A Meditiation on the Futility of Trade Speculation, Redux: Speculating Futilely

Ian Happ is good, and the Cubs are… kind of bad. The Cubs’ status quo as of the beginning of July is frustrating, and the rest-of-season prognosis is troubling, and possibly bleak. Between injuries to Kyle Hendricks, Jason Heyward, and Ben Zobrist; poor pitching from John Lackey and uneven pitching from the rest of the rotation; and nonexistent production from Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell, the Cubs are hurting.

It’s July, and so we look to the trade market for solutions. I wrote a manifesto near the end of May, cautioning fans and writers alike from speculating too much about the Cubs’ possible trade targets. I advised against the hugging of prospects, as the Cubs had a clear short- and long-term need at starting pitcher that could be addressed via trade. At the same time, I thought it useless to attempt to put together hypothetical trade packages for any of the starters who might be on the Cubs’ radar.

This piece is a bit of a follow-up to that one. I still think that fawning over prospects who might be a part of a trade is, well, stupid, but with the performance of Happ and the utter badness of Lackey, along with the inability to snap off an extended winning streak and separate from the Brewers (in the right direction anyway), there is an impetus for reassessment. We have slightly more clarity about who might be available, and yet the Cubs’ end of things has become muddled.

First, where could the Cubs improve on the field? After 2015, the Cubs got Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward for their contact abilities, and they only had to dish out cash. Last year, the Cubs went for bullpen help at the deadline, at great prospect cost. Aside from the Wade Davis-Jorge Soler trade and the Jon Jay signing, the Cubs didn’t do much this offseason. They were very confident in their roster, and believed in their depth at most positions.

Now that we’re midway through the season, we see the errors in the front office’s ways: the Cubs’ rotation depth was poor, and the club had few contingencies in place. The Cubs need another quality starter to round out their prospective playoff rotation, and, with Lackey and Jake Arrieta departing via free agency this offseason, they have the opportunity to add a starter who will remain with the team long-term. On the position player side, the Cubs have some players returning from the DL and Kyle Schwarber returning from Iowa, plus depth at Triple-A in the form of Jeimer Candelario and Tommy La Stella (assuming he is sent down upon Schwarber’s return). There are few spots at which the Cubs could improve offensively, and so acquiring a positional role player is a more remote possibility. So, starting pitching it is!

Before identifying any trade partners or possible acquisitions, I think it’s useful to determine the top players the Cubs might send the other way. As I said in my first piece on the subject, I don’t think it’s worth spilling words trying to put together trade packages for certain players—no “Jimenez-Happ-Cease for Archer” from me.

But will the Cubs trade Ian Happ, a bonafide major leaguer, for a starter? That’s a difficult question, but one worth asking. Happ has socked 12 homers and hit to the very nice tune of .269/.337/.569, good for a .294 TAv. PECOTA pegs him for eight more homers the rest of the way, and sees him as more of a .270-ish TAv talent, but, with Ben Zobrist’s waning hitting and defensive abilities, he slots in nicely at the corner outfield spots and as a second base partner/platoon with Javier Baez. Happ’s defense is a bit elusive. I don’t believe he can be an effective major-league centerfielder, and I think he’s just about average at his other positions. That’s a good player, though—moderate power, solid hit tool, acceptable defense at multiple positions, switch-hitter. He has great value to the Cubs right now, and will retain a lot of that in the future as the team sees some position players depart for free agency. I think the Cubs will be considerably more loathe to trade Happ than they would have been two or three months ago, due to his major-league success and the club’s erratic offense. Would they package Happ in a deal for a top-flight starter? The possibility remains, of course. But, were I a betting man, I would not put money on it.

Much more likely to move is BP’s eighth-ranked midseason prospect, Eloy Jimenez. He of the literal light tower power has hit very well this year, with eight homers in 165 plate appearances and a solid approach and eye to boot. His ceiling is, and always has been, higher than Happ’s: Jimenez could be a perennial All-Star, should the power materialize in the majors. He’s still a couple of years away, though, and most likely wouldn’t receive a September call-up until next year. The Cubs are more likely to trade Jimenez due to the whole “a bird in the Happ is worth two in Jimenez” thing (that’s how it goes, right?), and his appeal to other clubs is apparent in his projectability. Jimenez would almost certainly be dealt in a package for a top starter, but not for a “rental” who would not remain with the club long-term, nor for a back end pitcher to fill Lackey’s role.

Further down in the minors, there’s a slate of higher upside players (Dylan Cease, Eddy Julio Martinez, Jose Albertos, etc.) who would be attractive to other teams looking to deal for upside. Any deal for a major-league starter would necessarily include one of these players, at least, and dealing for a long-term, top-of-the-rotation arm might require more than one. These are the guys to whom you should be the least beholden, since they are years away. There are some depth guys who might make fine additions to a team looking to fill major-league holes—namely, Candelario, but also Tommy La Stella or Jon Jay—making the Cubs fine candidates to fill the three archetypal buckets of players that most lustful and quixotic trade fantasizers try to fill (top prospect with upside, Low-A arms a few years away, major-league filler).

That’s it for a survey of players the Cubs might ship out for a pitcher. Any trade would almost certainly include a player or two I didn’t list here, but in terms of the bones of a deal, I think we have the most likely players. Now, to the next question: which starters are available via trade, to the best of our knowledge? The most obvious ones have been treaded and retreaded countless times. Jose Quintana, Justin Verlander, Sonny Gray, Chris Archer, and Jake Odorizzi round out the list of ace-ish quality arms, and there have already been rumors connecting the Cubs to Verlander and Archer. The front office is going to do their homework on these players and determine for whom it might be worth dealing Jimenez et al.

Let’s run down the list, from least likely to most likely. Quintana, though his performance has slipped a bit this year, will fetch a huge return, and the Cubs won’t meet the asking price. Plus, the White Sox still seem reluctant to deal with the crosstown Cubs. Archer and Odorizzi’s Rays are in the Wild Card hunt, and the team would probably only pull the trigger on a deal if they were overwhelmed by the offer. The pair are much more likely to be offseason trade candidates. Sonny Gray has scuffled the past two seasons, and the A’s and Cubs would be unlikely to match up in terms of how they value the righty. Other wild card candidates like Marcus Stroman or Johnny Cueto don’t quite make sense at this point—the former plays for a team unlikely to sell, and the latter is a free agent at year’s end.

Jeff Samardzija, Cueto’s San Francisco teammate, would appeal to the Cubs in a few ways. One, he’s signed through 2020. Two, he had success in the past with the Cubs and with pitching coach Chris Bosio. Three, the Giants’ asking price is probably not steep, considering his rather large contract and the club’s woeful record. And finally, Samardzija is striking out more hitters this year than at any other point in his career. One thing of concern, other than Samardzija’s middling overall performance and high home run rate, is the contract, which is a bit of a double-edged sword. The Cubs will have free agent contracts to negotiate with incumbent players come 2020, and Samardzija’s significant contract might force the Ricketts to tighten their purse strings.

More creatively, the Cubs could pursue Jason Vargas, who is having a career year. Betting on Vargas to continue to perform at the level he’s been at so far in 2017 is, frankly, foolish, but he could be fine rotation depth at a low cost for a team that could use such a pitcher. His strikeout rate is mediocre, but he has walked very few hitters this year, and he has somehow avoided the home run rate inflation afflicting many of his fellow pitchers. The Royals are sort of in contention—they still hold the second Wild Card spot as of this writing—but they are not quite built for future success, and Vargas is coming off the books this year. Should they decide to deal him, he could be had without parting with Happ or Jimenez.

Far more appealing is Justin Verlander. Although he’s a far cry from the Cy Young dominance of his youth, he had a renaissance year in 2016, and he still flashes fireballing brilliance. His walk and strikeout rates this year are disastrous, with a K-BB% of 10.3, his worst since 2008, but his contract and ceiling are advantageous. He’s signed for $28 million per year through 2019, fitting the Cubs’ window better than Samardzija’s contract. With the Tigers finally out of contention for the foreseeable future, dealing the aging Verlander would make sense. If the Cubs can match up with Detroit, they would find themselves with at least a Lackey replacement, if not an Arrieta one.

Of course, the Cubs are wont to make trades that no one sees coming. They don’t telegraph their moves, and they often find some creative solutions to their problems. Without glaring holes in this year’s roster, they will have to do just that. On the radar are the aforementioned starters, but just as likely is the Cubs standing pat, or trading for someone who isn’t on this list. I wrote at the end of May that there were few conclusions that could be drawn in terms of the Cubs’ possible trade deadline activity; that mostly holds true. But, by not pushing through .500 and taking the division lead, the Cubs find themselves in a difficult position. They need to catch the Brewers, but they might need to deal Ian Happ or Eloy Jimenez to find the starter they need to do so. Luckily, there are some long-term solutions that dovetail well with the Cubs’ 2017 plans.

Lead photo courtesy Raj Mehta—USA Today Sports

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