Over the last 3 seasons the Cubs have lost a lot of games. But in that time they have built a foundation of young talent at the big league level as well as one of the best farm systems in baseball. Nobody really disputes that.
It is also widely acknowledged that the Cubs are entering the next phase of the rebuilding process. But I think some fans have taken this to mean that they should throw out everything they’ve done so far and go for it this offseason. That is inaccurate. The Cubs are not going to sell out their long term for the short term because of some artificial time frame.
Yes, they will start to acquire players who can help them win now. Most notably they are pursuing 31 year old Jon Lester to head their staff. They’re also expected to pursue veteran role players for their bench, bullpen, and perhaps another starter or platoon player.
But getting short term players doesn’t mean sacrificing their long term goals, which remain unchanged.
Among the things they won’t do…
1. They won’t trade good cost-controlled young players or prospects for a veteran with one year left on his contract
These are the kind of players you deal for when you expect to win next season. The Cubs are getting close, but they aren’t at the stage where you sacrifice some long term cost control for one year of a player. In fact, you don’t really see any non-contending teams doing this.
The reason is you are trading for one year of a player and deals must be valued in that light. The Cardinals can trade for Jason Heyward because they are a legitimate World Series contender for 2015. It makes no sense for the Cubs to risk potential long term players for 2015, Moreover, Shelby Miller isn’t a player that was part of the Cardinals long term plans. They have had 2 plus years to evaluate him and come to that decision.
The Cardinals are also in a position where adding 3-4 net wins in 2015 can have a significant impact.
The Cubs are not.
But what about extending that player?
That is all fine and dandy but you never pay good prospects for the right to negotiate a deal that a player would otherwise get on the open market. Once you pay a player his fair market value, you have paid the appropriate price for that player’s worth. Adding prospects on top of that adds to that cost. In other words, you are paying the value of the extension + the value of the player(s) you gave up.
You are trading 6 years of a player for one year of another, often at a salary that is already close to market value. Even if the prospect turns out to be a league average player over 6 years, that is still significantly more value.
You can say, so what? It’s just money. But that money could be used to acquire another player on the open market without having to lose a player or players in the first place.
In short, you are only getting one year’s worth of a player and after that you have to pay for him at market value — and that extension adds zero value to the deal. You are essentially making a deal for 2015, a year in which the Cubs aren’t even expected to seriously contend anyway.
And also consider that the Cardinals deal is more of the exception. Ask yourself why a contending team would trade David Price or Jordan Zimmerman. The answer is they know they are only trading one year of that player and potentially getting many in return, thereby extending their window by adding long term players and freeing future payroll space. Does it make any sense that a non-contending team would value that one year more than a contender?
The equation changes once the Cubs become contenders or have short term talent they can exchange for short term talent, but that is not the case right now.
2 Giving up on top prospects and young ballplayers
There are a lot of people who have already written off Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, or minor leaguers like Albert Almora and figure now is the time to give them away and get short term value, Why?
The Cubs cannot make a decision on such small sample sizes and give up on them for the sake of short term gain. If they can get an equivalent talent with similar long term value, that is one thing, but giving up careers for the 2015 season just doesn’t make sense.
Giving up on them simply because they are prospects and not sure things — or because they struggled to start their career (as more and more prospects are doing as the gap between AAA talent and MLB talent has seemingly increased over the past few years) is a reactionary, knee-jerk move that could come back to bite them down the road.
Take a look at what Bill James projects for young Cubs players (h/t Bleed Cubbie Blue)
Arismendy Alcantara: 154 G, 582 AB, 38 2B, 19 HR, 70 RBI, 48 BB, 32 SB, .259/.317/.450
Javier Baez: 152 G, 612 AB, 33 2B, 32 HR, 82 RBI, 48 BB, 23 SB, .242/.298/456
Kris Bryant: 152 G, 530 AB, 32 2B, 33 HR, 75 RBI, 66 BB, 18 SB, .266/.347/.517
Jorge Soler: 146 G, 542 AB, 36 2B, 28 HR, 94 RBI, 67 BB, 2 SB, .247/.330/.483
Not bad (and maybe a bit optimistic), butthe arrow is pointing up on all of them. They will presumably get even better. Now consider that potential production comes at rock bottom prices for the first 6 years of their career. That gives you payroll flexibility to add elsewhere, which takes us to our last point.
3. They won’t use a large amount of resources and surplus to acquire needs they can more cheaply fill within the organization (i.e. RH hitting, power bullpen arms)
We aren’t saying you shouldn’t trade prospects. You absolutely should in the right deal. But the purpose of building surplus in one area is so that you can exchange it for players that fill an area of need, You don’t use that surplus to get a more short term version at your position of surplus. That defeats the purpose. Even if you do extend a player you acquire through trade, you now have a player making open market dollars a year to do what prospects could have done for a lot less.
And even if that veteran player is better from a pure numbers standpoint than the young, cost controlled player, it is still an opportunity lost. That same young player, if you had to trade him, could have been used to acquire a player at a position of need, one that you cannot fill from within your own organization. Instead, you potentially trade and/or block a player down the road who could be about as productive but at much cheaper cost.
And as we mentioned earlier, you have not only squandered currency in terms of prospects on something you didn’t need, but you have used up some of your payroll flexibility on that as well. So this applies to signing free agents to long term deals at positions of organizational strength.
This is the reason the Cubs did not pursue Yasmani Tomas and will not pursue Justin Upton. The Cubs don’t need to pay a premium for something they already have in house. It is not that they can’t afford it or that the player can potentially be better than the one you have, the point is that is not the best use of that asset/payroll when you look at your organizational strengths and weaknesses.
So now that we know what the Cubs won’t do, what will they do?
- They will be willing to sacrifice resources to upgrade their biggest need: starting pitching. Their preference is to spend money, so expect them to try to sign Jon Lester and a second pitcher. But if push came to shove and the Cubs have to trade surplus, it would make more sense for them to trade for this particular area of need — and that they would do it for pitchers who have a significant amount of cost control left.
- They will look to upgrade catching with a veteran. They still like Welington Castillo and don’t seem ready to give up on him, but a veteran caddy to help him develop and provide a security blanket for veteran pitchers would be ideal.
- They will look for OBP and LH bats. Tommy LaStella fits that bill but the Cubs would likely want someone more established that they can rely on. The Cubs will hit for power, but getting players on base in front of them will be a big key to their improvement.
- They will listen to offers on players at areas of surplus, such as Luis Valbuena, who may soon be displaced by Kris Bryant. The Cubs understand Valbuena’s value, however, even if it is just in a semi-regular role off the bench. He is also cost-controlled for 2 more years, so the Cubs are in no hurry to deal him. As we noted yesterday, we can expect to get a solid young pitcher or pitching prospect in return. The market for Valbuena will open up once Chase Headley signs. If the Cubs do deal Valbuena, that would make it even more important for the Cubs to get a LH hitting OBP type for the top of the order, though the La Stella acquisition gives them a fallback. Much less likely to be dealt is Starlin Castro but even he isn’t off limits if the Cubs can get good young cost-controlled starting pitching in return.
- I expect the Cubs to fill out their bullpen with a veteran. I like Luke Gregerson but the interest in him seems to be significant now that Andrew Miller has signed. The Cubs may wait this out until the end of the offseason and see if they can get a veteran RP at value.
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