With the trade deadline just one month away, it’s time for teams to begin assessing where they’re at, where they’re going, and what their immediate needs are.
For the Cubs, there are no dire concerns heading towards the All-Star Break, but there is a small issue beneath the surface that should be quickly addressed before it erupts into a much larger problem.
That would be the Cubs’ need to add a left-handed pitcher to their bullpen. As Jared Wyllys so cordially reminded us earlier this week, the Cubs bullpen is very good, and it’s still very good despite its transient nature as of late. But the need for a additional left-handed reliever is of vital importance. That’s almost a separate aspect from the entire rest of the bullpen, which at the moment only has one reliable lefty, in the person of Travis Wood.
So now the questions become (a) who are your options, and (b) what are the consequences you may need to endure with each one?
Take a look at the impressive numbers below. No, these aren’t players vying for All-Star considerations, but Cubs fans have a reason to smile because these three players are all currently being heavily considered by the North Siders as left-handed reliever options at the deadline.
At first glance, I think everyone can agree that Player B looks like the best option. But what if I told you that Player A’s fastball has topped out at 104 MPH as recently as June, and he has a career ERA and FIP of 2.23 and 1.97 while playing in two of the most hitter-friendly parks in baseball his entire career? What if I also told you that the base of a deal that would net the Cubs Player B would have to include Kyle Schwarber? Makes it a bit more confusing, doesn’t it?
The thing is, there are other subtle nuances that go into thinking about these sorts of things. These numbers look great in isolation, and make the choice almost a no-brainer. But what about the intangibles? The player’s contract status? The price that his current team is asking? And most importantly, does this left handed reliever the Cubs pick up need to be the one with the sexiest numbers?
Player A certainly brings the most complexity to the table, and I think you’ve probably already gathered from my clue above about Player A’s fastball velocity, that he is in fact Aroldis Chapman, while an appealing-but-pricey Player B is Andrew Miller.
From a strictly numbers standpoint, Chapman sounds perfect, doesn’t he? Sign me up. But baseball is more than just the numbers listed in the table above, and the kinds of things that Chapman would bring to the Cubs could quickly diminish the significance that his 104 MPH fastball bring no matter how much success he sees with it.
Chapman will bring to you the ability to strike out the side as if it’s simply second nature to him. He will help carry you to the win column each night, there’s no doubt in my mind. But he will also bring something else, something that could potentially have an adverse effect to the success he has on the field.
Over the last decade or so, sabermetrics have changed the way we see the game, understand the game, and the way players play that game. People have become starstruck by the power these numbers have, and are quick to forget that there are still valuable intangibles that have a large and lasting impact on a club’s success. Baseball isn’t just charts of data and numbers, or exit velocities and strikeout per nine rates. If there’s anything that the Epstein & Co. have taught Cubs fans over the last two seasons, it’s that the intangibles in baseball are just as important as the stat sheets are. It’s that though we cannot see what goes on off the field, and sometimes we may not even be able to truly grasp the chemistry exercised between these personalities on the field, these factors are at the core of what make the numbers and the data come to life. They’re part of the foundation of the outcomes.
Joe Maddon’s fabled clubhouse culture may have been scoffed at by many and by those who don’t understand the effect the relationships that this team has built together have on their performances or how much it’s been a part of the North Side’s winning formula. But it’s hard to deny from what we’ve seen at this point that it’s true—this stuff matters. 2015 illustrated that more than anything.
These players have found the perfect synergy in their diversity. They’ve found strength through their differences. Even characters we once questioned placing at the heart of this clubhouse—like John Lackey—were for the better. But the addition of a player with the history, the personality, and type of publicity that Chapman possesses won’t bring the same sort of character-building to this clubhouse that a tough veteran with a strong personality like Lackey did.
Chapman will negate any positive influence he brings to the Cubs from a baseball standpoint by adding uncertainty and turmoil to the clubhouse. There’s a good chance that this clubhouse will begin to question the identity that it’s worked so hard to create if the debate that Chapman brings wages too strongly behind the scenes. And that’s a cost too high for any player.
Not to mention that the Yankees are not looking to settle for a cheap return when it comes to parting with Chapman, who would come to any club he’s traded to as simply a rental player. As much as rental players make sense for teams strongly pushing to contend at the deadline the way the Cubs are, it’s not clear that they’d be willing to endure the cost and consequence it would take to land Chapman and his 104 MPH fastball.
And it would be hard pressed for me (or, more importantly, Theo) to agree on a deal that lands Miller if the cost is Kyle Schwarber. A closer’s ceiling of value is only so high, whereas Schwarber can mash at the plate every night and is only just getting started at the ripe age of 23. Of course, Miller’s upside is that he come with two years of team control at the low rate of $9 million a year, and a 50 percent strikeout rate. But, I’m still not 100 percent sold on him. And here’s why.
The Cubs don’t need Miller. That sounds silly, because everybody needs an Andrew Miller, but think about it this way. The Cubs still have a top five bullpen in the National League, even with the revolving door of minor leaguers passing through. So why, as the saying goes, “give up the farm” (and in this case part of the major leagues) for something you don’t truly need?
And finally, Player C is Oakland A’s Sean Doolittle. Like I said before, Doolittle may not be the sexy pick of the lot of left-handers that the Cubs are scouting, but he’ll slot perfectly into an already adequate bullpen, he’ll get the job done, and he’ll likely only net a few minor leaguers instead of something like Soler or Schwarber plus some minor leaguers.
The Cubs don’t need the best out there, and they don’t need the uncertainty of a controversial player in the middle of a playoff race (or ever, really). They just need what’s best for them, and right now, it’s looking like avoiding a deal with the Yankees might be just that.
Lead photo courtesy Jayne Kamin-Oncea—USA Today Sports.