Market Matters: Checking in on Potential Trade Deadline Targets

This week’s call-up of Kyle Schwarber is only the latest in a series of indications that, for the first time in recent memory, the Chicago Cubs figure to be buyers at the July 31st trade deadline. With a record of 35-28 entering play on June 18th (that’s the fourth-best record in the National League), BP Playoff Odds of 69.5 percent (fourth-best in the majors), and a young core hungry for contention, the value of a marginal win is as high for Chicago today as it has been in a half-decade. And the only place to get those marginal wins, absent improved performance from existing players, is on the trade market.

Given the Cubs’ interest, in general, in acquiring players via trade, I began to wonder what value in particular might be available on the trade market come this July. On the basis of not much more than a few educated guesses and some informed research, I came up with a list of players who might be both (a) available next month and (b) of some interest to the Cubs, then ran that list by my colleagues at BP Wrigleyville, who suggested some more of their own. I then divided those players into three categories—hitters, starting pitchers, and relief pitchers—and pulled each player’s PECOTA projections for the rest of the season for comparisons’ sake. This last step, of course, was to gain some understanding of what value the Cubs might be able to purchase in return for a given player’s services.

What follows, then, is a set of charts containing the names, and projected rest-of-season performances, of players who might possibly end up on the Cubs at some point this season via trade. I’ve also included those players’ salary, in millions of dollars, for the 2015 season, that same salary divided by three (to roughly estimate the salary the Cubs would pay them for the final two months of this six-month season, barring money changing hands in any deal), and a somewhat farcical estimation of ‘Value’, which is simply the latter dollar value described above, divided by projected rest-of-season WARP; thus, it’s a rough estimator of the dollar cost of a win for any particular player.

There’s a million caveats to get out of the way before I dive into the body of this piece. Among them: None of the players I list here are present by dint of anything but reasonably educated speculation. The value of a trade will be dictated, at least in part, by the players the Cubs choose to give up in acquisition. Some of the players listed here are under contract for future seasons, a factor that isn’t considered here but will certainly be relevant to the front office’s decision-making. My rough estimator of ‘Value’ is meaningless if the total WARP acquired is low: I, for example, could probably produce a replacement-level pitching inning for $0, if given enough opportunities. That doesn’t mean I have infinite value, and the absolute values matter here. The Cubs front office values makeup, and not all of these players have sterling records in that regard. Money will change hands in some of these deals. And the list goes on …

All that aside, however, I think it’s still interesting to ponder what’s available in the market today, and to speculate about what options the Cubs might have available to them as they attempt to reach the playoffs for the first time since the 2008 season. Let’s begin with a discussion of the hitters.

The Hitters

Player PA AVG HR TAv WARP $ $ / 3 ‘Value’
Justin Upton 340 0.261 12 0.295 2.2 14.7 4.9 2.2
Ben Zobrist 323 0.255 5 0.278 1.4 7.5 2.5 1.8
Brock Holt 207 0.276 1 0.257 0.5 0.5 0.2 0.4
Jackie Bradley, Jr. 36 0.233 0 0.250 0.1 0.5 0.2 1.8
Ichiro Suzuki 144 0.269 0 0.236 0.1 2.0 0.7 6.7

“Justin Upton!”, you exclaim, scrolling quickly down the list. “Is he available?” I don’t know. But I do know that the Padres just fired Bud Black, one of the most respected managers in the game, in order to provide a scapegoat for a Padres season that has gone nowhere close to where they hoped it would. I’m not certain that Upton is on the market. But I’m pretty confident that the Padres would listen to offers if the Cubs came calling. Much the same is true of the Red Sox, who in the midst of a lost season might put Holt and Bradley, Jr. on the market, and of the A’s (Zobrist) and the Marlins (Suzuki). On that last note, and despite the tantalizing proposition of a Hall of Fame player coming to the North Side, I just don’t see a deal working out for Ichiro. His performance to date doesn’t warrant his contract, and the absolute value he’ll bring to the team just isn’t worth the overpay.

Assuming a deal is eventually worked out for an outfielder at all, I’d put my money on Zobrist’s acquisition. We know the Cubs front office tried to swing a deal for him this offseason but came up short. This time, they have even more incentive to get something done, and the value is still there. Failing that, I’d imagine the Cubs will stand pat on the hitting front and count on the return of their injured bench bats (Jorge Soler, Mike Olt, Tommy La Stella) and the continued emergence of their young hitters (Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, and the aforementioned Schwarber) to surround their young core. The real focus this deadline will be the pitchers. Speaking of which …

The Starting Pitchers

Player IP ERA WHIP K WARP $ $ / 3 ‘Value’
Johnny Cueto 114 2.98 1.07 98 1.7 10.0 3.3 2.0
Cole Hamels 126 3.15 1.08 118 1.5 23.5 7.8 5.2
Andrew Cashner 94.7 3.23 1.14 81 0.8 4.1 1.4 1.7
Clay Buchholz 84 3.79 1.30 64 0.7 12.3 4.1 5.8
Jeff Samardzija 108 4.09 1.32 106 0.5 9.8 3.3 6.5
Tyson Ross 102 3.62 1.25 93 0.4 5.3 1.8 4.4
Scott Kazmir 97 4.15 1.34 81 0.1 13.0 4.3 43.3

This is a fun list. It’s a list to dream on. But it’s also a list that can’t really be considered outside of the context of what’ll happen next offseason, when many observers believe the Cubs will seek to add a major free-agent starting pitcher. If that’s true, it’s hard to imagine the Cubs will feel comfortable laying out the major prospect expense that’ll be necessary to acquire some of the bigger names on this list: Cueto, Hamels, and Samardzija fall into this category for me.

Far more likely, to my mind, is the Cubs swinging a deal for one of the middle-tier starters. Here, Ross stands out, but I could also imagine a deal for Buchholz, with whom the front office has a familiarity, making sense as well. Kazmir looked like a strong possibility at the beginning of this season, but his performance to date leaves a great deal to be desired, and I have a hard time seeing this deal happening unless Billy Beane insists he form part of a package for Zobrist. Cashner is on this list mostly for the intrigue that would come from a sinking Padres team trading the hard-throwing righty back to his original home, but I imagine that they’d rather hold on to him and try to rebuild around him and James Shields for 2016.

The Relievers

Player IP ERA WHIP SO WARP $ $ / 3 ‘Value’
Aroldis Chapman 39.7 2.04 1.02 63 1.1 8.1 2.7 2.4
Koji Uehara 35 2.04 0.92 44 1.1 9.0 3.0 2.7
Tyler Clippard 42.3 2.40 1.05 50 1.0 8.3 2.8 2.8
Jonathan Papelbon 35.7 2.40 1.00 40 0.8 13.0 4.3 5.4
David Robertson 37.7 2.67 1.15 51 0.8 10.0 3.3 4.2
A.J. Ramos 35.7 2.88 1.19 41 0.6 0.5 0.2 0.3
Junichi Tazawa 37.7 3.43 1.20 39 0.5 2.3 0.8 1.5
Jonathan Broxton 32.3 3.51 1.22 30 0.3 9.0 3.0 10.0

This is the area where I’m most confident the Cubs will made a move. The recent signing of Rafael Soriano, combined with Zac Rosscup and Neil Ramirez’s stints on the disabled list, all suggest that the team is still very much in the market for a bullpen arm. Here, the name that’s produced the most smoke is Papelbon’s, but the Cubs and the Phillies have shown signs of having very differing valuation systems in the past, possibly complicating a match. There are also indications the the Phillies prefer to deal with the Blue Jays, who have a similar interest in Papelbon, rather than with the Cubs. Turning westward from Philadelphia, Chapman would, like Pabelbon, be a very exciting name, but I’m not sure the Cubs won’t seek to get a little bit more value for their money (or prospects) by going another direction, as Chapman will likely command a prince’s sum on the trade market.

The names I’d be least surprised to see end up on the North Side are Clippard, who could come over in a deal for Zobrist, or Ramos, who’s had a quietly excellent season for the Marlins. If, indeed, a standalone deal ends up making the most sense, the Red Sox pair might well be on the table, and David Robertson is also an intriguing option on the South Side. He’s been excellent once again, this time for a White Sox team that has underperformed expectations, and while cross-town trades are rare, this is one place where a fit might exist.

On the whole, I’d imagine the Cubs would like to pick up at least one relief pitcher, quite possibly a starter, and Zobrist, if they can get him. Whether they’ll be able to do so depends a great deal on the caveats I mentioned above, not to mention the Cubs’ ability to remain in contention over the next month, and how the natural entropy of the baseball season plays out between now and July 31st. Some of the players listed above will exit the market as their teams creep into contention, and others will surely enter as their teams slip. It’d be irresponsible to point to one player and say that this, here, is the player the Cubs are going to get, or even target. That player doesn’t exist. What does exist is a set of changing needs, and a corresponding set of changing circumstances. If those align appropriately before July 31st, we’ll see a deal made, and some of the names above may feature. For now, let the story play on …

Lead photo courtesy of Gregory J. Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

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