Let me start by summing up my feelings regarding yesterday’s trade in two tweets, a before-and-after:
It wasn’t a baseball trade. https://t.co/XmhHjuCSVJ
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) December 29, 2020
When the return for the best pitcher in the National League last year (and a solid backup catcher) depends substantially on great scouting and development in a year when both departments have been slashed to the bone, and no Minor League season means no recent game data on any of these guys… you have to question the process involved in this decision. And the most likely conclusion I can draw is this was not a baseball move in any way. This was a cost saving move forced upon the front office by ownership and Jed Hoyer did the best he could under the circumstances.
Yes, the Cubs are pulling several toolsy players out of one of the deepest farm systems in recent history. They were all relatively high profile prep or IFA signings by an org with a reputation for a good eye at both. But they are teenagers. Three of the four have never taken a pro at bat. The “experienced” one is 20 years old with just 77 games on his resume, none in full season ball. I likened it yesterday to trading Darvish and Caratini for four Competitive Balance picks. You could use Cubs prospects Yohendrick Pinango, Ronnier Quintero, Kevin Made and Ethan Hearn as a template as well.
I already warned everyone it would be difficult for me to pass judgment on any return given no MiLB this year, but this return is a Canadian prep, two recent IFA signings who also have no pro ABs, and the “experienced” guy is 20-yo from rookie ball. I’ve got nothing for you.
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) December 29, 2020
Cubs system was completely barren of these types of projectable athletes 2 years ago. Took steps to remedy it with drafting Davis and have followed up with more in recent drafts/IFA. But they still needed more. But again, to rely solely on them in this return is risky.
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) December 29, 2020
It is an incredibly risky package with as much (or more) floor than ceiling. Proximity to the big leagues matters when assessing prospects. The further away, the more that can go awry. The career-altering-injury window is also larger, though given all the prospects are hitters that is less of an issue than if pitchers were involved. That is not an acceptable return for an elite starting pitcher with three years remaining on a reasonable contract. Not when the team only has two other players scheduled to make more than $10M beyond the 2021 season. The Cubs now have just $38.5M committed in guaranteed contracts to three players (Heyward, Hendricks, Bote) for 2022 (plus $1M due to Craig Kimbrel as a buyout).
If the Cubs finances are in such poor shape how did Crane Kenney keep his job amidst the unprecedented layoffs by the organization? We know why. Because the Cubs are only crying poor. They aren’t actually poor.
They may not be as rich as they expected. They may even have suffered significant losses in 2020 rather than running a profit. No fans. No beer sales. Less merchandise. Marquee was undoubtedly a money pit in its rookie season. I get that. I’m not asking the Ricketts to spend like the Dodgers or Yankees. We know those teams exist on a different financial level than all other clubs. But the Cubs are on a level with the Red Sox, the Angels, the Mets, the Astros and a handful of others. Their owners are never threatened with poverty unless they are truly terrible business people. Those franchise values far outpace any debt they may incur (and all the reno and Marquee startup loans certainly rang up plenty).
If an owner of a top franchise feels burdened by the loans needed to sustain an acceptable payroll and improve team facilities, they are free to sell their shares to walk away debt free, and with a tidy profit to boot. They shouldn’t be punishing the fans of their franchise instead. And they certainly shouldn’t be crying about it publicly.
The Cubs are the only big market club in the NL Central. A division projected to be downright terrible next season. Even after this trade the Cubs still may be the favorites. And while keeping Darvish wouldn’t have made them favorites to beat the Dodgers, the Braves or Padres once they reached the postseason, they still would have had a puncher’s chance. A rotation headed by Darvish and Hendricks is capable of winning any series, at any time. All it would take is for the offense to muster a little support. The Cubs sluggers may not do that consistently, but they can do it in spurts, even in the postseason against top pitching. Rizzo has done it. Javy has done it. KB has done it. They are still capable of doing it again. And with a few shrewd acquisitions to add some contact hitters it is possible the Cubs could have forged a more consistent attack.
Instead, this trade essentially raises the white flag. Not just for this year, but possibly for 2022 as well. The Cubs could have treaded water at the MLB level and tried to retool on the fly. They have the financial might to do so. And while their farm system isn’t a powerhouse, if the right player or two broke through or the front office could uncover the right hidden gem from another organization the team could have taken the leap from mediocrity back to true contender in short order. Now, they’ve committed themselves to a longer rebuild.
The Cubs had one blue chip player performing at the top of his game. Now they have none, and they received no prospects with any hope of replacing that value any time soon. Zach Davies is a solid pitcher, and if the Cub would have used the money once considered ear marked for Kyle Schwarber for Davies instead, I’d be fine with it. The Cubs needed a proven innings eater to replace Lester. But not as the only near-term help in exchange for two roster players, including their best.
Maybe Javy or KB or Rizzo returns to blue chip level, and is willing to re-sign, enabling the Cubs to tread water enough to compete for the playoffs and build for the future. The chances of that are not zero, but given none of them are under contract beyond this year, and they are coming off down campaigns, the odds are far less than they were with a team-controlled and locked in Yu Darvish.
More on Davies and the prospects
Most Cubs fans will be familiar with Davies from his time with the Brewers. A soft tosser with a good changeup, he’ll have have plenty to relate to with Kyle Hendricks and Alec Mills next season. He is due to earn about $10.5M in his final year of arbitration before becoming a free agent after the season. He put together a strong 2020, the best of his career, thanks to increased usage of said changeup (and far less reliance on his sub-par fastball). If he can sustain that success over a full season in 2021, it takes him from being a back of the rotation guy to more of a two-or-three WAR mid rotation starter. He’s 27 so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to consider extending him if he pitches well early on, but given the Cubs already have two starters with similar profiles under club control beyond this season, the fit probably isn’t here, and it’s more likely they look to deal him at the deadline (or before) for another prospect or two.
As for where the four new prospects will rank in the Cubs system? I simply can’t answer that, and very few outside the industry can either, so take everything you hear from people claiming they can with a giant grain of salt.
There is limited recent video on any of them. All four played during fall instructs, so the Cubs scouts at least got recent looks (which perhaps played a role in their decision to pursue these players as opposed to upper level prospects the Padres had at their alternate site this summer who the Cubs likely haven’t seen since 2019). The Cubs already had some similar profile players at the complex levels like the already mentioned Pinango, Quintero, Made and Hearn, along with others like Luis Verdugo, Rafael Morel, D.J. Herz, and Brayan Altuve. Where all these guys stack up against one another is just too difficult to assess accurately in 2020.
As for what I hear/read from others who have seen them, shortstop Reginald Preciano seems to have the best combo of ceiling and floor. He’s reportedly grown to 6’5″ since signing for $1.3M out of Panama in 2019. And while he isn’t likely to fill out into a monster there is hope he can develop power while still remaining at short, or enough to profile at 3B if he does have to move off. He’s a switch hitter who is more advanced from the right side at this point.
The oldest, and most polished, but with the lowest athletic ceiling is fellow middle infielder Yeison Santana. A line drive hitter who has produced high averages in his limited DSL and AZL time (.306/.418/.494 career). He’s a guy who could move quick, but could also hit a wall at upper levels if his lack of size/strength limits him at the plate. The Cubs have seen this recently with Aramis Ademan and Santana seems to fit a similar profile. There are plenty of scouts who like him though, and projects as a good utility guy or even a potential starter if he sticks at short or he maintains his ability to produce at the plate.
The other two are toolsy 18-year old outfielders. Ismael Mena is the higher profile of the two. Signed for $2.2M in the same 2019 IFA class as Preciano, the scrapped Minor League season prevented him from making his pro debut in 2020. He’s considered a plus-plus runner with the potential for average or better tools across the board. Although still considered very raw offensively, there is undoubtedly a high ceiling. He already receives good grades for his range in CF and so much will depend on how well the bat rounds into form as he looks to translate tools into production. Mena is also praised for his baseball IQ and willingness to work, as is the final piece the Cubs received, the Padres recent 2nd round pick out of Canada, Owen Caissie.
Standing 6’4″ with a larger frame to fill out into a prototypical power hitting corner outfielder, Caissie was given a $1.2M bonus by San Diego to keep him away from a college commitment. He can put on a show in batting practice already, and there doesn’t seem to be much concern regarding his ability to crush fastballs. His swing supposedly has some holes currently, but he has also been praised for his willingness to adjust and take to coaching. Reports are he also needs work on his reads and routes in the outfield, but he already possesses plenty of arm for RF should everything else come together.
If anything the Mesa Cubs should be fun to watch if anyone gets a chance to do so in 2021.
I’m not sure that is much consolation to Chicago Cubs fans right now though.