The Cubs remade their bullpen in the two weeks before the non-waiver trade deadline. The Cubs added three major league-caliber relievers, who now make up a third of their nine man bullpen. The acquisitions of Joe Smith and Mike Montgomery brought little fanfare despite adding depth to the bullpen. Aroldis Chapman and the price paid to bring him to Chicago did. Some of that was due to Chapman being the first player suspended under MLB’s new domestic violence policy, which has led to some positives such as our own Caitlin Swieca’s #Pitchin4DV campaign. The other gasp was the price the Cubs paid to bring in one of the game’s best relievers. There is little need to go over just how good Chapman is at throwing a baseball. He has allowed just one base runner in his first five games with the Cubs, but still many stated their belief that the Cubs had overpaid, dramatically, for just a reliever.
The initial shock of this trade was giving up four players and a top 50 prospect for a reliever, even one as good as Chapman. Two of the players involved in the deal were on Baseball Prospectus Top 101 prospects at the start of the year. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer do not part with that level of prospect very often. They have been in charge of baseball operations for a major league team for 16 combined seasons. We are going to switch to Baseball America’s Top 100 list to maintain internal consistency since Theo Epstein tenure in Boston began prior to Baseball Prospectus’s annual lists starting. Combined, the pair have had 47 different players appear on those annual lists. The trade for Chapman is just the third trade and the fifth top 100 prospect dealt while being ranked a top 100 prospect. Billy McKinney is not included in that number due to falling off of Baseball America’s Top 100 list this year, but this is the first trade for a single reliever that involved any top 100 prospect.
There is an argument to be made that Gleyber Torres, while an excellent prospect, might never have a higher value than right now. Here is what Craig Goldstein had to say about Torres as he was ranked the 34th best prospect in baseball on the midseason update:
34. Gleyber Torres, MI, Chicago Cubs
Why He’ll Succeed: There’s no real weakness to Torres’ game. Everything but the power flashes above-average to plus, and his instincts both at the plate and in the field are impressive for any age, much less a 19-year-old.
Why He Might Fail: If he doesn’t stick at shortstop, he doesn’t have the offensive skill set to be a first-division regular. That’s all I got.
The Cubs have internal evaluations of all their prospects and know them better than anyone. Torres value takes a huge hit if he does outgrow the position because he lacks the offensive potential of an Addison Russell or Javier Baez to be a first division starter elsewhere. McKinney has struggled badly this year, and the Cubs are going to have to make a number of tough decisions in the upcoming years about who to protect as the glut of low level prospects works their way through the system. The Cubs leveraged their surplus and moved players that might be perceived to be worth more outside of baseball circles.
The Cubs received an elite reliever for that collection of good and interesting players. Relievers are undervalued in the public sphere. The traditional analytical thinking is that relievers simple do not pitch enough to be significantly valuable. That thinking has changed though within the game given the contracts handed out recently for relievers and the prices paid at the deadline for the best relievers. An out is not just an out. The context of when the outs occur matters otherwise it would not matter when relievers are used. There is empirical evidence to back this up as teams that have outperformed their expected win total consistently have had extremely strong bullpens. The Cubs now have an extremely strong bullpen.
Adding an elite reliever is complimentary in a way that is different than adding any other piece. Replacing Hector Rondon as the closer does not mean that Rondon is going to pitch less innings. If the Cubs added another starting pitcher that would mean one of the current 5 being bumped. That would upset the clubhouse with a popular and well performing guy like Jason Hammel being pushed into the bullpen. A position player means taking at bats away from a substantial better player than the innings being taken from Clayton Richard.
A bullpen allows a manager to use his players in a way different than any other facet of the roster. Managers can deploy position players in a variety of ways. Platoons are incredibly effective, but no role can be tailored to the specific strengths of the players more than a relief pitcher. The addition of Chapman makes the rest of the relievers’ jobs easier. The two headed monster of Chapman and Rondon can now handle the highest leverage situations and most difficult batters. The batters that Mike Montgomery, Travis Wood, or Joe Smith are going to be easier given the elite relievers at the back end of the bullpen. These trickle down benefits to adding an elite reliever are difficult to measure, if at all given the small sample size, but it is intuitive to reason that Chapman can have an effect on his fellow relievers in a very different and meaningful way as opposed to the addition of a starting pitcher or position player.
An additional argument against paying the price the Cubs did for Chapman is that he is only guaranteed to be a Cub until the end of the 2016 postseason. The odds of success in the postseason have been increased, but it is not a dramatic increase. The Cubs have cost themselves some future value for marginally increasing their chances in 2016, but piling up as many marginal increases is how teams give themselves the greatest chance of winning in the postseason.
The Cubs lost a number of prospects who may turn into good players, but the Cubs have an elite player at a time when it is most valuable to have an elite player. The playoffs crunch the roster and having as many guys that are truly special is giving yourself the greatest chance to win. The Cubs window is both large and small. The Cubs have a core of position players that should keep the team relevant for an extended time frame, but the Cubs pitching staff has serious questions going forward. Jake Arrieta and John Lackey are only signed through next season along with Jason Hammel’s club option. Jon Lester is locked up but will be entering his middle 30s and expected decline. This is not doom and gloom. The Cubs will not slip into irrelevancy, but there is a very real chance that now and next year represent the Cubs’ best chance to win with this position player core. The Cubs just maximized their chance to win now.
The biggest reason the Cubs brain trust made this deal was to finish the job in 2016. There are benefits that reach beyond the 2016 season. The possibility of a contract extension is not valid plus for this deal, but the ability to evaluate Chapman on this team is. Teams do better in free agent deals when retaining a player versus signing from another team. This front office values information and the Cubs now have several months to evaluate what kind of commitment they want to extend to Chapman. They do want Chapman the baseball player. The trade does mean that and so now a front office that thrives on information will have the best and most thorough source of it on an elite reliever before bidding with the rest of baseball for his services beyond 2016.
This is also time to sell Chapman on staying with the Cubs. Money is the most important factor in free agency but it is not the only one. Chapman has been a visiting player for years in the terrible visitor clubhouse. Now he gets to spend several months in the renovated home clubhouse. He gets to have Joe Maddon be his manager. He gets to spend several months in the city of Chicago. The Cubs have a chance to convince Chapman that the Cubs are the best fit before he even hits the free agent market. These things do have value. They are not the biggest factors in the deal. It is about the postseason, but these are not nonfactors either.
You can hate the Chapman deal for what it suggest about how our society values women. You can be uncomfortable embracing a human being accused of some incredibly vile acts. The baseball merits of this deal, though, are obvious even if the apparent cost is great. The cost is worth paying in the front office’s eyes. The end results will provide the ultimate justification or opposition to this deal, but the process behind the decision is compelling.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports.