Obviously Friday's blockbuster deal brought an abrupt, early-July end to our "Let's Make a Deal" series. In the coming weeks, I'll take a look at some of the Cubs' other tradeable commodities. That series will likely focus particularly on infielder Luis Valbuena -- whose possible longer-term job just went up in smoke -- lefty relievers James Russell and Wesley Wright, outfielder Justin Ruggiano, starters Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson, and even three-time All-Star 24-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro.
But that's for the future. The now requires a different topic. We've all gotten to catch our breath and calm down in the aftermath of what may be 2014's biggest trade. With our feet back underneath us, let's take a look at the deal in the spirit of the "Let's Make a Deal" series. I have four major takeaways from the deal:
1. Both the Outgoing and the Incoming Packages Were Not What I Expected
I was fully prepared for separate Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel deals. I expected Samardzija to bring back three or four players and Hammel to bring back two or possibly three. That left me thinking that the Cubs would add somewhere from five to seven new players to the system. I also expected the Cubs to receive some solid prospects in the deals with a true non-elite headliner for Samardzija and at least two high-upside lower-level guys among the two deals.
Instead, we got a two-for-four swap, although the uncertainty of the player to be named later ("PTBNL") makes it a bit more unsettling to evaluate. When I first saw the names involved in the trade, I couldn't believe that the Cubs front office received so few bodies in return. Obviously this has nothing to do with talent: we'd all take one Kris Bryant over 100 John Bakers. Still, the numerical makeup of the deal was jarring.
2. In My Mind, This Was Really Two Separate Trades Combined Into One Deal
Al and I conversed a bit about this on Friday night. After the initial shock wore off, I tried to separate the packages into more easily identifiable returns because I'm a human and I need to organize things in my mind. As such, I came up with:
Trade #1: Chicago Cubs trade starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija to Oakland Athletics for shortstop Addison Russell
Trade #2: Chicago Cubs trade starting pitcher Jason Hammel to Oakland Athletics for outfielder Billy McKinney, starting pitcher Dan Straily, and a PTBNL
The one-for-one headliner-for-headliner deal is exceptionally rare, although Carlos Beltran-for-Zack Wheeler immediately came to mind. I think that even Brian Sabean would prefer to be the Mets in that deal. Obviously Samardzija for 1.5 years is more valuable than Beltran was for three months, but Russell is eminently more valuable than Wheeler, a really good arm in his own right. So, Samardzija-for-Russell? Yeah, I'll take that. It's risky as there is no hedge in it for the Cubs if something happens to Russell, but the ceiling is worth it. I'd trade Samardzija straight-up for Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Lucas Giolito, Jon Gray, or Noah Syndergaard, to name a few. As the good folks at Baseball Prospectus confirmed, that's Russell's company on prospect lists.
The Hammel package looks almost perfectly like what I expected us to get for Hammel: an MLB-caliber starter who won't pitch at the top of the rotation and a former top pick with projectable skills who needs time to work on them. I'm not sure who headlines that portion of the deal, but it also doesn't matter. The PTBNL makes this a good deal for the Cubs basically regardless of who it is. If it's a projectable, low-level arm, that's fine. If it's an injured guy higher up in the Oakland system, that absolutely works too. If it's the huge arm some of us hoped for -- Raul Alcantara -- it's a massive get for the Cubs. Most analysts have thrown cold water on the PTBNL speculation. That's fine. The Cubs don't need a big name to make this is a solid return for Hammel.
3. Russell Is a Far Better Headliner Than I Even Hoped For
I referenced this above but it bears repeating and emphasizing: Addison Russell is a massive prospect. Russell is right there with the top prospects in the Cubs system and that's saying something. Within the last few weeks, I felt good about Samardzija deals headlined by the likes of Stephen Piscotty or Alex Meyer, good players but guys who required lots of squinting to see them as possible stars. I never dreamed as big as Russell. I must have repeated that 100 times this weekend.
4. The Long-Term Implications for the Cubs Are Immense
Prior to the Russell acquisition and especially before the season, projecting Cubs lineups wasn't terribly difficult. Sure, there was something of an infield logjam with Starlin Castro, Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, and Kris Bryant fighting for three spots, but Alcantara has the skill set to play a strong center field and Bryant has been rumored to be off to the outfield since draft day. Besides, four prospects rarely work out at the same time.
Well, that quartet is comprised of a three-time MLB All-Star (Castro), arguably the fastest rising prospect in baseball (Alcantara), baseball's best offensive prospect (Bryant), and the best power-hitting caterpillar that went into his cocoon, and came out a beautiful butterfly with all of his power and the ability to draw walks (Baez - was that too flowery?). They're all at Triple-A or higher. These four have evolved together.
Adding Russell? Adding Russell immediately sent off trade alarm bells in my mind. We all "know" that the Cubs need pitching, and this shortstop surplus could certainly be used to fulfill that need.
("Know" is in quotes above because signing Jon Lester or Max Scherzer, even at $25 million per year, would give the 2015 Cubs a rotation of Lester-Arrieta-Wood-Jackson-Hendricks with a gaggle of prospects on their heels - would that be so bad?)
I won't pretend that a Castro-for-Syndergaard trade didn't immediately pop into my mind. Starlin has reestablished himself as a premier talent. Thing is, he's still not "their guy" when it comes to the Cubs front office, and many teams around the league are desperate for a shortstop of Castro's caliber. On Friday night, I wrote that the Rays, Marlins, Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, and Mets could all make tons of sense at various points in the next six months. Castro could be used as a centerpiece in a David Price trade this winter in the unlikely event that Tampa Bay holds onto their ace. Castro could fill the massive void left by Jose Reyes with the Mets. He could be the Yankees' marquee addition at the deadline this year, a star to ease the transition out of the Derek Jeter era although it is tough to see the Yankees as a good match for the Cubs given the Cubs timeline and the Yankees system. Still, these are some of the possibilities that make sense given the complexion of the Cubs system. Furthermore, dealing Castro now would probably cost the Cubs a couple of games in their quest for the top pick in next June's draft.
Assuming no transactions between now and next July, I think we could see the following lineup at Wrigley this time next year:
CF Arismendy Alcantara
2B Addison Russell
1B Anthony Rizzo
LF Kris Bryant
3B Javier Baez
RF Jorge Soler
SS Starlin Castro
C Welington Castillo
Wow. Just wow.
Soler might be a bit surprising in there, but I think that the Cubs will give him a shot in the major leagues next year given that 2015 will be his last option season. If he scuffles, they'll want the time to send him back to the minors. Just my two cents.
The lineup above is dynamic with average-or-better defense at every spot, particularly in the infield with three MLB-caliber shortstops spread across three positions. Obviously this lineup doesn't account for recent top pick Kyle Schwarber.
Further trades are likely this month as the Cubs execute a final gutting of their system before the franchise saviors arrive. The Cubs might wheel and deal freely this winter or they might hold on to their exceptional collection of positional talent.
It doesn't really matter which path they choose. What does matter: the rebuild has been targeting a 2015 arrival date for years. Friday's trade was the exclamation point on a five-year plan that firmly places the Cubs among the most prospect-rich franchises ever. It hasn't been pleasant the whole time, but it's hard not to be excited about the future, even if it might include more significant changes.