There have been an awful lot of pictures like the one above lately. The Cubs are 9-3 so far in the month of July. They also won four of five to close June, so that is a 13-4 stretch. Over that time, the Milwaukee Brewers have struggled a little bit and so the Cubs have moved from 2½ games back to 2½ games ahead. I was always confident about this Cubs team. I’ve said repeatedly that I expect them to win about 97 games and to win the division by more than five games. To be sure, particularly after a four-game sweep in Cincinnati, those predictions were feeling a little less secure. Still, I believe in the depth and experience this roster has and so I believed in the end that everything would work out.
July in baseball is known for two things. The All-Star Break (and its surrounding festivities) and the trade deadline (even if trades can and do happen in August too). Tim Huwe writes a lot of articles here where he examines not so much an individual move or strategy, but the larger issue of the process behind those moves and plans. I will express my thoughts in much the same way. I can’t make any credible proposals for trades between the Cubs and other teams; Alex Van Zante will have more on those later this week. But I’d like to talk a little bit about the process and the plan and for what I feel the Cubs should do as the trade deadline approaches.
The first thing I’m going to do is back up and repeat something I’ve said once already this week, in the final Heroes and Goats article of the first half. The Cubs got here rather abruptly. Things can and often do change quickly in baseball. There are certainly no guarantees and one badly timed bad week could reverse the standings right back to where they were.
That said, from my perspective, I maintained a belief all along that the Cubs would march their way to 97 victories and that the Brewers, for all of the things they do well, just don’t have the depth or experience yet to put together that kind of season. As it turns out, as the All-Star break begins, CBS Sports projects the Cubs to win 97.5 games. The next highest projection in the NL belongs to the Dodgers at 94 games. Fangraphs is a little more conservative, but has the Cubs at 94.1 projected wins and the Dodgers second at 91.3. Fangraphs also projects the odds of winning the World Series. Interestingly enough, they have the Dodgers ahead of the Cubs at 13.2 to 10.5.
So projections are starting to show the National League as a two-team race, not surprisingly, between the two teams that have battled in the National League Championship Series the last two years. At least one of the two sources has the Cubs losing that series despite having home field advantage. Whichever team escapes that NLCS, be it one of those two teams or a longer shot, is undoubtedly going to have their hands full with an American League team that will have survived a gauntlet of highly qualified teams in order to reach the World Series.
That’s a lot of words to say this: The Cubs have a very strong chance of getting back to the World Series. All of the best teams, particularly the ones with good financial resources, will add to their roster in July and August. Whether it’s a swing starter, a lefty specialist, an experienced setup man, a fourth outfielder or something really splashy, you have to try to add to your team when they appear to be a realistic playoff team. Your team benefits from the added depth and from the spending of resources to bolster the chances of winning.
The Cubs are not every team. Their championship window is wide open. Their core is at or near the prime of its collective career. Their is still some money available to be spent. We can all spout cliches about the value of having Carl Edwards Jr., Brandon Morrow and Anthony Rizzo healthy heading into the second half after missing time over the last month or so. If they can get Yu Darvish healthy and productive, that’s an enormous addition. Surely, the Cubs will be one of those teams looking to add a lefthanded specialist and/or another arm for the later stages of a game. Every team looks to make those additions and it is basically a no-brainer.
A realistic chance to win a World Series is a sacred event. I can’t tell you which moves are the right ones to make per se. I think the Cubs should absolutely be looking for a starter. Not of the warm body type. I’m not suggesting someone to slot into Tyler Chatwood’s spot. I’m suggesting a guy who can pair with Jon Lester to be a 1/1A type situation. If Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana are able to get locked back in and a true 1/1A/1B/1C or even 1/1A/2/2A type situation can emerge, fantastic. But no one can know for sure those things will happen. No one can know if Darvish can become both healthy and fully effective.
The Cubs offense has been fantastic this year. However, at times it’s also been inconsistent. It would be extremely helpful if the pitching staff could steal a game or two along the way. Their bullpen has appeared to be up to the task, but their starting rotation has not. At least not to my eye. Do I think the Cubs should pay the king’s ransom that the Mets will be looking for in order to pry loose one of their prized starters? I just don’t know. But I think the Cubs should kick the tires on every one of the starting pitchers on the market and round up the best deal that they can. I believe the team needs an insurance policy on the health of Darvish. I don’t think this team can afford for Chatwood or Mike Montgomery to have to make postseason starts.
Before I make some unpopular observations, I’ll say that I’ve seen a quote where Jed Hoyer talked about how much they believe in the core of this team. The way I read the quote, I think the Cubs have sent a pretty clear message that though the team wants to add through the trading season, that they still do not want to trade from the core. I respect that. I will say that the chemistry of a deal is the trickiest part. If a member or members of the Cubs major league roster is traded, it may not be received particularly well. Since this team came together, all of the key deals have involved players not at the major league level. I was also at the Cubs Convention when Anthony Rizzo visibly bristled at the idea of people waiting with bated breath for Bryce Harper to one day be a Cub. His response made it clear that this team not only expects to win, but expects to do so with the guys in that clubhouse.
All of the above said, I’ll address my thoughts as to who I’d trade if I were going to trade someone off the major league roster. I suspect if we polled Cubs fans on who they’d be most likely to trade out of the core 10 players, the choice would be Addison Russell. Consider:
Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant: both considered among the best players in major league baseball. Both are basically under team control through 2021.
Willson Contreras: by any measure, one of the best catchers in baseball and under team control through 2023. Virtually irreplaceable as an every day catcher. He has the most games played among catchers, has produced the highest fWAR and is third in wRC+.
Javier Baez: let’s be honest. If this were a stock picking exercise and not making a baseball trade, this would be the one to sell. The stock is trading at many times its historical value and there are some questions as to the sustainability of the run. But you absolutely can not even consider trading the guy who has carried your team and is having an MVP caliber season.
Ben Zobrist: aging and yet very productive player. OPS+ of 111 and totally content to come off the bench more games than not when everyone is healthy. Still capable of fielding at least three positions competently and a few others in a pinch. He’s reached the point where he would almost certainly produce less value in a trade than he does in his current role.
Kyle Schwarber: at 25 years old, he is one of the league leaders in outfield assists, has played passable if not decent defense and is tied for second on the team in OPS+ at 129. He’s second on the team in slugging percentage and home runs. He’s under team control through 2021. If we are being realistic, Kyle still has untapped potential at the plate. He still seems to get an awful lot of borderline strike calls. If he starts getting respected as having an elite eye and can hit in favorable counts more frequently, I believe there is another level available to his game.
Jason Heyward: at 28 years old, having a resurgent season, Jason has been one of my favorite parts of this Cubs season. I love to watch him hit and he’s been so good over the last month that it is almost unfathomable how bad he was the last two years. Between the contract and the two years of bad, I can’t believe you could ever get the kind of value for Jason that would make him a valuable trade piece.
Addison Russell: at 24 years old, he’s been the least productive Cubs hitter this year. That said, he plays very solid, if not elite, defense at shortstop. Like Heyward, I’m going to lump Russell into the category of unlikely to draw quite the value in return that he can provide. After Javier Baez, there are no real viable shortstop types in the upper levels of the Cubs system. David Bote has played there some and surely would do fine in a pinch for a game or two. But, I value Russell’s steady play and still dream on the upside that his teammates and scouts have always felt would one day emerge.
To me, that leaves you at Ian Happ or Albert Almora Jr. Happ is a year younger, has an extra year of team control (2024 free agency as opposed to 2023) and can play at least five positions (all three outfield, second and third) to Almora’s three. Almora plays much, much better defense. Perhaps, Ian will be a passable defender at one or more positions with time and seasoning. Almora has the better hit tool to go with the defense. But Happ has more speed and much better power. Almora is in contention for a batting title and it doesn’t feel fluky (though I’ll note that he has a .372 BABIP without being a speedster and that’s probably unsustainable). Amusingly, Happ’s BABIP is even higher at .398 and still only results in a batting average of .256 for him because he strikes out at such an extreme rate.
Right now in July 2018, I believe that Albert is slightly the better player. I believe he is producing just about everything that could reasonably be expected to him at the major league level. Maybe as he ages and puts on a little bit more muscle, a few extra doubles become homers. But with that, he’ll also likely slow down a little and he’s already noted for being below average speed-wise. Ian Happ has displayed a ton of power at the big league level and has been a streaky but productive player. However, there is no question that he still strikes out too much and that it holds him back as a player. But again, he’s a year younger than Almora. To me the problem with trading Happ would be that while Almora is already an excellent player (who was dismissed far too easily from the All-Star conversation this year), Happ has the ability to take his game to an even higher level. He’s already produced a wRC+ of 122 this year and a fWAR of 1.5 (to Almora’s 1.6), despite negative defense. If he could get to even a break even defensive player and make the kind of strides that Baez and Schwarber have done while with the Cubs on cutting down his strike outs, Ian can be a truly special player.
So, take all of this with a grain of salt. I’m no more tapped into the Cubs clubhouse than what I’m able to discern from their various interviews in the media. But if they asked my opinion (I’d wonder what was wrong with them), I’d tell them that being one of the favorites, if not the top favorite in the National League, is a sacred opportunity. They should make a big trade. Not of the Manny Machado variety, but of the starting pitcher variety. An elite starting pitcher. I was pro-Justin Verlander last year. I won’t pretend that his results would translate one to one had he come to the Cubs. But take note that last year the Astros got a bump from Verlander and in 2016 the Cubs benefited from Aroldis Chapman. Championship teams often add a key piece at this time. I think the Cubs should do so. Given the lack of a lot of elite higher level talent in the minor leagues, I wouldn’t be terribly afraid to trade a player from the MLB roster and if I did, I’d probably look at Almora as the one to go. The defensive loss would not be insignificant, but the team does have David Bote and potentially Chris Coghlan in Iowa who could backfill the loss of Almora’s bat.
If the Cubs had to include one MLB player to make a trade, who is the most expendable and would have the most value?
This poll is closed
Albert Almora Jr.