Evaluating Theo’s Recent Past, and the Mysteries of His Future

The draft is today, which is very cool if you’re a prospect person. If you aren’t, the draft can be a bit befuddling, as it’s hard to tell which decisions are good and which are bad when you don’t recognize any of the players being chosen, and all the catastrophic and/or spectacular effects of those decisions won’t manifest for another several years at least. But even if you don’t want to get into the details, the draft is a good time to think about the trajectory that an organization is on, especially for a team like the Cubs that is in the midst of changing that trajectory. After the last 18 months, it’s clear that the Cubs are now firmly rebuilt, rather than rebuilding, and that makes this draft feel different than the ones in the recent past.

With that in mind, I thought it would be a good time for a bit of a retrospective. 2016 is Theo Epstein’s fifth year with the Cubs, and in those five years, he’s made a plethora of moves. Most of them have been good—if they weren’t, the Cubs presumably wouldn’t be winning games hand over fist the way they currently are—but I think a closer look is warranted. Since the beginning of 2012, the Cubs have made 36 trades, with 98 players being sent or received. Several of those players were viewed in a certain way before the trade, and in a drastically different way after the trade, making Epstein and the Cubs look either very smart or very foolish as a result. That’s unfair—General Managers (and Presidents of Baseball Operations) are a lot like Managers, in that they get credit or blame for nearly everything that happens under their watch, whether they deserve it or not—but we don’t have much of an alternative.

This isn’t looking at single trades, and trying to tally up whether or not the Cubs “won” every single one, which would be both difficult and boring. Instead, this is an attempt at a holistic evaluation of the Cubs’ trading prowess and, more generally, ability to evaluate player trajectories under Epstein, by identifying the biggest post-trade movers, either those sent away or acquired. What that means is that trades that might seem lopsided, like Miguel Montero for Jeferson Mejia and Zach Godley in 2014, aren’t included if I don’t think the Cubs feel any differently today than they did at the time of the trade about any of the players involved. Also not included is the most obvious inclusion, the quintessential post-trade mover, Jake Arrieta. Enough has already been written about him (though not necessarily the rest of that trade (spoilers)), and you already know the Cubs saw something the Orioles didn’t, or at least credited it more than Baltimore did, and hit the jackpot in an enormous way. Print this article out and add it to the list by hand if it bothers you.

#1: Anthony Rizzo, January 2012

Epstein’s tenure started with a bang. This was part of a series of moves he and Jed Hoyer made upon starting with the Cubs, reclaiming some of the players they had presumably acquired and developed some attachment to with the Red Sox (and Padres, for Hoyer). In the first few months of 2012, the Cubs acquired minor league pitcher Zach Cates, who the Padres had drafted, Michael Bowden and Hunter Cervenka, both drafted by the Red Sox, and Rizzo, who was drafted by Hoyer and Epstein’s Red Sox and traded for by Hoyer’s Padres.

Nearly as much as Arrieta, Rizzo is responsible for the speedy recovery of the Cubs. When the Red Sox traded him to the Cubs in 2010, the 21-year-old Rizzo was a blue-chip prospect, drawing comparisons to the man he was traded for, Adrian Gonzalez. By the time the Padres traded him to the Cubs, some of that shine had worn off, the result of a stint in the majors at the end of the 2011 season in which Rizzo hit .141/.281/.241 across 153 plate appearances. Whether it was something Epstein remembered from Rizzo’s first years as a professional, or something Hoyer saw in his pretty terrible looking 2011, they thought it worth it to seek him out, and have been richly rewarded as a result. At the start of 2012, the BP Annual described Rizzo’s 2011 as essentially a bump in his developmental road, which led to his terminus as an “Adam LaRoche clone.” LaRoche’s best season was either 2006 or 2012, in both of which he accumulated 4.2 WARP, and he topped out at 21.3 WARP for his career. Rizzo will be very close that number at the end of 2016, his age-27 season, and likely have three seasons under his belt better than LaRoche’s best. I think it’s safe to say he’s exceeded expectations.

#2: Kyle Hendricks, August 2012

This is another acquisition that, in my meaningless opinion, doesn’t get talked about enough. Hendricks came over in the deadline deal that sent Ryan Dempster to the Rangers, and was in the midst of what we now recognize as a classic Kyle Hendricks season: not a ton of strikeouts, but enough, a lot of ground balls, and very few walks. He was doing that at High-A, however, and those aren’t the kinds of skills that traditionally catch the eye of a prospect evaluator. Turning again to the BP Annual from 2012, we see … nothing. Hendricks wasn’t deserving of a comment at the time, and justifiably so; low minors control guys are a dime a dozen. Even the award he won in 2012, for the Carolina League’s Best Changeup, was not the kind of thing that suggests a bright future.

As we know now, that changeup is a big part of his success, and in turn, the Cubs’. Hendricks has developed into a legitimate above-average starter, and while that doesn’t sound like much, compared to where he was when the Cubs acquired him, it’s a ton. Through the first 328 innings of his career, he’s averaging a 3.87 DRA and 4.5 WARP, or 2.7 WARP/200, on the back of a profile that is about as un-flashy as you can get. The Cubs ignored that un-flashiness, or more accurately paid attention to it where everyone else ignored it, and acquired a future major leaguer that no one saw coming as a result.

#3: Addison Russell, July 2014

This is the first entry of a player that moved (slightly!) in a direction bad for the Cubs, relative to expectations when the trade happened, and not coincidentally, the first entry that will probably draw a lot of disagreement. I should be very clear about what I’m stating here, too, as I don’t think Addison Russell is either (a) bad, (b) a failed prospect or (c) destined to struggle. He’s a good player now, and will likely be good going forward. What I do think is true is that his stock has fallen some from where it was when the Cubs acquired him, which is perhaps unfair, because people were (perhaps foolishly) dropping Hall of Fame comps on him as a 20-year-old.

At the beginning of the 2014 season, Russell was already advanced enough to be worth a PECOTA projection, which looked at his excellent minor league performances and gave him a .246 TAv projection for what was his age-20 season. His comment in that year’s BP Annual reflected his seemingly bright future, describing him as a “beast” who had undergone “rapid development both in the field and at the plate.” His excellent performance on either side of his move from Oakland’s system to Chicago’s yielded a .262 TAv projection for 2015 and an Annual comment citing his possession of “the kind of plus power that gets a player voted into all-star games.”

In a short minor-league stint and 523 major league PAs, his power didn’t manifest as expected, however, and his strikeout rate rose in worrisome fashion, leading to a .252 TAv with the Cubs. His preseason TAv projection for 2016 of .255 represented a step back from 2015, albeit a minor one. Still, the projection system thinking the 22-year-old isn’t improving year-over-year is not a good sign, even if it comes along with a lot of other good signs. There are tons of reasons to be optimistic about Russell, and a very good chance that he lights baseball on fire at some point in the next five years, but for the purposes of this exercise, it can’t be ignored that he hasn’t followed the exact path he was expected to when the Cubs acquired him. In sum: his defense is better than advertised; his power is still coming along. That’s not shocking, because prospect development isn’t linear, but it’s perhaps worth pondering for a bit. I truly hope this section looks very foolish in approximately three months.

#4: Adam Warren, December 2015

This is perhaps another somewhat controversial inclusion, but more because of the recency than the player in question. Warren came to the Cubs in the Starlin Castro deal, coming off a solid swingman season for the Yankees. He was a starter throughout the minors, but prior to 2015, he had appeared almost exclusively in relief in New York. That season, however, about 40 percent of his appearances and seventy-five percent of his innings came as a starter, during which he acquitted himself admirably. His line for the season was a solid 3.64 DRA, good for 2.0 WARP in only 131 innings, and when the Cubs acquired him, he seemed like a very useful tool, good enough for the rotation but flexible enough to be kept in the bullpen until needed.

Through the first few months of 2016, however, Warren is sitting on a 5.16 DRA as a Cub, though his 2.98 ERA is much less ugly. Still, his season has done nothing to create trust, as he’s giving up home runs at nearly double his career rate, along with more walks and fewer strikeouts. Instead of a reliable and flexible swingman, he’s looking like the shaky longman every fanbase instinctively knows to fear.

There’s a very obvious reason to maintain some optimism about Warren, which is that he’s only thrown 22 innings in 2016. Locked up in the bullpen as he’s been, he simply hasn’t been able to pitch much, and that means his stats really can’t be trusted yet. Jake Arrieta only had to pitch three starts to accumulate as many innings as Warren has through June. It’s not as if he hasn’t pitched out of the bullpen for extended stretches before, however. As I mentioned, all 79 innings of his 2014 were spent in the bullpen, and he ended the season with a 3.11 DRA. Presumably, part of the expectation with Warren was that he could swap in and out of the rotation as needed, and as of today, that really doesn’t appear to be the case.

This is the part of the piece where I try to draw a clear message from the players I just highlighted, some conclusion about the front office’s innate ability or inability to evaluate players and capitalize when those evaluations differ from the consensus. It’s hard, though. This front office has hit, and it’s missed. You don’t need me to tell you that, or provide examples; heck, Carl Crawford has been in the news a lot this week, and as I’m sure you know, his contract—his seven-year, $142-million contract which has thus far yielded 4.3 WARP—was offered by the Red Sox as run by Epstein. That might make you think Epstein isn’t a great executive, but he’s got an incredibly convincing counterargument on his side in this current Cubs team (and in ownership’s involvement in the Crawford deal), which features several guys he was astute enough to take a gamble on. Baseball is hard to play, and it’s hard to run. We call trades successes or failures based on the slightest of margins, and meanwhile, Kyle Hendricks was traded for two months of Ryan Dempster.

The other, non-nihilistic takeaway from this has to do with the trajectory stuff I was talking about at the beginning. Nearly all of the trades the Cubs have made in the past several years have had a certain posture: established veterans leaving Chicago and young players arriving, bringing all their risk and potential with them. You’ll notice all the players I identified in this article as having their value shift heavily are players the Cubs received, not sent away, which wasn’t an artificial limitation but an honest evaluation of these trades. It’s possible for a veteran to have a late-career renaissance, but it didn’t happen with any of the players traded away under Epstein, and it’s crazy to expect it to happen in any given case. Similarly, veterans can collapse, but even when those collapses were unexpected, they can’t truly be called surprising, not in the way Addison Russell’s (minor, hopefully temporary) struggles have been surprising. Once a player hits 30, I think most of baseball understands that he could plausibly fall apart overnight.

Those trades aren’t going to happen anymore, not from the Cubs’ prospective. They spent the last several years acquiring lottery tickets, and now they’re scratching the foil off and hoping they hit. Epstein’s current task is different, and more difficult; not building a great farm system, but converting an excellent farm system and roster into sustainable success, as measured by playoff wins. That’s hard, almost certainly. It’s definitely different than the process by which the above players were acquired, the process the Cubs have been undergoing in the last few years. Epstein’s done a good job, probably, or at the very least gotten lucky, but the upcoming task is not the same as the one he just completed. Who knows how he’ll handle it?

Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports.

Related Articles

Leave a comment

Use your Baseball Prospectus username