The White Whale Trade: The Search for a Young Cost Controlled Starter Ends

After a frustrating first half of the 2017 season, some people wondered whether or not the 2017 Cubs would be better off as sellers instead of buyers. Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Co. quickly put an end to that line of thinking yesterday by trading Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease, and two other minor league prospects to the White Sox in exchange for Jose Quintana. While the acquisition cost was steep (especially parting with Jimenez), the consensus verdict seems to be that the price was tough but fair, given Quintana’s consistent near-elite performance, as well as his durability (200 IP the last four seasons), age (will turn 29 in January), and contract ($6m in 2017, $8.8m in 2018, and $10.5m team options in both 2019 and 2020). So we know the Cubs quest for a young, cost-controlled starter is complete, but how and when the team chose to make this trade can inform us as to what (and who) the Cubs front office values going forward.

It’s no secret that the Cubs, like the Theo Epstein-led Red Sox before them, chose to build their team through position players. Every single one of the Cubs’ first round draft picks from 2011 (Jim Hendry’s last draft) through the 2015 draft were used on position players (2011-Baez, 2012-Almora, 2013-Bryant, 2014-Schwarber, 2015-Happ, no first round pick in 2016). That each of these players made the major leagues and have so far produced at an above-average rate is remarkable, and a testament to the skills of Cubs Senior Vice President of Scouting/Player Development Jason McLeod and the rest of the Cubs player development staff.

Additionally, the largest contract this Cubs front office has given out was to Jason Heyward, a right fielder who was signed subsequent to a 2015 postseason where both Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber each posted OPS greater than 1.100. Even though Heyward’s been disappointing overall thus far, his defense and speech making abilities definitely played a role in the Cubs winning their first World Series in 108 years.

Each of these moves for position players made sense at the time individually, and have also proven successful in the aggregate (remember when the Cubs vs. Mets future was a legitimate question?), but even so there’s an opportunity cost to each transaction. Continuing to spend all of your most valuable capital (in terms of high draft picks, free agent dollars, and trades) on only one segment over of your team over an extended period of time inevitably leads to a situation like the Cubs’ 2017 first half, in which their starting pitching has fallen (or at least teetered) off a cliff.

It’s not fair to blame all of the Cubs’ subpar 2017 season thus far on their starting pitching (the stunted development of Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Javy Baez, etc. has also played a huge role). However, in retrospect, it’s remarkable that the Cubs were able to survive and mostly thrive up until this point without a move like the Quintana trade.

Think of the key players not named Jon Lester in the Cubs’ starting rotation since the beginning of the 2015 season: Jake Arrieta blossomed into a Cy Young winner after being acquired in exchange for Scott Feldman, Kyle Hendricks was an eighth-round draft pick out of Dartmouth acquired in the Ryan Dempster trade who turned into the 2016 NL ERA leader, Jason Hammel was signed for cheap in 2014 (after posting a 4.97 ERA in 2013), traded as part of the Addison Russell deal, and then re-signed to provide stability to the back end of the rotation (at least in the first halves of 2015 and 2016), and John Lackey, who began his Cubs career as a 37-year-old. The Cubs somehow essentially got the best or near-best parts of each of these pitcher’s career, despite the limitations that were apparent at the time the Cubs acquired them. At a certain point this patchwork nature of pitching acquisitions wasn’t going to work, and this season, with the likes of Alec Mills and Eddie Butler being unable to staunch the bleeding that the Kyle Hendricks injury and Jake Arrieta/John Lackey ineffectiveness has caused, it stopped working.

And that brings us back to the Jose Quintana trade. The Cubs front office chose to dip into their farm system one more time to both give their 2017 team a chance to make the playoffs, and to provide cost-controlled insurance for future rotation openings going forward. Make no mistake, this trade bumps the Cubs farm system down to below-average for the first time since the Jorge Soler signing in 2012. But by making the Quintana trade the Cubs front office has signaled that they are confident in the young non-Bryzzo position players (i.e. Ian Happ, Baez, Schwarber, and Russell) reaching their potential that their first round draft pedigree belies.

If each (or even most) of these players get to the level we saw last season, or in October (or in Happ’s case, continue to improve on what he is doing now), then hanging on to them will make Theo Epstein and Co. look like geniuses. But self-scouting is a hard thing to master. If you look at the returns that the Cubs received from the young position players or prospects who were on the major league roster in 2014 that are no longer here (i.e. Arismendy Alcantara, Starlin Castro, Soler), it’s clear none of these transactions brought back the type of value that the Cubs’ front office initially envisioned the player having. And therein lies the risk of the “grow the bats, buy the arms” theory: inevitably some of your home grown bats will need to be cashed in for starting pitching. We’ll see if Theo Epstein and Co. sold off the right ones.

Lead photo courtesy Steve Mitchell—USA Today Sports

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2 comments on “The White Whale Trade: The Search for a Young Cost Controlled Starter Ends”

Andy Ernsting

If you are really dissatisfied with the returns, we will gladly return Soler for Wade Davis. Meet you at Midway later today.

Matt Petitt

Haha no thanks. No front office gets every player evaluation right, but the same things that were said about Eloy Jimenez were said about Jorge Soler; to think that that caliber of player fetched only a closer (albeit an all-star closer) for only one year was a little bit disappointing for Cubs fans even if Soler hadn’t proven his worth at the major league level prior to the 2017 season. To answer your followup question, yes I know this answer sounds insufferable, but that is apparently a symptom of winning the World Series.

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