On New Year's Eve, December 31, 2008, the Cubs and Indians made a trade that still makes many a Cubs fan cry. Signed in November 2006 as a free agent, Mark DeRosa spent two very serviceable years with the Cubs. His WAR for the two years combined was 4.0. His OPS in 2007 was .792, and in 2008, it was .857. The Cubs made the post-season both years. Both were very good seasons, but his defensive metrics tumbled below zero the latter season. In the end, the Cubs dealt DeRosa at a high point, as he slumped badly the next season, his last as an arguable regular. In exchange, the team netted two interesting-looking pitchers. Why, then, is the trade looked at so badly?
On the Cubs' part, three valid arguments could be made for the trade. The team was in full-out covet mode on Jake Peavy. One or more of the acquired principals could have been to help acquire the right-handed hurler, but the Peavy trade never happened. The team had reached near the maximum on payroll. Since not many pieces remained in the system, parting with DeRosa would help re-coup some cash for the budget. Also, the three arms could help in re-stocking the system.
This trade also offers a glimpse into the counter-intuitive nature of trades. The least likely to be a key cog to the Cubs was the nearest to the majors. Jeff Stevens was almost exclusively a minor league reliever. His last season with a start was 2006, and he had 10 career minor-league saves at the time of the trade. While the Cubs used him in a closer role at Iowa, part of that was due to a lack of other options. He had three forgettable campaigns with the Cubs, and never pitched for another major league team. When you trade for a Triple-A pitcher, what you often get is Jeff Stevens. Low ceiling, and very low floor.
The players of interest in the trade had pitched most recently in the Low-A South-Atlantic (SALLY) League. John Gaub was a hard-throwing lefty reliever. In Low-A (akin to Kane County), Gaub had fanned 100 in just 64 innings. He also walked 32. Therein was Gaub, hard to hit, but easy to coax a walk from. If he could develop some command, he could become a solid leverage lefty reliever. After skipping High-A (interesting), his 2009 season was very similar to his 2008, only less spectacular, facing better hitters at a higher level. In the end, the wildness won out, and his only time in the majors was eight outs (with two walks) over four appearances in 2011 for the Cubs. He fanned three hitters.
The plum of the trade was also the farthest away. A teammate of Gaub's in 2008 in Low-A, Chris Archer fanned 106 in 115 innings for Lake County. He also walked 84. Transferring to the Cubs system, he 'repeated' in Peoria (back when the Chiefs were in the Cubs system). Walks would remain a problem for Archer, but he began the steady climb through the system. Teams are more willing to trade a player distant from MLB, as there are more opportunities for, well, bad things to happen.
What were the Indians thinking? In 2008, the Indians were a .500 team. Apparently, they thought adding DeRosa and Kerry Wood would put them in serious post-season contention. This is a great philosophy, if accurate. When a front office mis-calculates how good they will be, they chase up an invisible tree at a sometimes high cost. Season-ticket sales or not, that team would have been better to retrench for another season, improve what they could, and let Gaub and Archer blossom for another year.
DeRosa played in only 71 games for a team that had just one pitcher logging over 130 innings in a 97-loss season. Saying they 'gave it one more shot' sounds really nice, but for the 1.3 WAR DeRosa provided, they surrendered two intriguing arms. Fortunately for Cleveland, they added Chris Perez in dispatching DeRosa to St. Louis.
Determining where your team is likely to finish next season is an inglorious/unpopular role in a front office. However, if you guess wrong, you pay for the decision for years to come. As of Saturday morning, the Indians sit 1½ games behind in the tight race for the second American League wild card. Chris Archer has been worth 2.1 WAR this year. Butterfly effect and all, do the math. These are the transactions that prospecty-fans fear when short-term deals are made. John Adams, the drum-banger in Cleveland, would probably prefer Chris Archer now to an additional win in a 95-plus loss season.
The argument could be made this trade hurt both teams. It didn't. DeRosa was dealt at a high-water mark for a very substantial return. That Jim Hendry misspent the largesse on Aaron Miles and Milton Bradley is a topic for another article, and a large part of why his firing was entirely justified. The Cubs netted value in the trade. The Indians took a last stab at a playoff run with Cliff Lee, but fell flat, surrendering too much to get too little. The Cubs won this trade, pure and simple. DeRosa's flagging defense in 2008 was reason enough, though I doubt the Cubs brass valued the metric.
Just two years over the DeRosa trade (January 8, 2011), Jim Hendry found himself in a similar plight as Cleveland's situation above. He made a similar misstep. Buoyed by a late-season 2010 run with interim manager Mike Quade at the helm, Jim Hendry bought the hype. Hendry needed wins to draw fans, and he needed to draw fans to keep his job. Trading for pitching, which he still didn't have ready yet, was about the only option. Matt Garza was available, had eclipsed 200 innings in the two preceding years, and was available. (Yes, I repeated myself, on purpose.)
As to whether a better deal could have been cut, we'll likely never know. For Hendry, he was surrendering a few bit pieces, and two prospects he would never see in Wrigley were the trade not made. Hendry had to make the trade. Likely, Rays GM Andrew Friedman knew this. And waited. And waited. When the right package was offered, he struck.
For the Rays, it was a plum of a deal. Garza had pitched himself out of their price range. With WHIPs over the three previous seasons in the tough AL East of 1.24, 1.26, and 1.25, he was looking like a solid starter. Believe it or not, he had only committed four errors in the previous three years. Friedman could wait quite a while to deal Garza. And he did.
The trade was a rather large one. Sam Fuld, Robinson Chirinos, and Brandon Guyer each had their days in the sun for the Rays, but the keys to the trade were the kids. Chris Archer had been a Top-100 prospect after each of his three seasons with the Cubs, and Hak-Ju Lee had become a Top-100 option as well. Lee was injured most of 2013, reminding us of the benefit of trading prospects 'not yet ready' for MLB.
A small market team had dealt a guy they could no longer afford for five pieces they would be able to maneuver around for years to come. These are the kinds of trades that make being Tampa in MLB possible. In getting top dollar in trade for Matt Garza, they had pieces to help in the impending play-off runs, as well as options for the future.
When Garza reached Wrigley, he was a just-over middle-of-the-rotation starter. He started to miss time due to injury. His defense went comically south. And, the Cubs were a horrible team, despite Jim Hendry's salvage effort. This time, though, with far fewer pieces to aid in a re-build. Hendry, by clinging to the hope that his team was going to be better than it was, surrendered Chris Archer on the same wishful thinking that brought him to Chicago.
Tampa wins the deal, Hendry loses his job, and the Cubs hire Theo Epstein.
I would be remissed if I didn't note, in the same fashion, the recently completed trade involving Matt Garza. I think, in this trade, both teams got it right. Twice, in fact.
Texas' Jon Daniels, probably the general manager of the best team to not win a World Series over the last three seasons, wanted to avoid the same slow fade that haunted the team in 2012, when they lost a late division lead and then the play-in game. Matt Garza was the best available starting pitcher at the deadline. This wasn't disputed. An injury to Garza kept him from being added the previous July. Instead, Daniels added Ryan Dempster in 2012, and it didn't work out well.
The overtures began, and Garza won his last five starts for a bottom-feeding Cubs team, going no less than 6⅔ innings in any of the starts. In about three of them, it was assumed he wouldn't be back. Epstein kept trotting Garza out, and he kept winning.
The trade was tentatively announced, then shot down on health concerns over Neil Ramirez. Eventually, the trade ended up being Garza to Texas for Mike Olt, C.J. Edwards, Justin Grimm, and Ramirez, though the Cubs could have opted for two of a specified few prospects over Ramirez.
Using my prior analysis methods, the Cubs realized they were in a rebuild. In a rebuild, you want to add talent of any sort or fashion. It's difficult to imagine a bigger return was being offered, or would be. Epstein waited, like Friedman, until the offer was right. Then, he had to re-configure it over an injury concern. Either way, from the Cubs perspective, this was a tremendous looking deal, that looked better as Edwards dominated High-A in his first full season out of high school. Olt is a wild card, and the other two arms cleared 40-man roster space for Texas.
For Daniels, this was about winning a pennant. It might. It might not. He gave up quite a bit to add Garza. He wasn't getting a better pitcher, or getting Garza for less. In the future, Daniels may get ridiculed for this deal. However, doing what you have to do to compete in a pennant hunt is sometimes costly. Both GMs did their job here. I'm stunned Epstein stuck to his plan, trotting out Garza, realizing one trip from the trainer blows up the entire trade. Again.
It took three times, but in the third 'Chris Archer trade', both GMs were in the right. They knew their situation, their team's future, and did what they had to do.