Please read the first two words of the title again: this is a thought experiment. I am not proposing or advocating the trade of a member of the Cubs' three-headed shortstop monster. I do advocate such a trade from time to time, but that's not what is happening here. Take a deep breath or two before we embark on this experience together.
Ok. Good. Here we go...
Imagine that, for whatever reason, the Cubs front office decides that one of Starlin Castro, Javier Baez, or Addison Russell must be traded immediately. You get to imagine your own circumstances: perhaps there's a top-flight starting pitcher to be nabbed, maybe the Twins have tired of waiting for Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano to arrive, or possibly the Pirates and Angels have decided to have a contest to see which star centerfielder garners a larger trade return, Andrew McCutchen or Mike Trout. The particular scenario doesn't matter. It's all a setup to answer this question:
Between Castro, Baez, and Russell, which Cubs shortstop would you part with most easily?
As a means of helping you to answer the question for yourself, I'm going to weigh the positives and negatives of each player and their respective approximate trade value. A poll will follow at the bottom of the page, then please feel free to describe your thought process in the comments. The offseason is long; it's okay to indulge in something like this. I'll follow up in a day or so with my own thought process and decision.
So, without further adieu, let's analyze the candidates before opening up the floor.
Specs: 6-0, 190 pounds. R/R. Age 25 (DOB: 3/24/1990)
Acquisition: Signed by the Chicago Cubs as an amateur free agent from the Dominican Republic in 2006
Contract: 2015: $6 million. 2016: $7 million. 2017: $9 million. 2018: $10 million. 2019: $11 million. 2020: $16 million club option ($1 million buyout). 2021: Free Agent
Stats: 2014: .292/.339/.438, 14 HR, 4 SB, 6.2% BB%, 17.6% K% in 569 PA (MLB)
2013: .245/.284/.347, 10 HR, 9 SB, 4.3% BB%, 18.3% K% in 705 PA (MLB)
Overview: Castro has an awful lot going for him. His 2013 collapse was well documented, but Castro responded with the best offensive season of his career in 2014. He has proved extremely durable during his career with only a fluke ankle injury this September holding him out for more than a game here or there over his nearly five years at the MLB level.
For years, the book on Castro's defense has been that he should be able to stick at shortstop without being a plus defender, and the advanced metrics have largely agreed thus far in his career with Castro grading out as an almost perfectly average major-league shortstop with the glove in his career.
His baserunning has worsened year by year in Chicago to the point that the plus baserunner who tallied 47 steals before 2011 and 2012 has grabbed just 13 over the past two years.
But with Castro, it's all about the offense. His on-base ability appears to have settled in the .340 range with very strong batting averages. His on-base skills at shortstop are plenty useful. And the power appears to be emerging with the possibility for some 20 homer seasons in his near future. There's a lot to like about Castro. At his peak, he could put up a few .300/.350/.475 batting lines with solid shortstop defense. That's massive.
Specs: 6-0, 190 pounds. R/R. Age 22 (DOB: 12/1/1992)
Acquisition: Drafted ninth overall by the Chicago Cubs in 2011 Rule 4 Draft
Contract: 2015-2017: Pre-arbitration. 2018-2020: Arbitration 1-3. 2021: Free Agent
Stats: 2014: .169/.227/.324, 9 HR, 5 SB, 6.6% BB%, 41.5% K% in 229 PA (MLB);
.260/.323/.510, 23 HR, 16 SB, 7.8% BB%, 30.0% K% in 434 PA (Triple-A)
2013: .282/.341/.578, 37 HR, 20 SB, 6.9% BB%, 25.5% K% in 577 PA (Double-A and High-A)
Overview: Baez is also a shortstop for the Chicago Cubs. That's about where the similarities end with Castro.
Baez has a strikeout-heavy power game, one that often results in a string of ugly plate appearances followed by majestic, soaring home runs.
It's no secret that Baez is much more volatile than most premier prospects, nor is it a secret that he often requires an adjustment phase upon reaching a new level. For example, in 2014, Baez's first 29 games at Iowa were horrifying. In 122 plate appearances, he managed a line of just .145/.230/.255 with a 36.9% K%. However, as so often happens with the high-energy infielder, he flipped a switch: over his last 75 games at Iowa, Baez hit .306/.359/.612 in 312 plate appearances, dropping his strikeout rate to 27.2%. His last 20 games at Triple-A featured one of his patented tears: over 86 PAs, Baez posted a ludicrous .342/.395/.763 batting line with nine home runs and a K% of just 23.3%.
It's clear that major-league pitching presented Baez with a challenge the likes of which he has never seen before. It's also clear that Baez has struggled in the past and adjusted to pulverize opposing pitchers.
His shortstop defense has improved markedly over the years. He has always had the arm for the position, but his ability to make routine plays -- formerly lacking -- is no longer as much of an issue. I do have some concerns about his range given a rather thick physique, but the tools are certainly there for Baez to play an average shortstop at the top level for the rest of the decade.
It's difficult (and probably worthless) trying to project Baez's peak lines: he has extreme power and extreme contact issues. If he completely fixes the latter, he'll be among the best players in baseball, but the latter issue could also completely sabotage his career early on. Despite having debuted at the MLB level at age 21, Baez remains a massive risk with the ceiling of a top-five talent in baseball and the floor of a career minor leaguer.
Specs: 6-0, 195 pounds. R/R. Age 21 (DOB: 1/23/1994)
Acquisition: Drafted 11th overall by the Oakland A's in 2012 Rule 4 Draft; Traded with OF Billy McKinney, SP Dan Straily, and a PTBNL to the Chicago Cubs for SP Jeff Samardzija and SP Jason Hammel in July 2014
Contract: Assuming a mid-to-late-2015 arrival: 2016-2018: Pre-arbitration. 2019-2021: Arbitration. 2022: Free Agent
Stats: 2014: .295/.350/.508, 13 HR, 6 SB, 6.8% BB%, 17.5% K% in 280 PA (all but 18 PA at Double-A)
2013: .269/.369/.495, 17 HR, 21 SB, 13.8% BB%, 28.3% K% in 442 PA (all but 13 PA at High-A)
Overview: Russell occupies the chasm separating Castro and Baez. He has very strong contact skills, although not to Castro's level. Simultaneously, he has very good power, but not the type of light-tower power that Baez possesses.
One thing that should help elevate Russell as he advances is his very smooth defensive game. Russell doesn't have Baez's arm, but he has the best range of the trio with plenty of arm and the smoothest actions in the field.
Russell's 2014 was actually a bit of a disappointment compared to his breakout 2013 campaign, a statement that sounds absurd for a 20-year-old shortstop who posted a .858 OPS at Double-A despite missing most of the first two months of the season with a hamstring injury. It remains to be seen exactly who Russell will become offensively as his batting average, walk rate, strikeout rate, and isolated power have all shifted during his professional run thus far.
Comparing the Three
Castro is, obviously, the most established of the three Cubs shortstops, a factor that makes him more difficult to part with while presumably helping to drive up his trade value. He is also signed to a team-friendly contract that offers control through 2020. Castro's nightmarish 2013 remains in the not-too-distant past although the rest of his career paints a very different picture. Importantly, Castro is ready immediately to be a key part of a contending team in 2015 whereas Baez and Russell still have growing to do.
Baez most certainly has the highest ceiling among the trio but he also undeniably has the lowest floor. He's likely going to hit or miss in a big way. Thus, he is far riskier than Castro and Russell.
Russell has the most significant injury on his resume of this trio, and he also lacks the explosive tools of Baez and the established record of Castro. However, his combination of skills in one package may very well be the best of the three shortstops with his defense likely to play well at shortstop and his offensive game geared for a key spot in a championship lineup.
Make a Choice
You know the players. So now it's time to make a choice. One of them has to go, and you know we're getting a pretty package in return based on the value of the asset being dealt. Who would you most willingly send packing?