This May has a similar feeling to last May. The Cubs have a lot of talent, but it just doesn’t seem to be clicking consistently and so, once again, they find themselves at the center of trade discussions. If your Twitter feed looks anything like mine, you’re seeing a pretty constant stream of rumors about Manny Machado.
Manny Machado is an exceptionally talented shortstop/third baseman for the Orioles who will be a free agent next season. By all accounts he wants to hit the free agent market. In other words, this trade would look a lot more like the Aroldis Chapman deal than the Jose Quintana deal. The Cubs would be sending some incredible talent to the Orioles for half a season of a top tier talent. I spent some time looking at the data from various perspectives and found three pretty compelling reasons that the Cubs should not trade for Manny Machado.
Let me get this out of the way right now, Machado is a talented player. For 2018 he’s the second best shortstop by fWAR behind Francisco Lindor. He’s bounced back and forth between third base and shortstop during his career, but if he had spent his entire career at short the 26.4 total fWAR he’s accumulated during that time would top the Fangraphs leader board at short for qualified players (the next highest is Andrelton Simmons at 20.3). Oh, and Machado appears to be having a career year at the moment as you can see from the below table:
Machado Career Stats
I can understand why people start drooling when they look at Machado’s .328/.405/.635 slash line and then imagine him hitting between Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras. Honestly, I look at those numbers and they give me pause. Improvement is one thing, kicking it into another stratosphere is something else. I took a deeper dive into some of these stats and looked at Machado’s career trends, I think there are a lot of reasons to believe he has a regression to his career average in his future. In case you’re a visual person I took two of those stats, weighted on base average (wOBA) and weighted runs created plus (wRC+), and created a few charts to illustrate this point.
A quick note about wOBA and wRC+ in case you aren’t familiar with them. wOBA starts from the premise that getting on base is important but not all ways of getting on base are created equally. It then weights the different ways a player can reach base assigning more value to a double than a walk, for example. Think of it as a more precise way of looking at player contributions than OPS. wRC+ is based on wOBA but is focused on runs created by a player and adjusted for park effects. The league average is set at 100 and every point above 100 is the percentage difference between a player and the league average hitter.
First, let’s look at the sheer size of the jump Machado has experienced in these stats in 2018:
Those look like spikes during a productive 45-game stretch to me, and do not look particularly sustainable. You can see how these types of spikes have played out over the course of Machado’s career looking at the 15-game rolling averages for each below:
This streak basically matches the most productive streak in his career to date and is already returning to his career average. When evaluating this trade it would be unwise to assume that the Cubs are trading for the career-high numbers Machado started out with in 2018. In all likelihood the Cubs would be trading for Machado’s regression to the mean.
It is worth noting that career average Machado is still excellent. His average bat is certainly an improvement over almost every bat in the Cubs lineup. The question then is, what is four months of regressing/average Machado worth?
2018 Cubs Salary and Contract Information
|Jason Heyward||$28,166,667||2023||Opt-out after 2018|
|Jon Lester||$27,500,000||2020||Team option 2021|
|Yu Darvish||$25,000,000||2023||Opt-out after 2019|
|Kris Bryant||$10,850,000||2021||Arbitration eligible 2019|
|Brandon Morrow||$9,000,000||2019||Team option 2020|
|Jose Quintana||$8,850,000||2018||Team options 2019 & 2020|
|Anthony Rizzo||$7,285,714||2019||Team options 2020 & 2021|
|Pedro Strop||$5,850,000||2018||Team option 2019|
|Kyle Hendricks||$4,175,000||2020||Arbitration eligible 2019|
|Addison Russell||$3,200,000||2022||Arbitration eligible 2019|
|Tommy La Stella||$950,000||2020||Arbitration eligible 2019|
|Javier Baez||$657,000||2021||Arbitration eligible 2019|
|Mike Montgomery||$611,250||2021||Arbitration eligible 2019|
|Kyle Schwarber||$604,500||2021||Arbitration eligible 2019|
|Willson Contreras||$604,500||2022||Arbitration eligible 2020|
|Carl Edwards Jr.||$594,000||2022||Arbitration eligible 2019|
|Albert Almora Jr.||$584,500||2022||Arbitration eligible 2020|
|Ian Happ||$570,000||2023||Arbitration eligible 2021|
|Victor Caratini||$545,000||2024||Arbitration eligible 2022|
|Justin Hancock||split contract||n/a||n/a|
A few notes here, I kept it to the current 25-man roster. That means this chart doesn’t include some of the Cubs major league talent on the disabled list (Eddie Butler and Drew Smyly come immediately to mind). I also couldn’t find accurate contract information for Justin Hancock, but I don’t think that changes the overall takeaway here. Some components of this roster, including their cheap, long-term contracts would likely go to the Orioles for Machado. Ken Rosenthal summed up what a package might look like for the Athletic:
From the start of the off-season, we’ve heard the Cubs are open to trading one of their young position players, presumably for a controllable starting pitcher. But what if the Cubs started a package for Machado with shortstop Addison Russell, who is under control for four more seasons, included left-hander Mike Montgomery, who wants to start and also is under control through ‘21, and added a prospect? The ever-creative Theo Epstein-Jed Hoyer management team would need to find additional pitching, but otherwise, they would be covered. The Cubs, if they failed to re-sign Machado, could move Javier Baez to shortstop and play Ian Happ at second base.
Russell and Montgomery plus is an incredibly steep cost for four months of any player. I know many Cubs fans are disappointed at Russell’s progress and Montgomery has under performed his pedigree so far (although there have been moments of brilliance, as I explored last year). But even if you assume each guy just continues along their current path the Cubs would be trading three and a half years of a cheap two fWAR SS and two and a half years of a cheap middle reliever capable of starting for half a year of a top tier shortstop who looks to be regressing.
It blows a hole in the core
Theo Epstein likes to talk about the young core the Cubs have built and how important they are for the future of this franchise. That core includes a power hitting catcher (Contreras), two outstanding defensive middle infielders (Russell and Javier Baez), two MVP candidates at the corners (Kris Bryant and Rizzo), an outstanding defensive center fielder (Albert Almora Jr.) a power hitting left fielder (Kyle Schwarber) and a switch-hitting Swiss Army knife type (Ian Happ). Every one of those players is a Cub until at least 2021 unless they get traded for someone. If they are traded for someone with a shorter contract, like Machado, they need to be replaced over the long-term.
As Rosenthal mentions above, were the Cubs to move Russell, Baez could move to short and Happ could be an everyday second baseman, however, an injury to either at that point creates some problems up the middle for the Cubs. Last year that precise scenario resulted in more playing time from Mike Freeman than I’m really comfortable with, and while I imagine the Cubs would fill that hole in the free agent market in the offseason, that could be a very pricey proposition.
Even with the oddities of free agency last offseason, Machado is projected to have a hefty price tag in the $200-300 million range. If the Cubs were to miss out on Machado in 2018 they’d need to look elsewhere for a Russell replacement (it gets pretty sparse after Ian Kinsler), if they were to win the Machado sweepstakes it probably takes them out of the running for other top tier free agents, like Bryce Harper. It would certainly radically change their books and ability to sign their current core to long term deals.
Last year the Cubs revitalized their lackluster start with a blockbuster trade that sent Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease plus to the White Sox in exchange for two and a half year’s of Jose Quintana. Is it possible they will look to upgrade at the trade deadline this year as well? Absolutely. However, the cost for Machado being that upgrade is really high, and despite the frenzy on baseball Twitter, it’s worth noting that even Theo Epstein is trying to slow this conversation down, from today on The Score (emphasis mine):
“It’s May,” Epstein said. ”We’re still figuring out who we are as a team this year. We’re still figuring out our place in the division. Our play will determine that. And we’re still figuring out the important task of trying to play up to our ability and to overachieve rather than underachieve. That’s where this thing really begins and ends. There’s an atypical amount of trade discussion in May this year, which is essentially nil. I understand it’s natural for people to connect the dots and there to be this kind of frenzy from time to time, but it’s honestly something we’re looking at and just rolling our eyes at. It’s not like July, where every now and then there’s lots of coverage on deals that are actually being discussed or actually might happen. This one is just out there in fantasy land at this point.”
Fantasy land or not, I imagine the conversations are going to continue. Count me squarely in the no on Machado camp. Where are you?
The Cubs should trade for Manny Machado...
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