Following the Cubs’ sweep of the Red Sox last week, I planned on writing about how the Cubs could be legitimate competitors in 2015 without blowing up the farm system or spending insane amounts of money. So late on the Fourth of July, I hopped on MLB Trade Rumors on my phone, intending to check which catchers are scheduled to hit free agency after this season. There, right on the top of screen, I saw that the Cubs traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland A’s for a package headlined by shortstop and top ten prospect in baseball Addison Russell. The Cubs also received the A’s second best prospect, outfielder Billy McKinney, and Dan Straily, a fairly successful starting pitcher with the A’s last season before struggling this year. The big prize, however, was undoubtedly Russell. Suddenly, I knew the post on the Cubs competing in 2015 would be delayed.
I know a fair number of Cubs’ fans were hoping, expecting, whatever verb is appropriate, to get high ceiling, near MLB ready pitching for Samardzija at the least. The rub, however, is that teams generally don’t trade high ceiling, close to the Majors pitching prospects mid-season for established MLB pitchers, even for very good pitchers like Samardzija. Instead, they promote those prospects to the Majors mid-season, if they’re contending.
Beyond that, even if they Cubs had been able to pick up two Aaraon Sanchez types (top 30 prospects in baseball), that’s not as good of a return as one top ten prospect like Addison Russell. Also, the abundance of fantastic Cubs’ hitting prospects, which includes three top ten prospects (Russell, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant), along with four other position player prospects who would fall into many top fifty lists (Arismendy Alcantara, Albert Almora, Kyle Schwarber, and Jorge Soler), gives the Cubs a host of options to complete the rebuild, and in relatively short order.
Trade Prospects for Elite Starting Pitching
Joe hit on this one in his write up of the trade on July 5. The Cubs could put a package of position player prospects together better than what any other team could offer on any starting pitcher who might become available via trade, including David Price.
Yet I don’t think the Cubs are going this route. There are too many pitchers like Price, top of the rotation arms right around age 30, hitting free agency for the Cubs to send a load of prospects for one of them. If someone like Chris Sale, who is signed long term to a fairly team friendly deal, became available, that would change my opinion. However, the odds of someone like Sale becoming available anytime soon are somewhere between the odds of me winning the lottery and my son becoming the King of England.
Keeping All The Prospects
Yes, this is a legitimate possibility, particularly if the Cubs think Kris Bryant is a better long term fit in an outfield corner than the hot corner. If this route was taken, there’s a high likelihood that the line up in mid-2015, and by early 2016 at the latest, would include some combination of Starlin Castro, Russell, and Baez at shortstop, second base, and third base, Anthony Rizzo at first base, Arismendy Alcantara in center field, and Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant in the outfield corners. That is a lineup with a ton of potential that would cost a grand total of approximately $17 million for seven starting position players, and allows Albert Almora and Kyle Schwarber to continue progressing in the minors.
With that much cost savings on position players, including top prospect insurance in the minor leagues, the Cubs could open the flood gates on pitching spending without mortgaging their ability to compete. They could easily sign a Max Scherzer or Jon Lester while having plenty of money available to pick up a second tier starter like Justin Masterson or Ervin Santana.
Trading for Giancarlo Stanton
The Cubs have been very clear about the type of veterans they will target as they become competitive: in prime (e.g., still in their 20s, preferably as far away from 30 as possible) star caliber players. Unfortunately, these types of players rarely make it to free agency, and get $200 million-plus contracts when they do. This off season, though, the Miami Marlins are fairly likely to shop Giancarlo Stanton, one of the best hitters, and arguably the best pure power hitter, in baseball. Stanton does not turn 25 until November.
If the Marlins shop Stanton, the Cubs would be in a great position to make a deal for the power hitting outfielder. While the Marlins have a lot of young, elite pitching talent in their system, much of which is already in the Majors, their offensive prospects are more solid starter types or role players than potential stars. The Cubs could offer Javier Baez, who has a big boom or bust potential, Albert Almora, a Christian Villanueva or Dan Vogelbach type, and a Pierce Johnson type of pitching prospect while still maintaining a very solid farm system.
This move makes sense for the Cubs if they think that Bryant can handle third base long term. Looking at the same late 2015/early 2016 lineup time frame, the Cubs would have Rizzo at first base, Russell and Castro in the middle infield, Bryant at 3B, Stanton and Soler in the outfield corners, and Alcantara in center field.
Stanton could particularly appeal to the Cubs because his offensive performance is already the best case scenario for any of the Cubs’ top prospects. Stanton is hitting .308/.406/.566 with 21 home runs through Sunday, July , which are MVP contender numbers.
A couple of concerns would accompany any deal for Stanton. Stanton has dealt with knee issues in the past, but they’ve been more of the nagging variety than skill eroding injuries. An injury history like Stanton’s is a risk a team just has to take to sometimes to obtain a player like Stanton, and a discount shouldn’t be expected because of it if he remains healthy through the last half of 2014. The Cubs could also shift Stanton to left field, which is a bit less demanding than right field.
Also, Stanton will enter his second of three years of arbitration in 2015. The Cubs would likely require an agreement on an extension with Stanton prior to any trade becoming official, and even with a pre-free agency extension discount any free agent eligible years covered by the extension would likely, and should, cost the Cubs at least $20 million per season, and probably $25 million or above. Would that be worth it for a middle of the order containing Stanton, Anthony Rizzo, and Kris Bryant? Only time would tell, but I think that would be one fun middle of the order to watch.
Odds are we won’t know what the Cubs plan to do with their brigade of position player prospects until the offseason. Whichever route the Cubs take, though, the Cubs are on the cusp of building what very well could be the best Cubs offense of my nearly 33 year lifetime without signing a single free agent starting position player.