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Evaluating The Cubs' 2014 Transactions

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Looking back on what the Cubs did over the past couple of months to provide pieces for the future.

Doug Pensinger

With Javier Baez-mania settling down a bit as we all realize that Javy is here to stay, I think it's useful to take a look back at the moves the Cubs have made thus far this summer. While we all enjoy looking forward and have been well trained to hope for the future, the past offers lots of information. With that said, let's look at the five primary transactional moves made by the Cubs since the beginning of June. I'm not looking at promotions or demotions; I'm looking at transactions that resulted in players being added to or subtracted from the system.

June 3, 2014: Chicago Cubs designate relief pitcher Jose Veras for assignment
This will strike many folks as bizarre, but the Veras DFA just might get my vote for the worst move of the Epstein/Hoyer tenure. Veras was reasonably sought after following a productive 2013, and the Cubs secured his services for $3.85 million in 2014 as well as a $5.5 million 2015 club option with a $150,000 buyout. Veras was absolutely horrific in April: over six appearances, he blew both of his save chances, allowing 10 runs (all earned) over just 5.2 innings by issuing 10 walks and allowing two home runs, good for a 12.84 FIP. Wowzers.

As bad as Veras was in April, he was as good in May. Over six appearances in admittedly low-key situations, Veras threw 7.2 innings, allowing six hits, one walk, and two runs while striking out eight en route to a 1.44 FIP. Then, on June 3rd, the club dropped the hammer, pulling the plug on the failed closer. Since signing with Houston, Veras has made 15 appearances, spanning 13.1 innings with a very Veras-like 3.89 FIP. Walks remain a problem (4.73/9), but both his strikeout rate (8.10 K/9) and home run rate (0.68 HR/9) have returned to normal levels.

Veras wasn't going to bring back a star-level prospect at the deadline. But had he pitched at his post-April level for the Cubs in May, June, and July, the Cubs could have foisted off nearly $1.5 million of his salary on a contender at the very least, likely bringing in a flyer-type prospect in the process. Simply punting on Veras was a bad move from an efficiency standpoint. Perhaps Rick Renteria lost faith in Veras (I think we all did). Perhaps there was a clubhouse issue. Perhaps Justin Grimm, Neil Ramirez, and Hector Rondon crowded Veras out of any useful role. I don't know that kind of information. I do know that swallowing that cash and getting nothing in return is horribly inefficient.

July 5, 2014: Chicago Cubs trade starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland Athletics for shortsop Addison Russell, starting pitcher Dan Straily, and outfielder Billy McKinney
I'm not going to analyze this move in this post, having already done so here. This was a good move at the time, and with Hammel flailing horribly in Oakland, it sure seems like the Cubs flipped the pumpkin at 11:59 p.m. I hope Hammel improves; he seemed like a good dude.

Anyway, Straily has hurled back-to-back dominant outings while McKinney is hitting for great average, drawing tons of walks, limiting strikeouts, and showing decent power.

Still, it's all about Russell. I threw this trade in here to make a shameless plug: if you haven't watched Addison Russell play baseball yet, do it! Buy an MiLB.tv subscription for the rest of the season (you can get MLB.tv Premium for $50 the rest of the way and you can likely tack on MiLB.tv for a few bucks more at this point). Russell's bat speed is ridiculous, but he's also got the discipline of a seriously advanced hitter. His swing plane is so direct that it's difficult to get him truly off-balance for a swing. His range is absurd; he covers the 5.5 hole like Nolan Arenado even though he's coming from the more difficult spot. It's sublime watching Russell in the field as his actions are fluid, his arm is big, and he's a very good athlete. Watch Addison Russell!

July 28, 2014: Chicago Cubs trade second baseman Darwin Barney to Los Angeles Dodgers for a player to be named later (Low-A starting pitcher Jonathan Martinez)
Look, lots of folks love Darwin. I just wasn't in the camp. It's not his fault: he's an ace with the glove. He's just got no stick. I've got a spreadsheet that tracks organizational spending back to 2007 in four categories (40-man roster, draft bonuses, international bonuses/contracts, and dead money) as well as projecting payrolls into the future. I didn't even include Barney on my 2015 list. He figures to cost around $3 million next year, and given the presence of Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, , Starlin Castro, Kris Bryant, Mike Olt, and possibly Luis Valbuena and Addison Russell all occupying infield jobs, the writing was on the wall. Everyone knew this. Everyone, including the Dodgers. Well, the Cubs still unloaded $500,000 of the roughly $800,000 that they still owed Barney and secured a flyer-type pitching prospect for him. Martinez faces very long odds to make the Major Leagues, but we're talking about a legitimate prospect, not some 41st-round pick (woo hoo, Dallas Beeler! I do think Beeler is a real MLB pitcher, by the way). Martinez is the kind of name to file away in the back of your mind so you're not surprised when he's pitching well for Tennessee in 2016. There's nothing terribly sexy about a fastball around 90-91 with some mediocre offspeed stuff, but a 1.54 BB/9 in full-season ball should grab your attention. There's enough here to make you squint enough to see a real arm.

Regardless, Martinez has some value to the Cubs while Barney no longer did. Getting a nickel for free sure beats the heck out of being empty-handed.

July 30, 2014: Boston Red Sox trade starting pitcher Felix Doubront to Chicago Cubs for a player to be named later
I don't like trading away PTBNLs because I prefer certainty and hate debt. Based on the timing of this PTBNL fulfillment, it is likely that Boston will acquire a player that the Cubs leave unprotected in November's Rule 5 draft who goes unselected by another team. Immediately, many of us thought of Daytona double-play combination Marco Hernandez and Gioskar Amaya. Regardless, if the traded player is one that the Cubs don't feel a need to protect in the Rule 5 draft, the price can't be too high.

As for Doubront, well, props to my brother for wondering if we'd target him just a few days before the trade was completed. That's about all I can say. Velocity drop? Check. Clubhouse distraction? Check. Problems with the long ball? Check. Scary high walk rate? Check. Doubront was solid in 2012 and quite good in 2013. I'm just not a believer as the red flags are too scary. He's worth a seven month flyer, but I won't be stunned if he finds himself out of work next March. It's till a good move; Doubront's just not my kind of guy. Hopefully he is Chris Bosio's type.

July 31, 2014: Chicago Cubs trade utility player Emilio Bonifacio and relief pitcher James Russell to Atlanta Braves for catcher Victor Caratini
What can I say? I've had a thing for Caratini for a while now. During July, I thought that the Cubs could send Valbuena to Atlanta in a Caratini deal or even send an outfielder (Justin Ruggiano) and a lefty reliever (Wesley Wright) to the Braves for the switch-hitting catcher. Needless to say, I'm a pretty huge Caratini fan. I think he's got the stick to hit at the highest level and he's got the athleticism to make the catching gig work, even if it takes a few years.

Russell had become largely a no-split reliever with middling results while Bonifacio is an impending free agent who primarily played the positions of the top two youngsters on the big club. Getting a legitimate prospect for those pieces is a really nice haul.

Closing Thoughts
It may have surprised some folks that the Cubs moved Samardzija, Hammel, Barney, Bonifacio, and Russell, yet only netted two pitchers, Straily and Martinez. This is the kind of thing that should have people really excited about the aptitude of the current regime. In my mind, I always go back to the Milton Bradley transaction. Jim Hendry repeatedly stated a desire to "get more left-handed." The goal should never be to acquire more players of a particular handedness, height, complexion, etc. The goal should be to acquire as much talent as possible. Some folks will bring the handedness issue up again this winter, suggesting that the Cubs need to add a left-handed starting pitcher. That's just false. They need to add a big-time starter or two. Contracts aside, would you rather have Jorge de la Rosa, a real lefty, or Max Scherzer? Duh. Take the talent. Talent gets outs, not handedness.

Caratini and Russell both represent the forward-thinking nature of the front office. In the future, the best currency to have will be talent, not a particular type of talent.

That doesn't mean positional considerations evaporate entirely. I'm sure that the Cubs were more interested in finding a catcher with a strong bat than they were in finding another big first baseman. That makes sense. It's really, really hard to find competent catching. That's part of the reason I was so fond of Caratini, and I'm confident it's a big part of the reason that the regime pulled the trigger on the deal for him.

I want to make one final point: the Caratini acquisition injected a much-needed bat into the lower levels of the system. We've heard ad nauseam about the team's need for starting pitching next year. That's true. We've also heard that the Cubs have tons of offensive talent on the way. That's also true.

But in the lower levels, the roles are largely reversed. Among the Kane County and Boise rosters, only Caratini, Jeimer Candelario, Jeffrey Baez, Mark Zagunis, and Mark Malave offer much reasonable projection as position players. But on the mound? Martinez, Paul Blackburn, Jen-Ho Tseng, Duane Underwood, Daury Torrez, Trevor Clifton, Ryan McNeil, Josh Conway, and James Norwood all offer genuine excitement. Daytona exists as something of a middle ground with tons of interesting bats (Kyle Schwarber, McKinney, Jake Hannemann, Dan Vogelbach, Hernandez, and Amaya) complemented by a group of interesting arms (Rob Zastryzny, Tyler Skulina, Juan Paniagua, and possibly even Gerardo Concepcion). And even though the Rookie League club features big-time prospects in Eloy Jimenez and Gleyber Torres, the pitching easily comes across as more interesting with Carson Sands, Jake Stinnett, Justin Steele, and Jeferson Mejia all in the fold.

The point is this: if there's going to be another wave of offensive talent to follow the current wave, the Cubs needed to find another big bat or two. Caratini fits the bill.

With the exception of the bizarre Jose Veras release, Cubs fans should be pleased with the efforts of the front office to add impact talent and strong depth to the franchise. As we begin to reap the rewards of our impactful system, sometimes it's nice to look back at the types of moves that should keeps us among baseball's best once we arrive in the upper echelon.