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The Yu Darvish and Victor Caratini trade isn’t a rebuild, it’s a fire sale

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A closer look at the real numbers behind the Cubs latest trade

Yu Darvish and Victor Caratini walk to the mound before Game 2 of the Wild Card Series against the Marlins
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Cubs traded Yu Darvish and Victor Caratini Monday night to the Padres for Zach Davies and four prospects who are 17-20 years old with zero at bats in affiliated baseball among three of them (Yeison Santana has some at bats in rookie ball). Normally I’d write an article that talks about things like the comparative fWAR and salaries of the players, how many years are left on their contracts and what the Cubs can expect from their new players and prospects.

This piece will still have a bit of that, but I want to be really clear — this trade wasn’t about rebuilding. This is a fire sale and the most important numbers in this trade are dollars, cents and the ages of the returning prospects. This isn’t about winning in 2021. It isn’t about winning in 2022 (if that season happens). Frankly, it isn’t about winning anytime before 2025. This is about a team that represents the third largest media market in the country who claims to be hemorrhaging money trying to plug what some estimate to be a multi-hundred million dollar hole with $50 million in savings. Since that doesn’t work mathematically, it likely won’t be the last mind boggling move the Cubs make this season and it has precisely nothing to do with winning for the foreseeable future.

I tend to disagree with Kaplan’s take here and will direct you to Maury Brown of Forbes rebuttal for the other side. To be clear, I agree with Ian Happ, who put it better than I could in this interview with 670 The Score:

Chicago Cubs outfielder Ian Happ believes MLB owners aren’t framing the narrative properly regarding how much money teams lost during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

“You don’t really see the players coming out and saying that we took a 63% loss this year,” Happ told 670 The Score’s “Dan Bernstein Show” on Tuesday. “That’s not the narrative from the players because we didn’t lose any real money. Guys still got paid. Guys still made more than zero. We didn’t have to give anything back.

“So it’s really tough to claim loss when it’s just money that wasn’t realized. But that’s the case on both sides, right? The case is there was a projection for earnings, and nobody met their projection for earnings. And that was the case in 2020. That was the case for many businesses across the world in 2020. And you don’t see players coming out and using that narrative because it would go terribly, right?”

But reality isn’t helpful for understanding this trade. This trade only makes sense if you accept the worst case scenario financial framing above. So I’ll be as charitable as possible to the Ricketts’ position for the purposes of this piece and stipulate that the Cubs owners are likely in a worse financial position than many other teams in the short term. The pandemic hit just as the Wrigley Field renovation, the team’s investments in Wrigleyville and Marquee Sports Network came together. Everything was finally open for business to recoup some of the estimated $750 million the Ricketts family had invested in the neighborhood - and then, it was all shut down. While we don’t have access to the books in order to quantify Tom Ricketts’ statement that the Cubs losses were “biblical,” Evan Altman characterized the Cubs financial situation in this piece for Cubs Insider last month:

The Cubs’ entire revenue structure is fully dependent on the Wrigleyville area being open for business. In addition to the ballpark, team ownership has interests in restaurants, Gallagher Way, and Hotel Zachary, all of which have been running at 25% capacity or less since the start of the pandemic. The Cubs lost a reported $140 million in 2020 and could see equally sizable losses in the coming year as well. Marquee Sports Network offered no boost to revenues this year, either.

That won’t sit well with Cubs fans who want the Rickettses to spend. In fact, it may take up to five years before the North Siders are once again profitable. Tax credits due to the family as the result of Wrigley Field being granted federal landmark status should be a tourniquet of sorts, but that money will not be directed toward the organization’s baseball operations budget.

So let’s concede that the Cubs took it on the chin worse than other baseball teams in 2020. I’ll even share Tom Ricketts preferred framing for these losses - that baseball operations money is a separate stream that doesn’t draw from other revenue sources as this piece from ESPN contended last summer:

“Here’s something I hope baseball fans understand,” Ricketts said. “Most baseball owners don’t take money out of their team. They raise all the revenue they can from tickets and media rights, and they take out their expenses, and they give all the money left to their GM to spend.

“The league itself does not make a lot of cash. I think there is a perception that we hoard cash and we take money out and it’s all sitting in a pile we’ve collected over the years. Well, it isn’t. Because no one anticipated a pandemic. No one expects to have to draw down on the reserves from the past. Every team has to figure out a way to plug the hole.”

Let’s not kid ourselves — neither the Ricketts nor anyone else in baseball has opened their books, which is unlikely to change in the near future, and none of us know if those losses are actual losses or just falling short of projected revenue as Happ stated.

But, whether you believe the Ricketts’ claim that they had actual losses, or the MLBPA’s claim that those are projected revenue losses, it really doesn’t matter because the front office has clearly been given a mandate to shed costs. It does not matter that you cannot balance a multi-hundred million (or billion, as Kaplan claims) dollar loss on the backs of peanut vendors or even Cy Young contenders. Believing in that financial frame is how you get a deal like this:

The Cubs gave up Yu Darvish (three years of control, $62 million) and Victor Caratini (three years of control, expected to earn $1.6 million in arbitration per MLB Trade Rumors)

The Padres gave up Zach Davies (one year of control, expected to earn between $6.3 million-$10.6 million in his final year of arbitration) and four extremely young prospects (more on each of them in a second).

As Craig Edwards notes for Fangraphs in a piece aptly titled “Padres give up prospects for Yu Darvish while the Cubs give up:

Instead, Chicago did nothing that offseason to supplement a win-now team (aside from extending Hendricks) or work toward building a sustainable winner in the future. A predictably disappointing 2019 followed, and despite a winter full of talk of change on the North Side, the Cubs’ only notable move was replacing Joe Madden [sic] with David Ross at manager. They still won the division, thanks in part to a great performance by Darvish, who produced a whopping 44% of the team’s total pitching WAR, only to get knocked out of the playoffs by the Marlins in the first round. And while even a Darvish-less Chicago should still contend in a weak NL Central, there are only two players on the roster under team control beyond next season who project to be worth more than two wins: Hendricks, who turned 31 last week, and Ian Happ. The Cubs’ payroll for next season has now dropped below $140 million with no signs that ownership plans on increasing it; if there is another championship window on the horizon, it’s unclear when it will open.

So the Cubs gave up their best player and a tested catcher who can hit for one year of a (at best) 3-4 level starter and four prospects. Let’s talk about the prospects. Due to limited farm systems in 2020 only Santana has any at bats in an affiliated league, so our data on them is limited to their draft reports and the video Bryan Smith can scrape from Twitter:

These prospects are listed below in the order Eric Longenhagen of Fangraphs ranked them as of April 9, 2020, with Owen Caissie listed as NR since he hadn’t been drafted at that time. Fangraphs’ rankings are more optimistic than MLB’s rankings (which have all of these prospects out of the top 10). I’ve also included Longenhagen’s writeups for each, both because they were suggested to me by Donavan and Roy, who co-host the excellent Padres podcast Friars on the Farm and because it’s the most concise report I can find for each player. I’ve added each players’ age in parentheses for additional context and changed the text formatting slightly:

8. Yeison Santana (20y 23d), SS - Aside from Gabriel Arias, Santana is the cleanest defensive fit at shortstop in this org and projects to be an above-average defender there at peak. He also has good feel for contact and rarely swings through pitches in the zone. Couple that with a frame that really looked like it was starting to fill out last summer and fall (especially in the shoulders), and Santana’s ability to rotate with uncommon looseness and explosion, and we have a potential above-average regular here. Because the feel for contact is already seemingly in place, Santana stands a good chance to hit for whatever power he grows into, while also staying at short.

15. Reginald Preciado (17y 7m 14d) 3B - This is what the upper crust of international free agents look like, those for whom a Goldilocks Zone of development exists. Preciado is a strapping 6-foot-4 and has infield hands, feet, and actions, which means he may grow into huge power as that frame fills out but remain agile enough to stay at short, which would make him a superstar. Though that outcome is not the likeliest (based on how Preciado is built, I have him projected to third and think he’ll end up there before he reaches the bigs), the several that exists below that optimal scenario are still very good. Preciado has precocious barrel feel for a 16-year-old hitter his size, let alone one who switch-hits. He’s not very balanced, especially from the right side, comfort that hopefully comes with reps.

26. Ismael Mena (18y 30d) CF - Mena was bullied by some older instructional league pitchers, especially ones with ugly, deceptive deliveries, but he’s clearly a plus runner with a great chance to stay in center field and has some promising bat-to-ball qualities. Chief among them is plate coverage. Mena will reach out and spoil pitches on the corner away from him, and he’ll hit the ball hard the other way if it catches too much of the plate. He was billed as a leadoff type center fielder by his proponents on the amateur side.

NR. Owen Caissie (18y 5m 21d) OF - The Padres always seem to draft a high school outfielder like Caissie - a big-framed, lefty-hitting OF from either a cold weather or very rural area. Their recent track record is mixed, with Mason House (already released) and Hudson Head (looks studly) as the opposing examples. Caissie is a huge-framed Canadian outfielder with big power projection. His swing already has natural lift but is a little long and stiff. He was widely seen during 2020 spring training as the Canadian Junior National Team played exhibitions in Florida, which included him homering against the Blue Jays.

Don’t kid yourselves. This isn’t the meticulously planned rebuild Theo Epstein orchestrated nine years ago when he took over as the Cubs President of Baseball Operations. The Cubs gave up their ace, a Cy Young contender and a backup catcher who could likely start on at least 15 teams in MLB for approximately $50 million of savings and four lottery tickets that are unlikely to hit before 2025, if at all. Even if one or two of these prospects hit in 2024 or 2025, it won’t justify the risk and reward in this deal. I’d say this looks a lot like what Derek Jeter’s ownership group did with the Marlins when they took over in 2017, but the Marlins got more reliable prospects back in their fire sale (as we all saw at Wrigley last October).

The worst part of it all is this is it’s just the first move. $50 million over three years doesn’t come close to filling the hole the Cubs claim they have after 2020. Yu Darvish was one of the Cubs best trade chips this offseason and instead of being traded for talent that could restock the farm system and contribute to a robust rebuild he was traded for cash and four guys with almost zero experience in affiliated baseball. A couple of months ago I scoffed at a deal that the Cubs would send Kris Bryant to the Nationals for Starlin Castro and two low-level prospects because it was a cash dump that was an insult to the former MVP and Rookie of the Year. Now, I’m not even sure the Cubs could get Castro in that deal. After all, they’ve shown us that the only thing the front office cares about this offseason is money.