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A look at the Joc Pederson trade in the context of other Cubs deals

The Cubs did well in this trade even if the player acquired, Bryce Ball, never plays a big-league game. Why? Because it opened up opportunities for others to play.

Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

I have a number of rather unpopular opinions. One is that a really good way to accurately assess a trade is to honestly assess it as completely and accurately as possible from the start. Assess what the team should realistically expect from who they have acquired. If a team adds a perceived non-entity, and that player ends up reaching MLB, congratulations on that. However, expectations ought to be considered important. Assess the trade early and somewhat often, seeing if the assumptions made were accurate. If a player expected (by virtually everyone) to be a useful piece tumbles precipitously, the trade may have made sense, but didn’t work out. This article will looking at trades and how they can provide opportunities, especially the Joc Pederson trade this past July.

Before I get to the Pederson trade, I’ll look at a few other trades to set the ground rules and expectations. To begin, let’s look back at the trade in which the Cubs acquired Brandon Kintzler from the Nationals in July 2018. Kintzler had worked his way into the Nats’ doghouse in his last days with the team. Trading him for anything was useful for Washington. Kintzler was initially bad with the Cubs, then was much better in 2019. For the Nationals, getting anything was fine.

The reliever Washington added was Jhon Romero, who had a bit of helium with the Cubs in 2018. He was an older minor league reliever (24 at the time of the deal). That Romero made it to MLB in 2021 shouldn’t sway anyone’s opinion of the trade, as he was an afterthought, anyway. The Nationals stuck with him, and Romero made his MLB debut this month. The Cubs added a reliever who’d recently been an All-Star for an afterthought reliever. It worked relatively well across-the-board, except he was bad for the Cubs in 2018. Since that really shouldn’t have been predicted, it seems reasonable for both sides.

Let’s move now to the Yu Darvish trade. Tossing aside the significant financial angle, the Cubs dealt a pitcher who was second in 2020 Cy Young Award voting and his personal catcher for a financial-offset starting pitcher (Zach Davies) and four prospects, only one of whom had played a professional game. The Padres were aggressively playing for 2021 and 2022, paired with another trade where they added Blake Snell from the Rays in another prospect-laden swap.

It was reasonable to expect Snell and Darvish to perform well in 2022. That they both pancaked rather severely late in the season destructed what was supposed to be an organizational coming-out party. From the Padres perspective, the trade completely made sense. It simply hasn’t worked. You can have whatever opinion you want on the Cubs’ end of the trade that you want, but the Darvish trade was supposed to be better for the Padres than it has been.

The Cubs and Padres made another swap right before the July deadline. The Cubs sent Jake Marisnick to San Diego. Marisnick was supposed to be a periodic bench outfielder who smashed lefty pitching. That’s his raison d’etre. Had Marisnick filled that role, which it realistically could have been assumed he would, the Padres would have been fine with it. In exchange, the Padres sent a prospect who was already on the 40-man roster, Anderson Espinoza. Had Marisnick mashed, that’s a realistic surrender.

Marisnick has managed only 40 plate appearances with San Diego. He’s had six hits (one double) and two RBI. The logic behind adding Marisnick was reasonable. His production (an OPS of .425) didn’t live up to expectations. On top of that, by trading Marisnick the Cubs gave more at-bats to Michael Hermosillo, who might make the Cubs’ offseason 40-man roster. Just because a trade makes sense doesn’t mean it will pan out. Sometimes, a trade that should make sense, doesn’t. Occasionally, a piece not expected to produce does.

In the Pederson trade, one thing happened immediately, even before Pederson played for the Braves. As a result of Pederson’s departure, Rafael Ortega became the de facto center fielder for the Cubs, whether he deserved it or not, whether he’d earned it or not. Ortega’s seasonal OPS is currently .806. For the Braves, Pederson’s OPS is .747. For the Cubs, Pederson’s OPS was .718. Regardless of how Pederson has done with the Braves, Ortega has been better with the Cubs than Pederson was in Chicago.

Pederson was added to be traded. Whether you like that strategy or not, that was the plan if the Cubs weren’t in competition in July: Trade Pederson if the playoffs weren’t likely. With Ortega taking that roster spot, the Cubs had more than two entire months to assess Ortega’s offseason roster worthiness. Had Ortega belly-flopped, as might have been possible, he’d be non-tendered in November. Since Ortega will still be making roughly the league minimum wage in 2022, the Cubs figure to keep him. (If he were guaranteed $14 million if the Cubs were going to keep him, the calculus would be different. However, league minimum it is, for a perfectly usable player against right-handed pitching.)

Since the Cubs traded Pederson for a non 40-man roster piece, they had an additional roster spot to fiddle with. Teams in-season get no value from an empty 40-man roster spot. (In the off-season, there can be an edge to a roster spot vacancy, but less so in-season. If a team is roster-pressed near the November or December deadline, a moderate prospect and a roster spot vacancy can add a MLB piece for the next season.) In-season, especially in the first five months of the season, usable players are run through waivers regularly.

Three days after the Pederson trade, the Cubs claimed a player on waivers to fill the empty roster spot. Within two weeks, Frank Schwindel has now joined Ortega as a lineup regular, in large part because of a roster spot vacancy, a vacancy opened by the Pederson trade.

Lastly, the Cubs received Bryce Ball in exchange for Pederson. Realistically, Ball doesn’t have to have a lengthy career in MLB for the Cubs to have smashed the trade, if completely by accident. Ball is a slugging first baseman who is nowhere near MLB-ready. Perhaps he will play in Wrigley. Perhaps he will be traded for someone who will. Perhaps he’ll never reach the 40-man roster, or provide any apparent value. I’m a fan of Ball’s command of the strike zone, and his power.

Realistically, though, it boils down simply to this: If the Cubs had retained Pederson, what value would they have gotten from him the next nine weeks or so? We have no specific idea, but something in the range of what he had provide in the first half of the season would be reasonable. A little higher? A little lower? Instead, they cleared a spot in center for Ortega, who has been better than Pederson probably would have been. With a clear option to retain Ortega, which might have not existed, unilaterally, for Pederson. With the 40-man roster spot, the Cubs were allowed to take a “1-in-however many” shot on Schwindel, which has also cashed into a likely 40-man roster retainee. Then, finally, there’s any future value from Ball.

When completely assessing a trade, assess what you think you know from the very start. Assess how accurate you were in your assessment as time goes, adjusting your expectations and beliefs patterns as time goes. Whether the trade worked well for the Braves or not (it has been fine, as Pederson has been somewhat better in Atlanta), it’s been a gusher of value, so far, for the Cubs. Frank Schwindel has been worth over $17 million for the Cubs this season, per Fangraphs. Whether the Cubs claim him without an open roster spot could be debated, but claiming him with an open 40-man spot was as self-evident as playing Ortega more in center with Pederson gone.