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In the Cole Hamels trade, determining who to send back is actually simple

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A look at the thought process that accompanies a deal like this one.

Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

Some people grow frustrated over the trade periods of July and August. With so many rumors, which ones should you chase? How much energy should be expelled on each one? How can you realistically know what sorts of returns might be being obtained? The prospects are so many unfamiliar names. Theo Epstein has a formula. To be honest, it’s rather the same as the formula he used building his pitching staffs in his own pipelines. This is a look at the simplicity of the Cole Hamels trade.

Do you remember back when the Cubs were terrible? When Epstein was looking to trade middling talent, he was a bit predictable, after a while. He traded Alfonso Soriano for... a pitcher in A-Ball. The Andrew Cashner-for-Anthony Rizzo trade also added a pitcher in A-Ball. Shawn Camp was signed as a free agent, with the hopes of trading him for a pitcher in A-Ball.

Marlon Byrd brought back a pitcher in A-Ball (Hunter Cervenka). Jeff Baker brought a pitcher in A-Ball (Marcelo Carreno). Tony Campana brought two pitchers from A-Ball, in Jesus Castillo and Erick Leal. Most of these trades listed were all between the start of 2012, and the beginning of 2013.

Most of those pitchers accomplished very little. However, each case is an entity onto its own. Carreno and Castillo both had their own pitching mechanics to master. With limited success. However, Castillo brought back major league talent later (Joe Smith). Cervenka logged MLB time.

“What do long-ago trades have to do with anything?”

Teams that are rebuilding want to upgrade their pitching. Regardless where they are rebuilding from, a pitcher looks like a one-in-ten chance at being useful in Double-A and Triple-A. Especially if he hasn’t had to struggle much yet. With everyone using the “Epstein Rebuild Book” as a guide, it makes perfect sense. It’s a case of simplicity.

Recently, the Cubs added a rental reliever in Jesse Chavez in trade. To add him, the bait was Ricky Tyler Thomas, a seventh-round selection in 2017. Thomas was better than the Midwest League.

As trade talk switched to the Cubs adding Hamels, the guesses on the talent were...... amusing. “For Hamels, we’ll get Miguel Amaya.” “Alex Lange or Brendon Little would make sense.” Apparently, the Rangers wanted another pitcher that was better than the Midwest League. Their primary return on Cole Hamels appears to be Rollie Lacy, who was better than the Midwest League.

Across the league, teams are trading rated prospects, and dismissing the Cubs as being a system “with no depth.” The two assessments don’t align with reality. If the Cubs are getting rentals not much worse than the other players being rented, and the Cubs are getting the arms with “unknown” talent, the Cubs must have a bit of depth.

***

Perhaps, by now, the lightbulbs of your synapses are starting to flicker as in unison. When Epstein is looking for a rental pitcher, a team can toss the recently released Cubs Top 30 list in the paper shredder.

“Ooooh, I want your lefty that throws 97 (Brailyn Marquez).”

“He’s not available.”

“Keegan Thompson or Trevor Clifton.”

“No, and no.”

“That’s going to cut in on your return.”

“True dat. But I have pitchers in South Bend and Myrtle Beach that you should be interested in.”

Why does Epstein think that teams will always be willing to “settle” for pitchers in A-Ball? Because he did. Some teams have a decidedly good talent pipeline. I’ve listened to a number of Down East Wood Ducks games against Myrtle Beach this season. A Rangers affiliate, Rangers pitchers often have one thing in common: upside.

For some, the upside sends them through the Advanced-A Carolina League rather quickly. However, a great many struggle. Because a great number of pitchers struggle at any level, and always have. The Wood Ducks are 46-59 in the league this season, and lag the Pelicans in pitching. Which means, pitchers in the Cubs system at the A-Ball level are more likely to be successful at the level than the Rangers pitchers in the same range.

Your lightbulbs are working now. If you have a relative strength in your system, as compared to another team’s system, that is where you should start looking for trade options. Too many people look at it the other way. “Trade for Chris Archer.” Except, the Tampa system is so deep, they have no reason to want to trade for Lacy, Thomas, or someone else similar.

Epstein knows what he wants to trade. He knows who he wants to trade. And, more importantly, who he doesn’t want to trade. He takes his list of 20 or so names to general managers who might value them, and he headstarts his trade talks there. He wasn’t trading for J.A. Happ if he had to outspend what was offered there. His goal is to improve his team for October. Not surrender the future.

***

One final piece of the simplicity puzzle is important to remember. While most teams love to look upside between the draft and international venues, the Cubs have a rather simple question they ask of their scouts, it seems.

“Does he throw 95?”

“Is his primary off-speed offering a putaway pitch at the MLB level?”

“Is he an ace?”

No. No. No. And your lightbulbs went out. When a Cubs scout is watching a game in Kansas, Georgia, Arizona, or Oregon, the question is rather basic. Particularly when looking for down-the-line talent.

“Will this guy be better than the Midwest League?”

If the Cubs can add six to eight pitchers between the sixth and 26th rounds of any draft that are “better than the Midwest League,” they will have rather inexpensive ammunition to add talent to their pipeline for the stretch run. Next season. The year after, Whenever.

Some teams will be at a point of their rebuild where they are willing to trade rental talent for pitching prospects from the prior draft’s second and third days. Why? Because finding enough pitching to stock eight or nine affiliates with quality arms 12-16 deep is hard to do. Pitchers that will be good enough to get hitters out in the Midwest League will always hold an appeal. Especially when they’re 24 months or more away from needing to be included on the Rule 5 lists.

I didn’t especially want Lacy included in trade talks, because he has been rather good. However, other teams have scouting bureaus, as well. If a team leads their successful pursuit to upgrade their pitching staff at the big league level with a third-day draft pick from the preceding draft, you take that almost every single time.

Will Hamels be a successful pitcher with the Cubs? The important thing is, my discussion of the trade took over 1,100 words to get there. He’ll be what he is. The Cubs are paying about $4 million for him this season, and might bring him back in 2019. The important thing from my perspective is the cost of acquisition was reasonable.

For the string of aggressive trades being made this month, the only ones that will look good long term are based on team success. Neither Manny Machado, Joakim Soria, nor any of the others can guarantee that. Lift the trophy, and the trades were good. Get dumped early, and the prospects are still gone.

Regardless how October plays out, Lacy and Thomas were selected to be developed. They were developed, and another team wanted them. The value was mutual. When armchair execs are looking for a return on a rental talent, you can look at a Top 30 list. Or a national Top 100 list. Or, you can look at Epstein’s most recently selected trade-eligible draft picks. Start somewhere around round six, with guys who were overlooked. And see which ones pitched well in the Midwest League.

Those seem to be his currency for adding short-term talent. Brilliant in its simplicity. Your lightbulbs are glowing. And, next February and March, I’ll be tracking college baseball games for pitchers who seem... I think you can help with this one in unison... “better than the Midwest League.”