As the draft approaches, and subsequently passes, the hot stove is going to turn up again as teams take a look at where they are. For the first time in six years, the Cubs can look at themselves and feel pretty good about what they see in the mirror. At 25-22, the Cubs are above .500 and in the thick of the playoff chase. In short, all of this means we should expect the Cubs to be buyers as the deadline approaches. And, as they’ve done over the last few years, they will not hesitate to make a deal early if the right opportunity presents itself early.
When examining the Cubs and what they may do as the summer rolls in, it’s important to remember a few things. First, Theo Epstein has made it clear that 2015 is just the start of the competitive window that the Cubs are in. And he’s right. So when he says, “We care about ’15, and we’re trying to win in ’15. But we’re not selling out for anything but a long run of sustained success”, it is wise to temper expectations for what the Cubs will be seeking as the deadline approaches. Fortunately, the Cubs have avenues available to improve this season, without mortgaging the long run Theo told us about six months ago.
The first, and least likely of all, option is to stand pat. Yes, it is realistic to believe that the Cubs may not make any moves of note at the deadline. When doing the cold assessment of where this team is, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer could go the route of addressing needs internally. Improving the infield defense could be done by calling up Javier Baez and moving him to third base, or by allowing him to reclaim his spot at second base and moving Addison Russell to third base. That would move Kris Bryant, and his iffy throwing, to left field. It would also take some of the pressure off of Starlin Castro because he would be surrounded by good defensive players on the infield. A three short stop infield with Anthony Rizzo is strong. The bullpen can be shored up by waiting for Neil Ramirez to return. Activating him from the DL in June or early July would be like signing a free agent or trading for a set-up man…with the benefit of not actually having to look at players who are available as free agents two months into the season (which is probably for a reason) or having to part with players to add someone else’s arm. Improving the bench can also be done by waiting for Mike Olt to return, as he has begun taking batting practice and should be inching his way closer to a rehab assignment. Tommy La Stella should also return in a few weeks after having a setback in his rehab. While all of these options come with some inherent risk, all of these players returning from injury or being recalled could diminish some of the issues the Cubs have had in the early season without looking to the outside. If the front office is unwilling to pay (either in money or prospects) for outside help, they do have options within the organization that can provide some aid this season.
Because not making any outside moves is an unlikely scenario, any examination as to how the Cubs can improve from the outside requires us to remember that this front office is not selling out. It is realistic that the Cubs could make a splash, but any type of big deal will almost certainly come with the some years of control. That means the odds of the Cubs making a trade for Johnny Cueto are pretty damn slim. He is a high-cost rental from a team within the division. Acquiring him is the very definition of selling out. If the Cubs are going to get Cueto, it’ll likely be at the same time they acquired Jon Lester. Over the winter. Cole Hamels, on the other hand, comes with four years of control beyond this season. Adding him would most definitely fit into the Cubs’ plans of sustained success.
The non-waiver trade deadline is basically always a needs based assessment of the team. For the Cubs, there are some needs. While those needs were, in part, created though injuries and depth depletion, they still exist. The bench is a major concern right now. Mike Baxter, Jonathan Herrera, David Ross, and Junior Lake are not a playoff caliber bench. Actually, the collective of this group may be worse than some of the benches put together during the rebuilding seasons. And let’s be fair: They weren’t meant to be the bench. All of this group, aside from Ross, was ticketed for Iowa this season, only to be called in case of emergency. The fact that they’re all up was (and is) the disaster scenario.
After a pretty rocky start to the season, the starting rotation has settled into a nice rhythm. Jon Lester shook his slow start and had a dominant May. Jake Arrieta has been just as effective as we saw last year all season. Jason Hammel has returned to being the Jason Hammel the Cubs sent to the Oakland A’s last summer. Kyle Hendricks has put together promising starts over the last couple of weeks. It does, though, make sense to add a mid to back of the rotation starter to upgrade over Tsuyoshi Wada. While Wada has been fine in his first starts, a pitcher who gets blasted in his third trip through the order is a liability in a playoff contending rotation down the stretch. Wada is most effectively suited for a long relief role, where he would only need to get through the line up between one and two times.
Like the bench, the Cubs have had the worst case scenario happen to the bullpen. Neil Ramirez got hurt. Justin Grimm missed time to begin the season. On top of those things, the starting rotation wasn’t carrying their share of the weight. The bullpen was weakened and stressed. While Grimm is back and the rotation is improving, the effects of high use are still present. If the Cubs can find a high leverage reliever for the right price, they will almost surely pull the trigger on the deal. Because they’ve already added Yoervis Medina and have options inside the organization, a reliever may be more likely to come as part of a larger trade, with the centerpiece being a bench player or starting pitcher or as part of a two piece rental.
After the years of talent acquisition, there is no shortage of options to consider parting with. In fact, the system is stacked with players who are blocked at the major league level, who are inching toward Rule 5 eligibility, or are ultra talented, but years away from making a major league debut. Players like Christian Villanueva, who is on the 40 man roster and is completely blocked at the big league level, are prime candidates to be traded this summer. Other players who the Cubs could part with in small trades, without losing anyone who could be called up and start in the next two years, are Dan Vogelbach, Billy McKinney, Jeimer Candelario, Jacob Hannemann, and Gleyber Torres. Should the Cubs make the massive splash (like Cole Hamels), they have the pieces to make those moves, as well. Javy Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, Kyle Schwarber, and Albert Almora are all candidates to be moved in a larger scale trade. Because of the depth of the system, the Cubs can afford to move combinations of these players without depleting the system completely and mortgaging the future of the organization. They are also picking ninth in the draft (which can also be leveraged in a trade) and can make large scale purchases in the international free agent market again this summer. While this is the time where the Cubs can be expected to move away from some prospects, they also have the means to replace those players to some extent.
As is always the case, finding trading partners is the most challenging task when consummating a deal to improve the club. As the waiver deadline approaches, a team has to be either tanking (like the Cubs, Astros, and Marlins have done in recent seasons), or they have to be woefully disappointing during the season as to abandon all hope of making a run this year (like the A’s and Brewers). When looking at the standings today, there are not many teams who look like sure-fire sellers. In the American League, only the A’s are more than 7.5 games out of first place in their division. Outside of the top four and the A’s in the AL, the other ten teams are within 3 games of each other. Should the standings remain that close, only the A’s would appear to be a viable candidate to make a trade…and they are one solid hot streak away from getting themselves back into the conversation. The National League is a bit more spread out, with the Rockies, Reds, Marlins, Brewers, and Phillies starting to fall well behind the pace. The Braves and Diamondbacks got off to better than expected starts, so they are still in the race, but they are also candidates to fall off over the next month and become sellers.
Curing the bench problems with the teams mentioned is problematic. The best option is Ben Zobrist, who the Cubs have been linked to and who played under Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay. In fact, the A’s are the ideal trade partner for the Cubs. They have some of everything that the Cubs can use to fill in holes. They have the splashy ace in Sonny Gray, who is not yet arbitration eligible and would certainly fit into the young mold that the front office has constructed over the years. They have the lower cost rental starter in Scott Kazmir; another player with experience under Maddon in Tampa Bay. And they have bullpen options like Tyler Clippard. Of every team who is a realistic seller, the Cubs and A’s are probably the best match. The Cubs have plenty of prospects to help the A’s replenish their system after moving pieces last year, and the A’s have pieces that can help the Cubs now, who shouldn’t cost too much in the way of prospects. They also have Sonny Gray, who if traded, would be the prize of the 2015 deadline because of his age and inexpensive control.
In terms of trade matches, the next best option is in Philadelphia (provided Ruben Amaro, Jr. is back on his meds). They, too, have some players who should be pretty easy to acquire, like Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon shouldn’t take too much in terms of players to add. The Phillies and Brewers were rumored to be close to a deal last winter, with the biggest obstacle reportedly being money. If the Cubs were willing to eat all of the remaining money on his deal, which expires after this year, he could probably be had pretty cheap. Andres Blanco is a utility option who can play all over the field, as well, and while he may not be Ben Zobrist, he could serve as a very poor man’s version. Obviously, the prize from Philly is Cole Hamels, who is available and is likely to be moved this summer. Adding him would take parting with some young impact players. The Phillies could be interested in Arismendy Alcantara, Javy Baez, and others after the players who led them to pennants and a World Series championship have gotten to Social Security eligibility.
There will be much more written about what the Cubs plan to do, are rumored to do, and some idle speculation about what they should do over the next two months. While there is much unsettled, from what the Cubs may seek to do after players return to who will be willing to make the right move for Epstein and Hoyer, it is settled that the Cubs are in a much different position this season. After years of looking at the big league roster and matching players to potential prospects, the opposite is now true. And the Cubs have done a fine job of assembling a system that can accommodate small moves to make 2015 look better. They can also accommodate a move that makes them better for the long run. Because the Cubs are not “all in” on this season, it is not likely they make a huge move. But a series of smaller moves make a lot of sense…if the opportunities present themselves.