When making a barter-style trade, regardless of the terms, the goal is always the same: Over-represent something you have, while under-representing something your trade partner has. If you pull it off correctly, you surrender something that isn't that important to you, while adding something to improve your future plight. In the Alfonso Soriano trade, Cubs executives managed to pull this off in a ridiculously good trade, that can only be argued from a Yankees perspective as a non-unanimous hail-mary. This examines at least four ways the Cubs exacted the maximum from this trade's timing.
Before I go any farther, I'm not going to rip on Soriano. He signed a controversial deal, a rather long time ago, under circumstances that still aren't entirely agreed upon. Without Soriano, the Cubs probably don't win their division in 2007, and had his health been better managed by the team (which isn't really his fault) he might have had a better run of success with the club. This isn't to slight what he did as a Cubs player. Most of his teammates seem to have gotten along with him rather well, and it seems like the major criticism for him seems to stem from him trying to play through pain, which sure beats sitting out for no apparent reason.
What I plan to show here is that the Cubs selected a good time to send a slugger to a team that had a need for his services, received an until-then improperly-used player in return, taking advantage of a wrinkle-in-time benefit, trading a player at a relative peak in his trade value.
A few facts first. And, yes, there will be some conjecture a bit later. In 2013, Soriano split his season between the Cubs (93 games/ 0.8 WAR) and Yankees (58 games/1.6 WAR). Early in the season, as late as May 25, his OPS was under .700. It had been .601 on April 28. On July 5, it was .705 after a game against the Pirates. Over the next two-and-change weeks, Soriano started one of his legendary hot-streaks, clubbing seven homers. His season OPS peaked in mid-August, inching a bit over .800 for a few days during a series against Boston.
The Yankees have not tended to be a particularly patient team when behind in the standings. When the trade was consummated July 26, the Yankees were in fourth place, seven games out of first. They needed help to get into the playoffs by any means, and Soriano made sense, especially on a bit of a surge. With the aid of Soriano's offense, the Yankees manage to regain and (largely) hold third place. However, expecting Soriano to get them into the post-season was a bit of a failed longshot. The Yankees were better with Soriano, but not good enough to pass the better teams in the league.
The Cubs had found a team that wanted Soriano's services enough to make a trade for him, when few others would have.
A fourth-round selection from Faulkner University (Alabama) in 2012, Corey Black was eased into pro ball that year, peaking at Charleston in the Low-A South Atlantic League. He sported a WHIP under one over five starts for the RiverDogs. His 2013 campaign started in Tampa with the High-A Florida State League Yankees. His results were, shall I say... mixed. He had an ERA of 4.25 in 19 starts. In a pitcher's league. While he struck out over a batter an inning, he walked 45 in 82⅔ innings. While he obviously had talent, he didn't look like anything all that special, just looking at his statistics.
Upon getting to Daytona (in the same league), his ERA dropped to 2.88 over the five starts he made for the D-Cubs. His first wasn't even all that good. He dropped his WHIP from 1.5 to under 1.3, and seemed to find a pitching coach he could perform well for in Storm Davis. As I remember, in a post-game interview he noted that Davis preferred to limit the mental functions of pitching on game day, doing most of the mental improvements during side sessions. The oddest things work for some players, but it didn't seem the tutelage in the Yankees system was benefiting Black.
In Black, the Cubs had acquired a commodity who was easily upgraded with a slight tweak. Black, after the season, had much more value to the 30 teams in the league than he had had in mid-July, apparently. There are whispers that one or more of the Yankee execs did not want to make the trade if it included Black. The Cubs had dealt a player on a streak for a player that, with a rather easily applied upgrade, could be made a much more valued option.
Remember when the Yankees were threatening austerity? Around the time of the Soriano trade, the Yankees thought they might be able to get out from underneath the luxury tax penalty in 2014. All they would have to do is (insert a string of unlikelihoods) and they would be able to reduce the amount of surcharges they would have to pay for their next over-spending binge. Which, of course they would do. They would have to. They had ignored developing for too long that they were reliant on free agents in far too many positions. But, if they could hit the sweet spot, they could be over that.
Part of their magic formula involved having the Cubs pay for all of Soriano's cost in 2014.
Eighteen million for one season on a left fielder wasn't Theo Epstein's main concern. Adding talent, especially pitching talent, to the pipeline, was. If Epstein could add Black by paying the freight on all of Soriano's 2014 salary (which he was going to have to do anyway if no trade was made), then so be it.
For the one time in recorded history, the Yankees wanted to save some money. Epstein's Cubs were more than willing to accept the spoils. The trade had sent a veteran player to a rather desperate team (in a once-in-a-lifetime salary-scrimping fest) who was giving up a misused talent in the process.
If only any more things could go right on the trade for the Cubs.
Had the Cubs not dealt Soriano for Black then and there, it's likely Soriano would still be with the Cubs. He had a no-trade clause, liked Chicago, and it pretty much required a trip back to the Bronx for him to be willing to leave. Soriano had a solid campaign in 2013, and the Cubs might well have been a better team in 2013 had the trade not happened.
Had it not happened, Junior Lake would have probably had fewer at-bats after his July call-up (which pre-dated the Soriano trade, but likely not the serious discussions). Lake getting an honest trial was one of the better things about the 2013 season. Having Soriano and Lake in the lineup might well have made September less miserable. For people who are all about approaching every game with the sanctity of a religious rite, then trading Soriano, Garza, and others was wrong.
That view is becoming less prevalent in major-league ball now, for better and worse. The Commissioner's office seems to care far less about that than the ticket-avoiding public does.
Having Soriano around in 2014 would make the team look far more like a high-70s victory club than the current roster does. Again, the "sanctity of winning" fans will probably never like this trade. Probably ever.
Late in the week, Soriano noted that 2014 could be his last season. While I have no doubt that Soriano will give it his all this season, whether he returns in 2015, even floating the retirement idea entirely would have cratered his trade value. Imagine that Soriano was still a Cub in 2014, and was OPSing .850. Baltimore was in the race, and wanted Soriano. However, they knew it was a pure rental in all likelihood, what sort of value could be extracted for a guy the opponent already knows is contemplating retirement?
You might not be a fan of Corey Black, Black as a starter, or even the rebuild in general. Any of those positions is perfectly fine. To gamble on Black having even a 5 WAR career would bring you nice odds. However, the front office has decided that acquiring a solid pitching staff, whether by trade or the draft, is about numbers. Numbers on the radar gun, number of above-average offerings per arm, and about numbers of pitchers available with those above average arms.
Put in a different way, if you would decide to trade Black, Dan Vogelbach, and Arismendy Alcantara for a cost-controlled pitcher on this Tuesday, do you think you would get a better major league starting pitcher than you would get on the same day for Vogelbach, Alcantara and Soriano? Soriano has announced he might retire before Christmas.
In effect, it was keep Soriano until the end of 2014, and get nothing for him, or take Black, and hope a guy with a high-90s fastball that gets most of his strikeouts on his curve is a better option in 2015 and beyond than a guy who could well retire after 2014. I like our chances with Black, regardless if he starts a game in the majors, becomes a high leverage reliever, or not.
Black screams, in the day of cost-controlled talent, a talent most GMs would love to have total team control over for up to the next eight years. Soriano might not be an active player in eight months.