Most of you know I'm on board with the rebuilding process. I completely understand the need to build a foundation and produce a steady stream of talent in the minor leagues so that you don't have to spend big on free agency every year. Cubs fans need to be patient. I get it and I've been an ardent supporter of the process.
Right now the focus is on the minor leagues because that is where some of the Cub most exciting talent is. Yet we all know that most prospects won't turn out at all and even fewer will reach the ceiling that we all dream on. We can construct future lineups but rarely do they come to fruition in the way we hope.
On the other end of the spectrum is free agency. The Cubs are a big market team so they should be able to pour a lot of money into that market. Yet, Cubs fans have seen this fail as well -- even when the free agent signings were actually pretty good. We can look back with scorn on the Cubs run at the free agent market just over 6 years ago, but the fact is that Alfonso Soriano, Mark DeRosa, and Ted Lilly were very productive players and helped the Cubs reach the playoffs twice -- and even had the National League's best record in 2008. They were in the playoffs and in the position to make a run. They just got cold at the wrong time.
Still, that's not the answer either. The Cubs did strike gold (or at least silver) in that they were able to create a 2-3 year window. That doesn't always happen, as we saw with the Marlins last year. But windows created primarily through free agency tend to shut quickly and leave the team with bloated payrolls and a bad case of buyer's remorse. I imagine most Cubs fans would have lived with that if it would have brought the team a World Series ring. But, of course, it didn't.
Somewhere in the middle is the trade market. Trades generally involve trading prospects for veterans and vice versa, depending on where your team is in terms of the standings. Rarely do we see prospect for prospect trades or veterans for veterans anymore. It's usually one team buying the present and selling part of their future while the other team sells their chance to win now for players they hope will help them to win later.
Trading veterans for young talent is problematic for the Cubs right now. There is little interest in Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Marmol and many of the Cubs other veterans have been injured (Matt Garza, Scott Baker) or don't offer a whole lot of trade value (David DeJesus, Scott Hairston, etc.)
So, the thought that's been buzzing in my head lately is this: Why not trade a top prospect in a package to get good young MLB players right now? We saw the Cubs do this several times early on in the Jim Hendry era. The Cubs were able to pick up players like Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, and Nomar Garciaparra for prospects -- none of which reached their potential. The result was that the 2003-2004 teams were probably the closest the Cubs have come to building sustainable success. The Cubs did put some emphasis on the draft back then and McPhail/Hendry built some highly rated farm systems. We know now know they came up short in terms of results, both in terms of the major league club and in terms of producing homegrown MLB talent from the farm. But that's not to say that the idea was a bad one. It's just the execution of that idea that failed.
So when I started thinking of prospects to trade one player came to mind: Javier Baez.
I can hear some of you now, "Whaaa? Trade the Cubs top prospect? Isn't this the opposite of what the Cubs should be doing? Shouldn't they be trying to collect as much young talent as possible, not trade it away?"
Yes and no. I understand the reluctance. Even though I wasn't around to see it happen, I too suffer from Lou Brockophobia, the fear of trading prospects who will eventually become Hall-of-Famers.
Yet, I think there is some selective bias in effect here. We tend to remember this kind of disaster and forget about stubbornly hanging on to prospects who never came close to living up to their billing. I don't have to remind Cubs fans who these guys are. We all remember the names of prospects we've pinned our hopes on only to see them fall well short of expectations.
So back to the question at hand. What if you could trade Javier Baez in a package for a young player who is already good and still in his prime? We saw the Braves deal for Justin Upton, who is having a huge impact right now and there are big names out there like Giancarlo Stanton and David Price who are rumored to be available. We are sure to see other players names floated out there in the near future as well.
So why Javier Baez?
The answer is simple. He has the most value. He is arguably one of the top 20 prospects in the game and plays a premium position. We have seen lesser shortstops become key components in trades for young talents like Upton and Trevor Bauer. Unlike fellow shortstop Starlin Castro, he doesn't have the combination of present and future value. Baez's MLB value is 100% in the future, and thus highly speculative. If you are worried about giving up the next Lou Brock, consider that the Cubs are guaranteed to lose significant MLB value if they trade Starlin Castro. That guarantee does not exist with Baez.
Another reason is that Baez may not fit the front office's new philosophy as well as other prospects. The Cubs are already a free-swinging team and much of their talent in the minors reflects that as well, perhaps none more so than Baez. There is greater hope that Jorge Soler and Albert Almora will put up some of the kind of grind-it-out plate appearances that the team is looking for. And while players like Christian Villanueva and Jeimer Candelario have lower ceilings than Baez, they may be better fits as far as what the team is trying to accomplish in terms of their approach at the plate.
I don't mean to knock Baez here. He's as exciting and talented a prospect as the Cubs have had in a long time and I'd have to swallow hard to even consider dealing him -- and it would undoubtedly have to be in return for top shelf, still-in-their-prime talent. I also don't think the Cubs should look to trade Baez. But if the Marlins are dangling Stanton and the first name that comes out of their mouth is Javier Baez, then the Cubs absolutely have to listen.