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What if the Cubs had traded for Andrew Miller instead of Aroldis Chapman in 2016?

A counterfactual rabbit hole.

Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

A little over a week ago I was on Twitter when I encountered the following hypothetical from Bleacher Nation’s Brett Taylor:

After a bit of thought I landed on my answer, and since I’m still thinking about the hypothetical world I created in my head on the North Side of Chicago I thought it’d be a fun off day exercise to share my rationale and get your answer to the question:

I can already hear everyone now: “But Sara, the Cubs don’t win in 2016 without Aroldis Chapman and Kyle Schwarber!” I share this concern and recognize it’s a risk, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take because 2016 Andrew Miller was better than Aroldis Chapman, and I think there is a good chance the Cubs could make this trade and still win in 2016. First, let’s look at who’s closing games for the Cubs in my alternate universe:

Top 5 Relief Pitchers by fWAR 2016

Kenley Jansen LAD 3 47 71 68.2 13.63 1.44 0.52 .238 80.2% 5.6% 1.83 1.55 1.44 2.41 3.1
Andrew Miller - - - 10 12 70 74.1 14.89 1.09 0.97 .256 95.7% 20.0% 1.45 1.69 1.68 1.18 2.9
Dellin Betances NYY 3 12 73 73 15.53 3.45 0.62 .353 68.4% 13.2% 3.08 2.29 1.78 1.75 2.9
Aroldis Chapman - - - 4 36 59 58 13.97 2.79 0.31 .268 80.5% 6.1% 1.55 2.09 1.42 1.92 2.7
Seunghwan Oh STL 6 19 76 79.2 11.64 2.03 0.56 .270 80.9% 6.7% 1.92 2.10 2.13 2.88 2.6
Select stats FanGraphs

Above you can see the top five relief pitchers by fWAR in 2016. By almost every metric, Miller was better than Chapman. He struck out more batters and walked fewer over more innings. The only red flag in Miller’s number is the HR/FB rate which was tied for fourth among qualified relievers in 2016. However, that number could be slightly inflated by park effects. Progressive Field ranked fifth in baseball for home runs in 2016. Fenway wasn’t far behind at 12th. Wrigley Field, on the other hand, was near the bottom of the league at 24th.

The innings differential also leads me to believe that Miller would have handled Joe Maddon using him as a multiple-inning pitcher better than Chapman handled that role. The Cubs absolutely needed a closer in 2016, they didn’t necessarily need Chapman.

Let’s talk about the Schwarber side of this equation, because as you all know I love him and giving him up in this counterfactual trade was painful, but hear me out. Kyle Schwarber continues to rehab in pinstripes. He has to shave, which makes everyone feel awful because that goatee/scruffy beard look he has going on is awesome and clean-shaven Schwarber weirds everyone out. But once we get over the clean-shaven thing Schwarber settles in as the DH at Yankee Stadium and he just rakes. No one ever tries to make him a leadoff hitter and he just aims for the short porch in right over and over and over again. When he’s not hitting bombs to right he’s absolutely torturing the Red Sox with home runs just to the left of Pesky’s Pole and line drives off the green monster. The Schwarbino quickly becomes a fan favorite and never has to hear about his defensive ability in left field again.

So who takes Kyle’s space on the Cubs World Series roster? Probably none other than Matt Szczur — the man, the myth, the magical bat that jumpstarted the return of the Cubs offense against the Dodgers in the NLCS (that obviously still happens. Of course it does). Szczur doesn’t take over at DH. That honor goes to Jorge Soler, who really impresses on a national stage. He didn’t get a lot of looks in the 2016 World Series so it’s easy to forget that Soler went 2-for-5 with a home run against Cleveland. Szczur steps into Soler’s role and delivers with some timely situational hitting leading commenters to discuss the magic in his bat.

It’s not a lock, obviously, but the 2016 Cubs still have a solid chance at winning the World Series without Kyle Schwarber’s incredible comeback story and in a weird way not having the pressure of that performance hanging over him helps Schwarber succeed in New York, too.

As the 2017 season approaches the Cubs already have a closer but with Gleyber Torres and Ian Happ absolutely raking in Triple-A they have a much different problem: A crowded infield. They still sign Jon Jay to take Dexter Fowler’s spot in the outfield where he splits time with Happ and Albert Almora Jr. in 2017. Happ still gets a handful of reps at second base, but really thrives in the outfield.

They still don’t really have a great spot for Soler but now they can shop him to the AL in return for a starting pitching prospect rather than relief help, and he’s got a bit more trade value after solid postseason showing. In my ideal world the Cubs trade Soler to the Athletics for Sonny Gray which fundamentally changes their decision calculus to trade for José Quintana, because they fill out their rotation via trading Soler rather than signing Brett Anderson. Gray offers the Cubs a cost-controlled starter and never develops his Yankee Stadium specific pitching problems. Dylan Cease and Eloy Jiménez remain in the Cubs farm system with Torres which experts see as stacked for long-term success. The 2017 Cubs still just get edged out by the Dodgers in the NLCS but decide to keep Miller in the fold. They sign him for the same 2 year/$25 million deal the Cardinals made.

Not everything is rosy in my counterfactual Cubs world. Addison Russell is still accused of domestic violence on social media in 2017, but with Gleyber Torres knocking at the door in Triple-A the Cubs brain trust decides to trade Russell in the offseason to make room for one of the top five prospects in baseball. Russell is coming off a .239/.304/.403 season in 2017 and the return for Russell helps the Cubs add another contact bat and an interesting arm that is a borderline fifth starter. Torres slots nicely into second base with the Cubs and crucially the Cubs never enter the murky moral ground of trying to rehabilitate a player accused of domestic violence, so they can focus on just playing baseball.

Don’t get me wrong, the Cubs probably still have some offensive struggles. Kris Bryant still deals with injuries that sap his power and give the Brewers a chance to catch them in September in 2018. Maybe they even still lose Game 163 and the Wild Card game. But the entire narrative and feel around the team changes, and instead of an off-season focused whether Russell will continue his career with the Cubs the focus remains on the field as the Cubs try to retool their offense.

So that’s my counterfactual Cubs rabbit hole, what’s yours and how does your change impact the team in the immediate aftermath of the decision?