Ordinarily, I’d guess that Tom Ricketts makes it a policy, across all of his businesses, to avoid actively alienating large swaths of his customer bases. Without having done the research, though, I can’t say that with 100 percent certainty. For all I know, the internet could be crawling with records of interactions like:
RICKETTS: Are you enjoying your bison dog?
CUSTOMER: Yes, it’s delicious! What’s your secret?
RICKETTS: It’s 50 percent human flesh.
CUSTOMER: JESUS CHRIST! What the hell’s the matter with you?
RICKETTS: You’re making a lot of moral judgments for a cannibal.
Which brings us to last week with the Cubs. And in this metaphor, Aroldis Chapman is soylent green. The Chapman acquisition is not something that can be hand-waved away with a phrase like “every team has a few jerks.” Being confronted with the prospect of cheering for Aroldis Chapman is something entirely different than Cubs fans of this era have had to deal with. But that wasn’t the only thing that felt a little off about this deal. In baseball terms, quite separate from the personal issues that Ricketts putatively addressed before the acquisition, the Chapman trade was a shock because it was the first time Theo Epstein’s front office made a move with the Cubs that ran somewhat contrary to his team-building philosophy of “building a foundation for sustained success.”
Indeed, this deal, for the most part, was about this year and this year only—there’s no guarantee that Chapman will sign an off-season extension, or that the Cubs will pursue one. And there are some discordant echoes there, if you listen. Listen to Epstein describing his trade for Adrian Gonazalez and signing of Carl Crawford, back in 2011:
“There was always a tension between the scouting and development approach and what I call ‘The Monster.’ ‘The Monster’… was that we had to be bigger, better. There had to be more, more, more… There was always an inherent tension between what we were good at, what we wanted to do–the long-term approach–and this Monster… There came a point where we were almost too big and I lost my willingness to cling to that patience and the approach I thought made us good. I thought we gave in and tried to take the shortcut, and I don’t think there are any shortcuts in baseball.” (Francona Ch. 14, loc. 4576)
Fast-forward to 2016 and Epstein has made another seismic move to give the Cubs a quick fix at the end of the bullpen. Except it’s a quick fix for something that wasn’t all that broken.
While the Cubs’ bullpen has had its issues, the 8th and 9th innings have not generally been among them. As Jared Wyllys and Ryan Davis have both pointed out last week, Hector Rondon has been an elite-level pitcher all season and Pedro Strop has been very good as well. Rondon’s pitching slash line—1.74 ERA/2.43 FIP/2.64 DRA—reads like an All Star. His WHIP (0.68) is similar to Clayton Kershaw’s. And that’s exactly the way you want your sentences to end when you describe a pitcher, unless they start with the words “His ability to grow a beard…”
Fact is, the Cubs had no real need for a closer, coming into the trade deadline. Sure, there’s the benefit of pushing Strop into the seventh, and Rondon into the eighth, but there were other ways to improve the seventh inning. The only thing Rondon couldn’t do in that ninth-inning role was throw 105 MPH. And with a pitcher who did do exactly that on the market, Epstein decided that the time was suddenly right for “bigger, better” and “more, more, more.” And it mattered little, apparently, how much he’d have to pay to get that.
You can almost hear Tom Werner saying “We need to start winning in more exciting fashion.” (Francona Ch. 13, loc. 4365) And for a team that’s only in year two of their window of contention, that’s a little concerning to hear.
The end result of acquiring Chapman is that the Cubs moved mountains in order to protect the seventh inning. It’s certainly an improvement that makes the team better in the playoffs. But it’s hard to imagine that this front office couldn’t figure out a way to do that without giving up their number one and number four prospects.
One of the most telling phrases Epstein used when he addressed the media following the Chapman trade was “If not now, when?” Up until this point, I would say one of my favorite things about Epstein’s tenure is that he never made a personnel decision based on a No Fear shirt from 1995.
At no point this year has any Cubs press conference transcript read:
“Hey Theo, why did you give eight years to Jason Heyward?”
“To live the ultimate dream you must face the ultimate nightmare.”
It’s not buzz or TV ratings that’s driving the Cubs front office to make this kind of move. They’re clearly doing well enough in both areas. But the Chapman trade shows that “The Monster” in the room might be the very real opportunity to finally end the World Series drought. This team feels so close, and so the temptation has to be unbearable. With the Chapman trade, perhaps, the Cubs gave in.
Francona, Terry with Dan Shaughnessy. Francona: The Red Sox Years. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. Kindle ebook file.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports.
7 comments on “Cubs, Perhaps, Give In To Chapman Temptation”
Epstein has made few truly “bad” decisions while with the Cubs (Edwin Jackson, yes). Putting Chapman’s personal issues aside, I don’t think this was a “bad” decision either. Statistically it looks like improving the bullpen at the margins but you need impact players to win in impact situations.
What’s more troubling to me is the recent statement that Chapman is not comfortable getting four outs (or something to that effect). Is it four outs or wanting to close? If Bryce Harper comes up with 2 outs in the 8th inning of game 7 NLCS is Maddon not going to go with Chapman because he’s “not comfortable?” If you sell your soul to “the monster” you better play with the hand you dealt yourself.
That all said, the anti-Monster move would have been to use Torres as part of a package to pry Sale from the White Sox. That would have setup the Cubs for the next several years as well as provided some protection if they can’t sign Arietta beyond 2017. But of course, in order to succeed winning multiple WS championships you have to get past winning the first one. There’s a big chip riding on 2016.
“Fact is, the Cubs had no real need for a closer, ”
fact (fakt/) noun
noun: fact; plural noun: facts
a thing that is indisputably the case.
Sorry, that’s not a fact. Coming into the deadline both Strop and Rondon had shown quite a bit of inconsistency. Rondon had 4 blown saves good for only an 81% success rate – ranking in dead middle of all relievers. not exactly a comforting thought for an NLCS against Mets pitching.
By most rankings, Rondon was a tier 3 closer maybe fortunate enough to rank #13 in MLB but certainly no Familia or Chapman. And Strops inconsistency last night helps to understand why Cubs relievers ranked 10th in the National League by WAR at -1.2.
Even by the eye test, no serious observer can conclude the Cubs were “set” with relievers. Seriously, I was having Marmol flashbacks everytime Rondon came out in July.
Let’s put an end to the BS that we didn’t “need” Chapman or Miller. We did.
I think you missed the point. Epstein got a little crazy and went off script. His normal measured approach with the Cubs could have produced a “closer” in some other shrewd way but he decided to make the big deal for Chapman.
But to your argument, the bullpen definitely needed help. I don’t know that either Chapman or Miller were necessary to accomplish the goal since they likely would have won the division anyway, but looking ahead to the playoffs I hope Chapman is on the mound during late inning/high leverage situations.
Oh yeah, this said basically what I meant, but more efficiently. Nice.
Boy oh boy, if Rondon is a 3rd-tier closer, how many tiers are there? 12?
If we’re cherry-picking save % as the only way to pick closers — and only this first half of the season’s save % — especially considering a closer who has had oddly few save chances relative to his team’s success (hence the “f-the-closer” game the team enjoyed playing), here is a quick glance at a few closers “better” than Rondon:
J. Gomez, F. Rodriguez, Dyson, Casilla, Papelbon, Ziegler, Robertson
All of whom have ERAs & K/9 worse than Rondon (except Casilla, who beats Rondon by .1 K/9).
Does Chapman help the bullpen? Absolutely! Mike Trout would also help the outfield.
Ken’s argument doesn’t seem to be that Aroldis Chapman doesn’t make this bullpen better, it seems to be that the Cubs gave up a lot (in a couple ways) relative to what they “needed.” And it does seem like late-Theo Red Sox. I guess we can debate what “need” means, but with the clear definition of “fact” as you have posted above, it seems that saying the Cubs DID need Chapman also falls well short of the vaunted fact status.
Cannibal reference is more than a bit over the top.
I disagree. It was pretty funny and entirely on point. I’ve been trying to look for a good occasion to borrow it.