A Meditation on the Futility of Trade Speculation

One of the worst parts of being involved in baseball fandom and in a baseball writing community is slogging through trade season—both waves of it, in the doldrums of winter and in the dregs of midsummer. It’s joyless and unfeeling, utterly uninterested in analysis or meaningful dissection. Lustful tweets and posts and comments litter our feeds. Suddenly your team’s prospects become Willie Mays combined with Babe Ruth. Three-team deals, eight-for-one swaps, fire sale blockbusters, four-team deals, five-team deals. It’s enough to make one swear off the stuff for life.

Yet, trade season comes. As surely as Willson Contreras making a rifle throw to first base on a dropped third strike, trade season comes. We at BP Wrigleyville analyze baseball, after all, and we’re bound in our duty as peddlers of hot content to write about trades. It is in this spirit that I come to you, dear reader, with a plea: be measured in your takes; be generous in your analysis; and, with regards to the Chicago Cubs, keep in mind what I have to say to you now.

There are no doubts as to what the Cubs’ front office seeks to bolster their World Series-champion club for another deep playoff run. They need starting pitching, both for this year and beyond, and they will inevitably part with some of the organization’s ascendant young players to acquire it. Do not hug your prospects, for they will not hug you back. If they do, it might be in a Godfather-like embrace while donning the jersey of a rival.

Rarely do a club’s short-, mid-, and long-term needs sync up, but the Cubs are in a serendipitous position in which one acquisition, or a series of acquisitions in the same vein, will fulfill those needs. With Brett Anderson hurt, Jake Arrieta struggling, and a questionable start to the season from John Lackey, there is pressure to find a solution to the team’s starting pitching woes. After all, all three of those pitchers will be gone after 2017, regardless of performance. And so, fans have turned on the gas, even though the team isn’t ready to ignite the pilot light.

Who might the Cubs target, and who might they trade? The former, I think, is all but unanswerable. They’re going to go after a young-ish starter with top-end of the rotation talent, and with a few years left on his contract or a few years left before free agency. You can dream about Gerrit Cole or Chris Archer or Yu Darvish or whomever, I won’t necessarily stop you (but I will tell you it’s an exercise in abject futility). The kind of pitcher coveted by the Cubs is more important than the individual pitcher in this case. That’s because I think that speculation on trade packages is essentially useless.

Speculation is useless because there are few things that analysts and fans can do to predict trade packages for starting pitchers. We see all kinds of weird, apparently lopsided trades for pitchers all the time: Swanson for Miller, Moncada et al for Sale, Drew Smyly and friends for David Price, Daniel Norris and friends for Davis Price, Céspedes for Lester, etc. All of these are radically different! Lone prospects or prospect packages or established major leaguers, trade deadline or offseason—they are all but incomparable.

That said, the Cubs should absolutely go after those kinds of pitchers. With Lester and Hendricks the only pitchers penciled in for 2018, the Cubs will need both a mid-to-top of the rotation starter and one or two back-end guys. With Lester advancing in age, the club will want to snag a top pitcher with longevity. If they do so at the trade deadline this season, or next offseason via trade or free agency, they will have solved 2018-2020’s biggest roster problem, and set themselves up solidly for the years beyond. It’s all but imperative, and that itself might drive up costs in terms of prospects or dollars. Teams know the Cubs need starters (but, so does everyone else, always).

The aforementioned trades’ uneven distribution of talents, ages, contracts, team circumstances, and other factors renders the other half of the equation a mystery as well. Who will the Cubs trade for a starter? Who knows! It’s generally much more useful to assess a trade target’s usefulness to the club than to imagine what the other team might want going the other way. I don’t know what the Rays or the Pirates or the Rangers think about Eloy Jimenez or Dylan Cease, and neither do you—unless you’re Erik Neander. Welcome to our site, Erik.

What can be concluded, with a fair amount of confidence, is that the Cubs will trade either or both of Jimenez or Cease in a deal for pitching, should the Cubs find a match and complete one. Any trade in which the Cubs land a good starter will require a top prospect or two, and, considering his major-league success and ability to fill short- and long-term needs, they will be loath to deal Ian Happ.

The only analysis that makes sense at this point is a basic weighing of the benefits of keeping Jimenez and Cease against the benefits of acquiring a hypothetical starter. Cease is several years away from a major-league debut; he hasn’t pitched a full season as a starter in the Cubs’ system. He’s at least as likely to become a major-league reliever as he is to become a major-league starter in any capacity. Don’t hug him too tightly! A starter who rounds out the rotation for several years is what Cease is in his best-case scenario. Trading him right now for someone who can already fill that role is smart.

Jimenez is slightly closer to major-league ready, and he’ll need less time to develop than Cease and other high-ceiling players in the organization. While his absolute value is high (he was Baseball Prospectus’s number nine prospect this spring), his specific value to the club is contingent on the performance, health, and presence of the other Cubs’ outfielders. Jimenez could be a key piece of the 2019 Cubs and beyond, but, again, his relative value is less than that of a starting pitcher who will help the team in 2018.

This is all a long-winded way of telling you to…

  1. Exercise caution when speculating about Cubs trades over the next year or so.
  2. Keep in mind that the relative value of a good, young starter to the Cubs is as high, or higher, than that of almost any other future piece of the major-league club.
  3. Please, I am begging you—do not propose anything from the absurd (“Mark Zagunis and Jeimer Candelario for Yu Darvish”, according to Nick Stellini) to the “reasonable, I guess, but no one has ever predicted a trade correctly.”

Go forth, readers. Enjoy this brave, new world, free of trade speculation and angry folks on the internet. You deserve that peace of mind. And so does everyone you know.

Lead photo courtesy Matt Marton—USA Today Sports

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