The $7M MLB deal given to Gerardo Concepcion has drawn some criticism from some baseball analysts, saying it's too much for a back of the rotation starter, but that reasoning is oversimplified, in my opinion. There's a lot in play here...
- First off, "back of the rotation starter" isn't the unanimous opinion on Concepcion's ceiling. There were teams that thought he could be more than that and the Cubs were almost certainly one of them. The Cubs had quite a bit of competition for his services.
- Quite simply, it's market value. The Royals gave a similar 18 year old LHP Cuban prospect, Noel Arguelles, $7M for 5 years on an MLB deal just 2 years ago. Arguelles immediately tore his labrum but came back strong and pitched in high Class A Wilmington last season, walking just 2.08 hitters per 9 IP and finishing with a 3.20 ERA. The good news for the Royals is that his stuff isn't even back yet and the good news for the Cubs is that his stuff likely rates below Concepcion's at this point.
- The Cubs also signed a smaller (5'11, 170 lb) and older (21) LHP pitcher out of Cuba last year with lesser stuff, less polish, and no possibility for projection and paid $800K. The pitcher, Frank Del Valle, didn't even rank as a top 30 prospect for the Cubs so he's not the same caliber of pitcher. Concepcion is expected to rank among the top 10 and possibly as the Cubs 3rd best starting pitching prospect overall. You have to think Concepcion is worth substantially more than Del Valle, probably not $6M more, but the Cubs are buying more than just a pitching prospect here, in my opinion, but more on that later.
- The Cubs lack LH rotation prospects and Concepcion immediately becomes their top prospect in that category. Remember that the Cubs have no SPs in the top 30. Getting a lefty who potentially ranks in your top ten is a nice pick-up. The Cubs had a huge need here.
- This is the last year that under-23 international free agents will be on the open market. The Cubs knew this was their last chance to flex their financial muscle before the international pool system starts next season. That pool will allot money based on team performance, so the worse you do, the more money you get to spend. It's possible a player like Concepcion would not have been available for the Cubs under those rules.
- The Cubs have made a large investment in the Latin American market, including a brand new state of the art facility. They need to improve the quality of prospects. They've made a foray into Venezuela and the Dominican Republic in the past two years with Jeimer Candelario, Carlos Penalver, Marck Malave and Luis Acosta, among others, but Concepcion is their first big prospect out of Cuba. It helps establish their presence there and perhaps paves the way for the Cubs to sign Yoenis Cespedes and/or Jorge Soler. While some may argue that he's a back of the rotation starter, in Cuba he is a rising star, a rookie of the year at age 18, and his signing is sure to draw plenty of attention there.
- An article on Fangraphs does it's best to look at both sides and brings up another good point, saying, "The lofty price tag does not mean the Chicago Cubs made a poor signing, though. Concepcion may not have a high ceiling, but he is an extremely polished young pitcher and is considered a safe bet to reach the big leagues in some capacity. Any big league talent that will be under team control for at least six seasons provides substantial value for a rebuilding club, like the Cubs..."
- Concepcion's MLB contract means he will be on the roster and has 3 options, meaning it will require that he be on the active roster in 3 years. It's a similar situation to Matt Szczur, who's also on a fast track because of his contract. At first, I speculated that Concepcion would start in Peoria, but the Chief's rotation should be loaded (Dillon Maples, Ben Wells, Jose Rosario, Yao-Lin Wang, Hayden Simpson), so he may start as high as high Class A Daytona, putting him (conveniently enough) 3 steps away from the big league team. The Florida State League is considered a pitcher's league and would probably be a good place to start. Some have considered Cuba to be similar to a high Class A league in competition, so he should be able to step right in since he had a successful year at Cuba's top level. The weather won't hurt either.
- The Cubs need to make another roster move to add Concepcion. In a minor move that went under the radar, the Cubs signed Ryan Rowland-Smith on the same day. Adding more depth to the rotation could allow the Cubs to risk waiving Andy Sonnanstine as it's late in the game and it's questionable whether another team will want to use a roster spot for him. The Cubs could conceivably bring him back as a non-roster spring training invitee as they did with RP Manny Corpas. It's also possible that something like compensation or a minor deal could settle the matter. There's also the chance the Cubs could release a bullpen arm, but my money is on Sonnanstine. We'll see, I guess.
- As for Smith, he is a big lefty who once showed some promise with the Seattle Mariners, going 5-3, 3.42 ERA in 2008 and 5-4 with a 3.72 ERA in 2009. Since then he's had some injuries and the wheels have come off, but he's healthy now and the Cubs hope to catch lightning in a bottle here. He likely adds LHP starting pitching depth along with Chris Rusin.
Perhaps if you're Tampa Bay or a similar team that needs to spend their money strictly according to player value, $7M is too much. But the Cubs have the money, they have a need, and they've invested a lot of money and time to become a player in the Latin American market, particularly Cuba where the top two players have yet to sign. This was the last year the Cubs could make a statement before the new CBA limits their ability to use their vast resources. There's a lot more at stake for them than just acquiring a pitcher. Yet, inevitably, there will all be analysts who insist on evaluating these deals in a vacuum while almost completely ignoring the bigger real world picture. Is it too much for a LHP that many project as a "back end guy"? Maybe, even that isn't a certainty as pointed out by the Fangraphs article. But that's not the question here. The question that should be asked is this: it too much for the Cubs given their market, needs, and goals?
That isn't as easy to answer, but obviously if you ask Ricketts and the Cubs front office, they'll tell you it was well worth the investment for their team and situation.