The Manny Machado trade started the swap season in earnest. For the next 12 days or so, players and fans will be on Hug Watch, as competing teams try to put themselves over the top. While the obvious glare is on the present, this piece looks at the future in regards to Ubertrades, such as the Machado one.
I’ve used the term Ubertrade before. It falls under a different category that most, and incorporates three specific aspects for a trade to qualify. First, the parts outgoing have to be largely (or exclusively) prospects. Secondly, the return must be an expiring contract: a rental. Finally, the trade is to be judged exclusively on if it leads to a World Championship. The Dodgers aren’t going to look favorably in this exchange in six years if it helps them “win the division," but someone else hoists the trophy.
The Dodgers sent four prospects, all with different levels of upside, to the rebuilding Orioles in the trade. Infielder Breyvic Valera was the fifth player sent. Still technically a prospect, Valera was the most advanced, but least likely player to excel. The major name heading east is outfielder Yuniel Diaz.
How should Cubs fans look at ubertrades such as this, when the Cubs aren’t involved? Are they generally a good thing, or a bad thing?
In another trade that was announced on Thursday, Cleveland sent catching prospect Francisco Mejia to San Diego for two relievers, in Brad Hand and Adam Cimber This trade isn’t an ubertrade, as Cleveland retains control of both pitchers beyond this season. The same was true of the Cubs trade of four players for pitcher Jose Quintana, who the Cubs still control for a few seasons.
Ubertrades are specifically for rentals. As the Cubs are between prospect peaks, it seems beneficial for the Cubs to see major rivals flip pieces to fourth- and fifth-place sides. Yes, I have specific reasons.
As I look at the landscape of baseball, a few teams seem “desperate” to win titles. It used to be thought that that was a silly idea. After all, each of the 30 wants to win the World Series. However, that is a bit questioned, now. Many teams, for better or worse, seem to be going through the motions as far as competition. It’s always been that way. It’s being acknowledged more openly now.
As I see it now, about four teams are hyper-aggressive to winning a World Series in the next two seasons. The Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, and Indians appear to have the most on the line the next few seasons. The Indians seem the odd-man-out among the three, but with the White Sox prospect pool maturing, their best chances remaining may be this season and next.
The other three are almost always in a competitive window. Their fans don’t much believe in moral victories. For the Red Sox, Yankees, and Dodgers faithful, the acceptable excuses are about by the boards. Hoist or lose. Which should, eventually, play in the Cubs favor. And serves as a backdrop why I like ubertrades from those three especially.
Last off-season was an interesting one. The three above teams were a bit muted in their off-season spending. The concept of “Staying under the $197 million limit” was a large part of it. While the Red Sox didn’t get under the limit, the Yankees and Dodgers did. In part, because they wanted to get “under” before Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and others reached free agency.
A see-saw competition is in play for whether “cost controls” will matter in the future, or not. The reality is, we don’t exactly know. Teams might blow through the caps after dipping below. Or, they might not, much to the chagrin of the players union. We aren’t sure.
However, with an eye toward ubertrades, I don’t think the owners entirely know themselves. The best deals long-term in baseball are the initial draft contract, and the initial international contract. For instance, Javier Baez is being paid $657.000 this season. Yeah, really. That’s it. Per Fangraphs, he’s been worth $27.2 million thus far in the season. That’s called a reasonable return on investment.
When a team aggressively pursues a Harper/Machado deal, they will get nowhere near that sort of excess. The team spending eight or nine figures over a number of years hopes only to not take a bath. The real benefits are from the players before arbitration, and in the arbitration seasons.
However, with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, teams “pay a fee” for adding players over certain levels. Not only do they pay fines and fees, they can lose international spending money. The Cardinals (who were “in jail” this cycle, anyway) lost $500,000 international for signing Greg Holland. (Ouch.) The Phillies dipped twice, and were dinged $1,000,000 from their pool. This you likely knew.
This new-found front office patience regarding big-money free agents figures to have a shelf life. Particularly for the Dodgers, Yankees, and Red Sox. Perhaps they will show a degree of restraint this off-season. I’ll toss the Cubs in with those three here, for now. However, if any of the three go two more off-seasons without a World Series title, all wagers would be voided regarding restraint.
If, for instance, the Astros repeat in 2018, or if the Cubs go two-in-three, the Dodgers, Yankees, and Red Sox would still be in must-win phase next season. If they don’t get what they want in 2018 or 2019, their aggressive spending ways will likely return. Those ways don’t seem to work any better than anything else.
Especially, deliberately putting together a solid roster with a degree of cost-control, so the team can add what’s needed, and have pieces to do just that. When patience is disregarded, bad contracts are signed. And ubertrades are made. They usually backfire.
I love when teams other than the Cubs make ubertrades. Normally, they only push up the likelihood of a title by a percent or three. If three or four teams make an ubertrade in a specific season, only one of them can possibly “win the trade.”
With the new limits being put in place, teams will start to lose draft position and international spending. Those are the best bargains in the game. When teams start placing an excess of value on any one season, and surrendering a degree of future success as a mortgage, I’m good with that. Especially in a season where the Cubs primary divisional opponent had a lousy week just before the All-Star Break, and plays seven games against the Dodgers in the next two weeks.
The Cubs will make some cosmetic changes the next week-and-change, and might continue the same path through August. The Cubs are good, and don’t need to make moves to prove anything to anyone.
They have gotten good, largely on players on their first contracts. To the extent they have made major swaps, ubertrade or not, they’ve used those cost-controlled pieces to acquire what’s needed.
I’m not against the Cubs making trades, or sending away prospects. Each swap should be assessed on its own merits. When other teams make trades borne of desperation, I’m generally good with it. Especially when a built-in lack of restraint figures to help the Cubs in future seasons at what they’ve won with, anyway.
The Cubs will be successful in the future if they remain good at selecting players on their initial contracts. When more than one of the Dodgers, Red Sox, and Yankees usher in a new disregard for spending limits, the Cubs figure to benefit. Whether Theo Epstein is around still, or not.