Prospects excite us because they are in many ways the embodiment of a bright, new future—one in which anything is possible, and things can always get better. From a team’s perspective, prospects are generally good for two things: (a) turning into Major League talent that can help a team win at a controlled cost, and (b) acting as trade chips useful in acquiring established players who can presumably help right away.
As Cub fans, we’ve become intimately familiar with the former category of prospect. The insane amount of talent that’s parked itself on the Major League roster in recent years has gushed out of the minor league system like an unstoppable oil well. As for B, we haven’t had to say goodbye to any premium prospects since Theo Epstein and company took over the team. And the reason for that is simple: the team has been smack-dab in the middle of a major rebuild.
Sure, they did trade Andrew Cashner for Anthony Rizzo, but Cashner had appeared in the big leagues in two seasons already, so he was something of a known quantity at that point. Other than that, here are the only other instances I could find where the Cubs traded some decent, young talent in exchange for a win-now player (check out Jeff Lamb’s piece on Epstein’s trades for more on this):
- Miguel Montero for Zach Godley and Jeferson Mejia
- Dan Haren for Ivan Pineyro and Elliot Soto
- Tommy Hunter for Junior Lake
How did the Cubs manage to “win the offseason” and become Vegas’ favorites to win the World Series without trading away any of their top talent in the minors? Well, it starts with the incredible hit rate they’ve had on the prospects they have called up to contribute at the big-league level: Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber (sigh), Addison Russell, Kyle Hendricks, Neil Ramirez, and Justin Grimm have all become productive players very quickly. This, we should note, is not normal and shouldn’t be relied on from year to year. Prospects are not supposed to pan out at such high rates for any given team—more are supposed to fail than succeed. Indeed, more have, for the Cubs. But the top ones have generally been successes.
As for the offseason, they decided to hang onto all the prospects in favor of spending in the free-agent market, which they did very well in. But now the rebuilding is over and the Cubs find themselves in one of those proverbial windows—now is the time to go for it (well, this July, I suppose). How might they do so? As it stands today, the offensive side of the team is in good, young hands—and this still applies even after losing Schwarber for the season. So let’s focus on pitchers the team might acquire with their wealth of prospect talent. Why pitchers? Because when July rolls around, this is the most likely place where the Cubs will want to make a move that cements their position as true World Series contenders. I believe the Cubs wouldn’t hesitate to make a deal—as long as it positions them both for 2016 and beyond. And that means a starting pitcher that’s young, cost controlled, and very very good.
Let’s take a look at some of the candidates for that role and what needs those player’s teams have to see if there’s a fit. As a reminder: trade discussions are always a speculative exercise, even at the best of times, and there’s no real way for anyone on the outside to have a great idea of what’s possible or being discussed. Things can change quickly, just as last week’s collision in the outfield showed us. These scenarios are for conversation’s sake only, and could very well (in fact, probably will be) wrong. Still, they start a conversation that will likely continue until July.
Cleveland Indians: Carlos Carrasco (28) or Danny Salazar (26)
The Indians have a surplus of starters at the moment, and team president Chris Antonetti has pretty much admitted that they’re willing to trade one of these guys away for the right deal:
“Our rotation’s been a strength of the team, so we would be very judicious in considering trading away one of those guys. It’s certainly not our intent. It’s not our motivation. We’re not looking to do it. But, what we have to be open-minded [about is], if there’s a way for us to really impact our team and make a deal that we think makes us a better, more complete, more competitive team in 2016, we’ll be open to it. But, that’s a pretty high bar.”
The Indians had a pretty quiet offseason, but that doesn’t mean they’re averse to a deal. In Antonetti’s own words: “If we have an opportunity to further improve the offense, we’ll explore it,”
The Indians did release Nick Swisher at the end of the spring, and their current outfield is on the older side (Marlon Byrd and Rajai Davis), so the rumors last season that tied Jorge Soler to this team still have some merit. The problem is, Soler is a starter now that Schwarber is out, so having him as a centerpiece isn’t likely unless the Cubs are comfortable going with Bryant in left and Baez or someone else at third. The advantage of trading with the Indians here would be that the Cubs likely wouldn’t have to send back a pitcher like Hendricks since the Indians already have enough pitching. Carrasco is signed through 2020 at a pretty reasonable rate, while Salazar isn’t as proven and hasn’t reached arbitration yet, so the Cubs can pick and choose which situation most appeals to them. In this writer’s opinion, this trade would cost the Cubs relatively little prospect currency (to someone like Chris Sale; it would still be a lot) and still check all the boxes, it’s just not as sexy as acquiring a big-time superstar like Sonny Gray (see below).
San Diego Padres: Tyson Ross (28)
Padres GM A.J. Preller likes to make moves, so that makes this scenario more likely than most. It also felt like Ross almost came over to the Cubs several times last season. Preller has been clear that he isn’t going to be “forced” into any trades:
“This is not a stress sale situation… We’re all disappointed in the way this season has played out, but we believe we’re close, we believe that if we address some of the areas to improve the team either in the next few days or over the offseason, we’ll come back and re-arm and take another run at it next year, if that’s the way this goes.”
Reasonable enough, right? Well… maybe not so much. From that same article:
“If there is a six- or seven-prospect deal for a couple of our veteran guys, it’s something that we would consider as well. It’s really about balancing the value that you get back in return for the quality that we have, and we believe we have quality players.”
Yeesh! Ross is a very good pitcher, but he’s 28 and only under control through 2017, and he’s already making $9 million this year. While Ross would definitely make the Cubs rotation younger, it’s not clear that this move would fit into the ideal scenario for Epstein. With the Padres looking for some shortstop help, Javy Baez would be a good starting point, but again—that would just be the start of what the Padres would call a “monster package.” And not to rehash the impact of Schwarber’s injury, but dealing Baez would eliminate a fair amount of this club’s vaunted flexibility. As with any Indians deal, this trade would cost the Cubs some talent, but wouldn’t necessarily hamper the farm system’s depth very much.
Oakland Athletics: Sonny Gray (26)
Will Billy Beane and A’s GM David Forst ever make another deal with the Cubs after the Samardzija/Hammel trade? Of course they will. Just like any potential trade with the White Sox (see below), this one will be determined by the standings more than any package the Cubs put together. If the A’s are in it, then there’s probably no deal. If they aren’t, there’s a chance—though it would be a long shot:
“We don’t intend to trade Sonny Gray,” Athletics GM David Forst told WEEI.com’s Rob Bradford today. “Not for a lack of interest, and not because he’s not a great pitcher that a lot of teams want. But we really feel like he’s part of our future, as well. As soon as you trade a young, healthy really good pitcher, you’re looking for another one.”
Does Kyle Hendricks count as a “young, healthy really good pitcher”? You could definitely make the case for it, especially if he does well this year and the A’s are no longer in contention. The problem is, this would be very expensive. Gray is just 25 years old and won’t be a free agent until 2020. On the other hand, this move would make the rotation better for the now and the future. The A’s are constantly looking to reload their farm system, so the Cubs would definitely have to send some major value back in a deal for Gray. The package would probably have to include Hendricks, Baez, and three or four high-end prospects in the Torres/Contreras/Happ/McKinney mold. That’s a steep price to pay and one the Cubs may shy away from.
Chicago White Sox: Chris Sale (27)
Now we’re cooking: adding Sale to the Cubs’ rotation would give them three “number-one” starters, which would set them up quite nicely in the playoffs. The White Sox did get better this offseason, but we all expected them to be pretty good last year, and that didn’t happen. If they can’t pull it together and the playoffs aren’t within reach, the calls to trade Sale will begin anew and the Cubs will be one of many teams interested in the 27-year-old ace. What does White Sox GM Rick Hahn have to say about trading away one of the top pitchers in the game? Let’s find out:
“It’s the same as it’s been for the last 2-1/2 years. You can go through your tape from last year,” Hahn said with a laugh Tuesday at the annual GM meetings. “It’s our job to listen. We are open-minded on all our players. We don’t think of anyone as a quote-unquote untouchable. At the same time, we do realize we have a few players on this roster, like Chris Sale, who are absolute premium talents, both from a performance standpoint and what they mean in the clubhouse. Put in the added factor of the control of the contract cost on a player like that, and we realize how special that combination is.
“So, while we’re doing our due diligence and listening, it would certainly take us needing to be overwhelmed to pull the trigger on something like that because you would be, in theory, trading away not only something extremely special and important to our success for the next several years, but also leaving a hole in the wake of that move.”
“It’s conceivable,” Hahn said. “And certainly our pitchers, both at the big-league level and the minor-league level, are of interest to clubs. It may be an area we have to dip into in order to improve us from a run-scoring side of things.”
Let’s not mince words: the price for Sale would be extremely high. We’re talking a lot of prospects and probably a player or two from the current 25-man roster. It will be a price that makes your nose bleed. Baez, Soler, Contreras, Cease, and Hendricks combined might keep the conversation going, and that’s probably not a package the Cubs should part with (or necessarily the specific balance of prospects the Sox would want).
So what should the Cubs do—hang tight and hold on to some potential future pieces or strike now while the window is open and go big? I don’t know, but come July we’re going to find out. This front office has a process, and they don’t seem to deviate from it regardless of any outside circumstances or talk-radio supplications. But when playoff chatter rolls around and Chicago starts to get a little nervous about how they’ll match against the Mets’ rotation or the Blue Jays’ offense, you can bet there will be calls to do whatever it takes to make a move that’ll put this team over the top. When that happens, how much concern will there be about 2017? About having a chance every year for the next 10 years? About saving some “dry powder?” My guess is, not much.
Lead photo courtesy John Hefti—USA Today Sports.