon, RP, Philadelphia Phillies
Similar story to Hamels, as Ruben Amaro is also Papelbon’s GM. He is signed through 2015 with a vesting option through 2016, and the Phillies will have to pay a chunk of his $13 million salary in order to get a decent return. If they’re down, Papelbon would be a great fit for the Cubs for two reasons: 1) he’d bring a much needed veteran presence with unbelievable playoff success (1.00 career postseason ERA in 27 IP) to a struggling bullpen, and 2) he played for Theo Epstein for seven seasons (six with Jon Lester). The need is there, and the relationship is there. The price, however, may not be.
Johnny Cueto, SP, Cincinnati Reds
There are plenty of people out there who think the Cubs have a shot at getting Cueto at the deadline. If you’re one of them, I’m here to tell you all that you’re wrong, bro. Would it be nice to acquire the NL’s biggest workhorse since the start of 2014 (he’s pitched more innings than anyone since then)? Sure. Would I love to add another legit ace to the rotation? Absolutely. Thing is, assuming the Reds continue to suck (they’ve lost nine of their last 10), they won’t consider trading Cueto within the division. They also are said to want some good, young pitching in the return, which would disqualify the Cubs from the running. Expect the Red Sox to pony up and make a serious offer that the Reds’ front office won’t refuse.
Jeff Samardzija, SP, Chicago White Sox
Two things that haven’t changed: Shark still has mad flow, but he still lacks consistency. Sure, he put up a monster season in 2014, but he just couldn’t prevent that one terrible month last June that he always seems to struggle through (see May 2011; June 2012; July-September 2013). He was very shaky out of the gate with the White Sox (4.78 ERA in April) but has since been fantastic, having thrown 23 IP with a 1.96 ERA and 19 Ks in his past three starts.
The Sox have really struggled thus far, but I fully expect them to improve as the year goes on, meaning it’s pretty unlikely they move Samardzija at the deadline. If I happen to be wrong, which is usually the case, and the Sox continue to suck, then expect the Cubs to put in a call to Rick Hahn to test the waters. It’s doubtful they’d be willing to give up much, but the rumors will certainly circulate. Samardzija, from what I’ve read, does not want to leave Chicago, so if he actually gets traded elsewhere, it’s easy to picture him coming back to either the North Side or the South Side next winter. Keep your eye on him.
Other Guys to Watch
Grant Balfour, RP, Free Agent
Jonathan Broxton, RP, Milwaukee Brewers
Sean Marshall, RP, Cincinnati Reds
Mike Leake, SP, Cincinnati Reds
Rafael Soriano, RP, Free Agent
Brad Ziegler, RP, Arizona Diamondbacks
So there you have it. For the first time since 2008, the Cubs have the look of a trade deadline buyer. As they sit four games over .500 and a game out of the wildcard, it’s clear that their timetable has been moved up. If Theo and Jed expect see their team play in October, they’ll need more pitching, and they’ll need it soon. The stove will continue to get hot as the seasons turn, so be prepared for something big.
Another year, another starting pitcher fire sale on the north side. For the second consecutive July, the Cubs have managed to trade away two of their best starting pitchers to a contender looking to beef up its rotation in the midst of a pennant race: Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm last season, Scott Feldman and Matt Garza this season.
As evidenced over the past two years, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have a clearcut plan for how they want to rebuild this franchise, and it’s simple: take low-risk, mediocre-reward fliers on decent free agent starters by signing them to one year deals with the hope that Chris Bosio can help turn around their careers before trading them for prospects at the deadline (Maholm and Feldman); trade top of the rotation pitchers with expiring contracts for as much as they can possibly get (Dempster, Garza); trade shitty contracts, compliments of Jim Hendry, for a bag of cracker jacks (Carlos Zambrano, Geovany Soto, Carlos Marmol and hopefully Alfonso Soriano); draft hard-working players with superior leadership qualities and great character (Albert Almora, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, who counts here because Jed Hoyer has brought him to all three organizations he has worked for); and stay active in the international market by adding to their loads of bonus money via trades and acquiring top-notch talent (Jorge Soler, Gleyber Torres, Eloy Jimenez).
Of course, sticking to such a rebuild plan isn’t as easy as it sounds; it takes an extraordinary amount of time, patience and baseball intelligence before the dividends begin to pay off. Fortunately, Epstein and Hoyer possess all three (time by ownership’s standards), and they have yet to be fooled by anyone (except maybe Edwin Jackson). The Garza trade is yet another example of their major rebuild plan coming to fruition, and Cubs fans are finally starting to gain some excitement as they’ve begun to spot that small glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Who have the Cubs acquired from Texas in exchange for Garza’s services, you ask? Let’s find out.
Mike Olt, 3B
Once upon a time (like last winter), Mike Olt was one of the top prospects in all of baseball (#16 in MLB’s prospect rankings before the 2012 season, #22 in Baseball America’s prospect rankings before this season). The soon-to-be 25-year-old third baseman out of the University of Connecticut has unbelievable raw power (“probably grade-70 on the 20-80 scouting scale,” according to ESPN’s Keith Law) from the right side of the plate. He finished his 2012 Double-A campaign with 28 homers, 17 doubles and 82 RBIs in 354 at-bats (that’s one homer every 12.6 at-bats) before getting called up to the big leagues and struggling mightily. He is also an exceptional, MLB-ready infielder who could provide steady defense at the hot corner – he just never really got a real chance with Adrian Beltre holding the fort down in Texas. Although there’s a whole lot to like about Olt, there’s also a whole lot to be skeptical about.
For starters, Olt has had recurring vision issues since sustaining a concussion during the Dominican Winter League in November. It’s easy to say that any rest and treatment he received should help bring him back to full health soon enough, but with concussions, you just never know. Justin Morneau won AL MVP in 2006 and was consistently one of the top hitters in baseball for years – until he got hit in the head and missed the entire second half of the 2010 season. Since then, Morneau has been on and off the DL a number of times with post-concussion symptoms and vision issues, and he’s nowhere near a shell of his old self. One can only pray that the same doesn’t happen to Olt.
In addition, Olt strikes out a lot. He struck out 101 times in 354 at-bats and led the Rangers Double-A squad in K% last season (24.0%), and he led their Triple-A squad with 89 strikeouts before being traded Monday. The latter may have more to do with the visionary issues he was experiencing early on in the season than anything else, but with Rizzo, Castro and Soriano (plus Javier Baez down on the farm) all continuing to strike out at high rates, there are only so many strikeouts a man of my patience can withstand.
It’s difficult to say right now whether or not Olt will turn out to be the guy that everyone expected him to be at the Major League level, which is a 25-30 homer guy. Since coming off the DL in Triple-A, he’s hitting .247/.353/.506, with 57 strikeouts in 186 plate appearances, a decent preview of what most scouts expect to see in the majors, only with a bit more contact as his vision (hopefully) nears 100%. If he can get healthy (and stay healthy) and begin to show off the power that scouts had grown accustomed to seeing, there’s no reason to think Olt won’t be wearing Cubbie blue in September; if not, then my previously negative feelings towards him will revert back, and the future of this significantly older prospect will begin to look murky.
C.J. Edwards, RHP
The wild card. A former 48th round pick, the 21-year-old Edwards has been absolutely killing it at Class-A Hickory this season. “The String Bean Slinger” was, quite incredibly, first discovered by a then-future Rangers scout who happened to see him pitch several years ago for a predominantly African-American league comprising adults from communities in the part of the state in which he lived (Prosperity, S.C.).
All Edwards has done since receiving a $50,000 signing bonus from the Rangers is completely dominate. In the 2012 Arizona Fall League, he threw 20 scoreless innings while striking out 25, walking six and giving up just six hits. In the 2012 Northwest League (Spokane), during short-season A-ball, he posted a 2.11 ERA with 60 strikeouts in 47 innings. In low-class Hickory this year, he has put up a 1.83 ERA while fanning an outrageous 122 batters in 93.1 innings (11.8 K/9). He also has yet to allow a single home run during his professional career. The track record may be limited, but Edwards has very high upside as a potential top- or middle-of-the rotation starter. Here is a breakdown of his arsenal, via Keith Law:
He has easy plus velocity, 90-96, with an above-average to plus curveball with good depth and 12-to-6 break, and a developing changeup that projects as average to slightly above… He’s aggressive and throws strikes, with a little life on the fastball, and probably could go to high-A at this point given how well he’s dominated low-A.
Law goes on to point out that, amongst all these positive traits, lies the issue that, at 6-foot-2, 155 pounds, Edwards’ slight build could very easily lead to durability problems. He’ll need to put on some weight as he progresses up the minor league ladder. For now, though, Edwards is the guy Cubs fans should be most intrigued by.
Justin Grimm, RHP
Since being called up to the Majors last season, Grimm has been nothing but horrendous (outside of this past April, when he posted a 1.59 ERA in 17 IP). He has a career 6.73 ERA and 1.67 WHIP in 19 starts (and 22 appearances) across 103 innings. Grimm had some very good minor league stints, but due to his very weak change-up, his two-pitch repertoire (fastball and curveball) has been a serious problem for him. Grimm’s ceiling is as a mid-rotation guy, but some project him as a swingman or middle reliever, unless he can improve upon that repertoire (a more in-depth scouting report can be found here). He should be in line to get some starts for the Cubs this season, so we’ll see how he fares during the next two and a half months against National League lineups.
Two Players to be Named
Would it kill the front offices to let us know who these players are already? Throw me a friggin’ bone here.
Some may be disappointed in this package; others may be ecstatic. It really all depends on one’s feelings about Olt. After years and years of heartbreak and fallen hope, the pessimistic Cub fan in me was a bit disappointed in this trade solely because of my fear for Olt’s inability to get healthy and eventually become the player he once was. He has incredible potential; if he pans out, this trade will one day be looked at as a turning point in the Cubs’ rebuild, as a future roster of Rizzo (1B), Javier Baez (INF), Starlin Castro (INF), Olt (3B), Bryant (LF), Almora (CF), Soler (RF) and Junior Lake (somewhere) is a realistic possibility. If he doesn’t, then mostly everything will ride on the very young, very raw C.J. Edwards to maximize the value of this trade package. Regardless, whatever our feelings are now will have no impact on whatever happens in the future; this was undoubtedly the best return the Cubs were going to get for Garza. All we should do is look towards that future optimistically and hope the annual July fire sale on the north side will finally come to a halt sooner rather than later.
What a hectic few weeks it has been for the Chicago Cubs front office. There has been excitement, disappointment, optimism and pessimism, but after all the trade rumors and insanity that have swallowed up the attention of actual MLB games, it’s finally time for everyone to relax and look forward to the future of this ball club. Sure, it would’ve been nice to see us net some prospects for the likes of Alfonso Soriano, Bryan Lahair, Matt Garza and others before the trade deadline ended, but at least the Epstein/Hoyer duo didn’t stand completely pat. Let’s break down the deals that went down over the last couple of days.
Geovany Soto to Texas Rangers for RHP Jacob Brigham: Dear lord, what in the world happened to Geovany Soto? Once upon a time, just four years ago, he was one of the most valuable players on the Cubs roster. In a league where good catchers are more difficult to come by than it is for Skip Bayless to say something remotely intelligent, we thought we had found our backstop for the next 10+ years. Soto won NL Rookie of the Year in 2008 and finished 13th in NL MVP voting. Since then, he has tested positive for marijuana and has never been the same player. Over the past two seasons, he has posted .228/.310/.411 and .195/.278/.345 splits, respectively. Embarrassing. I think it’s safe to say that, at this point, Soto would probably be best suited to sell dope than hit baseballs at the major league level. I’m glad he’s finally gone. Wellington Castillo: it’s your time to shine, my friend.
As for Jacob Brigham, some sources were pretty surprised that the Rangers were willing to part ways with a high-ceiling pitcher like him. According to Baseball Time in Arlington, the 24-year-old Brigham features plus-plus arm strength and has the ability to strike out a lot of hitters (230 K’s in 238.1 innings over past two seasons at Double A Frisco). His two legit major league pitches (fastball and curveball) “make him a likely candidate to become a max-effort, power reliever.” He’ll need to improve his command, though, if he’s going to get to the majors any time soon. Given how atrocious Soto has been in a Cubs uniform over the past couple years, I’d say this is a low-risk, medium-reward (medium may be pushing it, but there’s nothing in between low and medium) type trade. For a team desperate to add as much pitching as it can get (especially in the bullpen, where it ranks 26th in the majors in ERA at 4.41), this was a deal that probably can’t hurt.
Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson to Atlanta Braves for RHP Arodys Vizcaino and RHP Jaye Chapman: No disrespect to Maholm — he’s been nothing short of phenomenal the past month+ for the Cubs (5-0 with a 1.00 ERA and 32 K’s over past seven starts, including six consecutive starts going at least 6 IP and allowing 1 or fewer runs), and I truly appreciate the effort and hard work he has put in for such a bad team — but boy, will I miss Reed Johnson. Here’s a guy who has done nothing but good things for the Cubs the past four out of five years (played for the Dodgers in 2010) and absolutely anything that was ever asked of him. He’s as hard-nosed a ballplayer as you’ll find, and he signifies everything that’s right with the game of baseball and what it means to be a great teammate. I have no doubt that he’ll thrive in his new home in Atlanta, and Braves fans (all five of them) will love his versatility and what he brings to the table.
Aside from all my sappy bullshit, this was arguably the best trade the Cubs made simply because of one name: Arodys Vizcaino. Coming into 2012, ESPN Senior Baseball Analyst Keith Law had him ranked as his 14th — repeat, 14th — best prospect. Sure, he had Tommy John surgery in March that ended his 2012 season before it started, but given the way that pitchers have effectively come back from the surgery over the past decade or so (most notably Stephen Strasburg, John Smoltz, Ryan Dempster, Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson, Josh Johnson, among many others), I think it’s a risk absolutely worth taking. Here’s a brief scouting report on Vizcaino from Law:
When healthy, Vizcaino throws 92-96 mph as a starter, with an out-pitch curveball, showing slider velocity but with two-plane action and depth. He has good arm speed on his changeup and was very effective against left-handed batters in the minors in 2011, a testament to that pitch given his arm slot, which is a little below three-quarters. (Pitchers with lower arm slots are easier to pick up for opposite-handed hitters.)
If Vizcaino can stay healthy, and that’s obviously a huge “if,” we’re talking about a 21-year-old guy who has the potential to become a No. 2 starter or better, and all we had to give up to get him was an extra outfielder and a back-end of the rotation kind of pitcher who was never going to be a part of the rebuilding process anyways. He, in addition to Jaye Chapman (3.52 ERA, 60 K’s in 53.2 IP for Triple A Gwinnett this year) — an organizational arm who can become a back-end reliever for the Cubs’ bullpen — is a great return for what we gave up. Let’s cross our fingers and hope that Vizcaino can come back as strong as ever next spring.
Ryan Dempster to Texas Rangers for 3B Christian Villanueva and RHP Kyle Hendricks: There’s no need to get into the events that went down with Dempster last week, as I’m sure every Cub fan by now knows what happened (if you don’t, it’s time to rise and shine and get out from under that rock you’ve been living under). The way he handled the situation about being traded to Atlanta was poor to say the least and, in all honesty, he acted like a total pansy. He completely screwed the Cubs out of getting a potential No. 3 starter in the near future in Randall Delgado because of his 10-5 rights, so I think it’s fair to say that most, if not all, Cubs fans are very upset with Dempster.
However, even after the way he went out, we can’t dismiss the great things Dempster did for this organization over the past 8.5 years. When the Cubs surprisingly asked him to become their full-time closer in 2005, he went out and saved 85 games in a three-year span. When the Cubs reverted him back to a starter in 2008, he finished his first season back in the rotation with a 2.96 ERA, made the All-Star team, placed sixth in NL Cy Young voting, and helped lead the Cubs to the best record in the NL. Sure, the end of the Dempster era may have left a bitter taste in our mouth, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t acknowledge what he has done for us. I’ll definitely miss him, and if the Rangers end up winning the World Series this season, I’ll be happy for him. He deserves it.
In terms of the trade, it’s not as great as we would’ve liked it to be. But, if Theo and Jed didn’t see something special in these guys (mostly Villanueva), they wouldn’t have even considered the trade in the first place. Whether keeping Dempster and receiving a compensatory first round pick for his free agent status after the season would’ve been a better option remains to be seen, but most people find Villanueva and Hendricks to be a reasonable return.
Villanueva, a 21-year-old third baseman out of Mexico, ranked No. 100 on Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects list entering the season. He “has a broad base of tools that include a solid bat, potential average power, fringe to average speed with good instincts on the bases and standout defense with soft hands and a strong arm at third base.” He’s currently hitting .285/.356/.421 with 10 home runs and 59 RBI’s at high Class A in Myrtle Beach, but he’s not very patient at the plate, just like many of the other Cub prospects. Hopefully he can continue to develop, improve his approach at the plate and make it to the majors in a few years.
As far as Hendricks is concerned, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot to like. He has been very solid in Myrtle Beach as well and has shown great command (only 15 walks in 131 IP), but Keith Law isn’t too high on him:
Hendricks is more of an organizational starter, 87-89 mph with an average cutter and changeup and below-average curveball but good command and a repeatable delivery and arm action. The right-hander could surface as a fifth starter, but his stuff is probably too fringy for that.
Hendricks is young (22 years old), so there’s definitely room to grow and get better, but it sounds like a No. 5 starter could be his ceiling. As of now, this was a decent trade for the Cubs and a great one for the Rangers. But, in Theo and Jed I trust. Given their track record, it wouldn’t surprise me to see any of these guys become something much greater than expected. Only time will tell. In the meantime, we can only hope for the best for our former Cubs and stay optimistic (or pessimistic if you’re that kind of person) about the prospects we received in return.
Six months I’ve waited for this. At the beginning of this year, there were three Cuban defectors that many baseball fans started to become familiar with: Yoenis Cespedes, Jorge Soler, and Gerardo Concepcion. Cespedes was the best prospect simply because of his age (26) and experience. The Cubs easily won the Concepcion sweepstakes over ten teams or so, inking the 18-year-old left-handed pitcher to a $7 million major league contract. Cubs brass then made a big push to get Cespedes, but the Oakland A’s ultimately won out. Surprisingly, it didn’t bother me much. I knew that once the Cubs actually became competitive again (another 3-4 years), Cespedes would already be closing in on 30 years of age. For a team that had no intentions of winning now and every intention of building for the future, it made sense to go for the 20-year-old Soler, who wasn’t granted free agency until June 2. So once Cespedes was off the market, that’s exactly what Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer did.
For months, I’ve been infatuated with the idea of the Cubs signing Soler. That idea finally became a reality when Soler chose the North Side as his future home yesterday afternoon, agreeing to a nine-year, $30 million deal. It will cover Soler’s minor league time and most, if not all, of his major league time in Chicago. At 6’3 200 pounds, he has incredible raw power and bat speed, game-changing ability, and the potential to do some serious damage in the middle of the Cubs order (which will contain the likes of Anthony Rizzo and hopefully Albert Almora) in the near future. Scouts have been comparing him favorably to the 22-year-old behemoth that is Giancarlo Stanton, the Miami Marlins star right fielder. Here is what ESPN’s lead baseball analyst for Scouts Inc., Keith Law, had to say about Soler after the signing:
Jorge Soler, the 20-year-old Cuban outfielder the Cubs agreed to terms with today, can show you four plus tools, and there’s enough bat speed and hand strength for him to end up with all five. He has All-Star potential for the Cubs if they’re patient enough to wait the 2-3 years he’ll take in an optimistic scenario before he is big-league ready…
…Had Soler been in this year’s draft, he would probably have been a top-five pick on merit, definitely in the top 10.
Top-five pick? That means Soler’s potential is equivalent, or near equivalent, to that of soon-to-be stud outfielders Byron Buxton (Twins), David Dahl (Rockies), and the Cubs very own Albert Almora. He’s also a very instinctive outfielder with a fantastic arm (Baseball Prospect Nation ranked his arm 60/60 and his fielding 50/60) and can cover a lot of ground with his underrated speed (pretty much the anti-Alfonso Soriano). In other words, Soler has a classic right field profile – a perfect future complement to Brett Jackson in left and Albert Almora in center. If that doesn’t make you salivate, I don’t know what else, besides Portillo’s italian beef, will.
For the first time in a long time, the Cubs are building a powerhouse from within. It’s time to get excited about what the future may hold for us, as the farm system is loaded up with some promising young hitters in Rizzo, Jackson, Almora, Javier Baez and now Soler. Pitching is still a major hole, but that issue has been, and will continue to be, addressed. The Cubs drafted over 20 pitchers in last week’s draft and have Dillon Maples, among others, developing in their farm system. I’d like to think that at least one or two of them will pan out and become solid starters or even solid relievers (I don’t ask for much in life, so if The Man Upstairs can hear me right now, how ’bout a little help, big guy?). Assuming the Cubs trade Dempster at the deadline, it doesn’t hurt to hope that a desperate team looking to make a push will give us a decent pitching package. Matt Garza also has tremendous value to teams like the Detroit Tigers (Jacob Turner, please?), so it shouldn’t surprise any of us if he goes too. However, if the Cubs decide to keep Garza and resign him at some point, that would be great as well. Plus, there’s always free agency – the time of the year that Theo Epstein makes other executives feel smaller than Leslie Chow’s… well, you know exactly what I’m talking about. And if you don’t, then you’ve probably never seen The Hangover. And that’s a serious issue.
Six months I waited for Jorge Soler. As Cub fans, being patient is in our nature. If there are 103-year old Cub fans who are still out there waiting (and bravo if you are really alive at the age of 103), then what’s another three or four years to us of waiting for a perennial playoff contender? Something tells me it will be well worth that small wait soon enough.
For an in-depth scouting report on Soler, click here.