About a week ago, the 2016 Cubs seemed set. The offseason was over, spring training had begun, and apart from a few battles for the 24th or 25th spot on the roster, there wasn’t much left to be decided before Opening Day. Then, on Thursday afternoon, that all changed. Such is life with the qualifying offer.
The signing of Dexter Fowler to a one-year, $13m contract has drastically changed the layout of the Cubs’ outfield. All the speculation on how Jason Heyward would perform in center field is now obsolete, as he can stay in his traditional position of right field. In turn, that means Jorge Soler is now without a position, and confined on the depth charts to 298 PAs scattered across left field, right field, and pinch hitting.
Even before Fowler signed, a number of commentators thought trading Soler would make sense. The Cubs have a number of players with at least the capability of playing the outfield, and there’s some sense that pushing a highly touted prospect like Soler into a utility role, where he would be without a stable routine, might not be great for his development. Still, the Cubs front office has been adamant, before and after Fowler signed, that they wanted to stick with Soler for the long term, and wouldn’t be trading him for anything less than an overwhelming return.
It’s totally reasonable to see nothing motivating those comments beyond Soler himself. He’s a talented player, and while he didn’t perform at a high level in 2015, numerous are the teams that have been burnt before by trading away young major leaguers who haven’t yet lived up to the hype. That said, there’s a reason the Cubs should be even less inclined than other teams to trade Soler, or Baez, or any of their young prospects. Funnily enough, it’s the same reason Soler is seen as expendable: they have a lot of good players.
The Baseball Prospectus depth charts show each team’s projected WARP at each position, based on best guesses as to who will play each position and how much. For example, the Cubs are projected to get 5.0 WARP from third base, via 602 PAs from Kris Bryant, 66 from Tommy La Stella, and 31 from Javier Baez. That’s the highest projected WAR from third base in the National League, and behind only the Blue Jays and 2015 MVP Josh Donaldson for the highest in baseball. And it’s not like third base is unique in that regard; the following tables show the Cubs’ projected WARP at each position, where they rank leaguewide, and what the highest projected WARP at that position is.
|C||1B||2B||3B||SS||LF||CF||RF||PH (NL only)|
The Cubs rank among the top five teams at five of eight positions (or six of nine, if you include pinch hitters), and are below the median projected WARP at only two. The largest gap between the best team and the Cubs comes in center (thanks, Trout), but it’s one of just three gaps of 2 WARP or more. It’s not much different for the Cubs’ pitchers, either:
Here, it’s every one of the starting pitchers, from one through five and the spot starter, who rank in the top five leaguewide. Only the middle relievers and closers who are projected below the median, and the set-up slot isn’t elite either, but the WARP gap between the best and worst is unsurprisingly small, given the paltry value most relievers provide.
The Cubs are extremely deep and well-rounded–this isn’t news–but what that depth and well-roundedness translates to is, among other things, a team that has limited options to upgrade. The Cubs are one of only three teams (alongside the Cardinals and Mets) that don’t rank in the bottom five at any position, pitcher or hitter (ignoring DH and PH). The once place PECOTA could be too optimistic, and the Cubs might need help? Left field (depending on how you feel about Kyle Schwarber’s defense), which just so happens to be a position Soler can play.
In other words, any player the Cubs acquired at this stage of the offseason would have to clear a very high bar to make them a better team, at any position. Increasingly, the players producing that kind of value are young themselves, and likely under team control for many years at reduced prices. Of the 122 position players projected for 2 or more WARP, two-thirds are 29 or younger, and 87 percent are 32 or younger. Few and far between are players on contracts close to their expiration, or on deals expensive enough that the Cubs could offer financial relief to their current team. In other words, not only are the Cubs without any glaring holes, almost every player that could conceivably make them better won’t come cheap.
Even beyond the simple difficulty of getting a player good enough to improve their roster, the Cubs face broader incentives not to be hasty in trading away Soler. The concept of the win curve is a well-established one nowadays, but basically, the idea is that gaining a win is worth more to teams right on the cusp of making the playoffs than a team either extremely good or extremely bad. This makes intuitive sense–just ask the Angels, who finished 2015 one game back of the Astros for a Wild Card slot, what they would’ve paid for an additional win. It likely won’t be the same as either the Phillies or Royals, both of whom weren’t sweating the playoffs by September 1 (though for vastly different reasons).
It’s obviously different when the games haven’t been played yet, but the general concept still applies – teams with wide projected leads over their competitors, or almost no chance of making the playoffs, should and do place less value on wins in the present than teams clustered in the center of the projected standings. Usually this framework is applied to teams on the very bad side of that spectrum, but it also applies to teams like the Cubs, who PECOTA projects to be a whopping 11 games better than the nearest divisional competitor, the largest gap in baseball.
Soler is unlikely to provide a ton of value to the Cubs in 2016, in large part because of how crowded their outfield is, and a team in a competitive race and in need of an outfielder might value him more than the Cubs do, but there’s almost nothing the Cubs would want in return. As discussed above, their roster is well-rounded enough to have almost no need for a major-league ready player, and their projections strong enough that any additional value a player could wouldn’t be super valuable to them. They could conceivably trade Soler for prospects, but Soler himself is under team control for five more years and has demonstrated some ability to hit major-league pitching already. He has much of the long-term upside of a prospect with far less risk.
In other words, it’s almost impossible to imagine a trade involving Soler that makes sense for all parties involved right now. Obviously, the Cubs have areas they can improve, and there’s always the chance another team makes an offer too good to turn down, but the Cubs are uniquely built to be hard to upgrade, and incentivized to hold onto a player like Soler rather than exchange him for short-term value.
You could conceivably conclude that this type of team, where value is distributed evenly across almost every position, is worse than one where value is concentrated in fewer positions, leaving more opportunities to upgrade. Personally, I don’t buy that argument, but even beyond the normal criticisms of it (the risk the second type of team faces is much higher than the first; it’s not as easy to acquire decent players as it may seem), this is an amazing problem for the Cubs to have. PECOTA projects them for 94 wins, and even that’s a more pessimistic figure than those put out by other projection systems. True, they might have trouble upgrading on their current roster; they’re also the team that least needs to upgrade. Soler might not have a position today, but without a clear gain to be had by trading him, the Cubs are likely in no hurry to send him away.
Lead photo courtesy Mark J. Rebilas—USA Today Sports.