Theo Epstein’s first full year as Cubs President of Baseball Operations brought a fair number of free-agent signings, though nothing major, and a few minor trades.
One deal, though, set the tone for Theo’s leadership.
And there was a trade that was unique in Cubs — and possibly MLB — history.
January 6: Acquired Anthony Rizzo and Zach Cates from the Padres for Andrew Cashner and Kyung Min Na
There were some who worried about this deal at the time it was made, thinking Cashner could turn into a top rotation starter. And Rizzo had not performed well in a 49-game trial for the Padres in ‘11 (.141/.281/.242, 46 strikeouts in 128 at-bats).
But Theo and Jed both knew Rizzo well from having drafted him when he was with the Red Sox, later helping him through a bout of Hodgkins lymphoma, and Hoyer was the GM of the Padres and traded for him while there.
So they took a chance, and obviously it was one of Theo’s best moves. Rizzo started 2012 at Triple-A Iowa, but was called up midseason and over the next 10 seasons with the Cubs hit 242 home runs (sixth in franchise history) and posted 36.7 bWAR. He won four Gold Gloves and made the NL All-Star team three times, and of course caught the last out of Game 7:
Rizzo became a franchise icon. In some ways I wish he was still here. He’ll always be welcome as a Cubs World Series hero.
Cashner posted 3.2 bWAR in five years in San Diego and overall had a 10.1 bWAR career, also playing for the Marlins, Rangers, Orioles and Red Sox. That’s not terrible, but obviously Rizzo gave the Cubs far more value.
Cates and Na never played in the majors.
February 21: Acquired Jair Bogaerts from the Red Sox for Chris Carpenter and Aaron Kurcz
There’s more to this deal than meets the eye. There had been a tacit understanding that the Cubs would send a player or players to the Red Sox in exchange for signing Theo Epstein while he was still under contract in Boston.
But that’s not allowed, trading a player for an executive. So the Cubs and Red Sox worked up this player-for-player deal.
Chris Carpenter was the name of two different MLB pitchers in the first decade or so of this century. One of them pitched 15 MLB seasons and won a Cy Young Award. The pitcher in this deal is not that guy. This Chris Carpenter was the Cubs’ third-round pick in 2008 out of Kent State (Steve Stone’s alma mater!) who pitched briefly for the Cubs in 2011 (2.79 ERA in 10 games, 0.2 bWAR) and then had a 9.00 ERA in eight games in Boston in 2012. He also pitched briefly in Japan in 2014 and 2015.
Kurcz never pitched in the majors. Bogaerts, who is the twin brother of Xander Bogaerts, was only 19 at the time of the trade and never played a single game in the Cubs organization.
The Cubs definitely “won” this deal because they got Theo.
April 21: Acquired Michael Bowden and Hunter Cervenka from the Red Sox for Marlon Byrd
Byrd, who had played pretty well for the Cubs in 2010 and made the NL All-Star team, wasn’t as good in 2011 and then fell off the proverbial cliff in 2012. In 13 games for the Cubs that year, he was 3-for-43 (!) with 10 strikeouts. The Cubs were reported at the time to be paying nearly all of the last year of Byrd’s contract ($6.5 million) just to get rid of him.
Byrd didn’t do much in Boston and it seemed his career might be over, but he wound up having three really good years from 2013-15 for the Mets, Pirates, Phillies, Reds and Giants (yes, he was traded three times in that time span).
Bowden, a Chicago-area native (Waubonsie Valley HS) had been considered a good prospect (Top 100 three years in a row from 2007-09), but in two Cubs seasons he posted a 3.63 ERA and 0.8 bWAR in 64 games. He pitched a couple of years in Japan and two more in Korea and was still active as recently as 2021 for the indy league Chicago Dogs (2.92 ERA in 12 games, nine starts). Cervenka didn’t pitch in the majors until 2016 and then posted a 4.69 ERA in 73 total games.
This was kind of a nothing deal for both teams.
July 30: Acquired Arodys Vizcaino and Jaye Chapman from the Braves for Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson
The Cubs had signed Maholm as a free agent with the intention of flipping him, and flip him they did. Maholm put 2.0 bWAR on the board for the Cubs, but in Atlanta he was basically a replacement player: 0.1 bWAR, 4.14 ERA in 37 starts in 2012 and 2013. Johnson was a popular fan favorite in two stints with the Cubs (2008-09 and 2011-12) but was more or less done by the time he got to Atlanta (-0.4 bWAR in 117 games in 2012 and 2013).
The Cubs might have done all right in this deal if they had just kept Vizcaino, but they flipped him back to the Braves in 2014 for another popular fan favorite. We’ll cover that deal later on.
Chapman posted a 3.75 ERA in 14 appearances for the Cubs in 2012, but they let him go after 2013.
The Cubs neither gave up much value nor got any here, so we’ll call this one a wash.
July 31: Acquired Kyle Hendricks and Christian Villanueva from the Rangers for Ryan Dempster
Now we’re talking!
Dempster, famously, supposedly turned down a deal that would have sent him to the Braves for Randall Delgado, though this ESPN article from the time quotes Dempster as saying he never did that and he just wanted “time” to consider it. The article concludes:
Dempster’s need for time to make a decision likely cost the Cubs Delgado, a young major league-ready pitcher who has started 17 games for the Braves this season. Instead, they ended up with a pair of Single-A players in pitcher Kyle Hendricks and third baseman Christian Villanueva in the deal with the Rangers.
Whatever Dempster’s reasoning, Cubs fans should thank him profusely, because Delgado eventually wound up having a few mediocre years in Arizona (total 1.7 bWAR in five seasons) and is now out of baseball.
Hendricks, meanwhile, became a beloved member of the Cubs World Series team and had several outstanding seasons for the Cubs, now at 24.1 bWAR and counting. 2024 will be The Professor’s 11th season in a Cubs uniform and I hope he never throws a big-league pitch for another team, and perhaps he’ll come to the Cubs front office when he’s done playing.
Interestingly, Kyle was the throw-in, at the time of this deal he was pitching in High-A in his third pro season. The guy the Cubs wanted was Villanueva, who had been a Top 100 prospect (Baseball America) before 2012 and had been a power-hitting third baseman in the Rangers system. He never played a game for the Cubs and eventually played a couple years for the Padres, including hitting 20 homers in 110 games for them in 2018. He played a couple of years in Japan and was still active in the Mexican League in 2023.
Dempster made 12 starts with a 5.09 ERA and 0.2 bWAR for the Rangers and signed with the Red Sox in the offseason and got a World Series ring in Boston in 2013. He’s been back in the Cubs organization in various roles, including broadcasting, since then.
A fantastic trade for the Cubs.
July 31: Acquired Jake Brigham from the Rangers for Geovany Soto
This and the above deal were apparently consummated separately, even though they were on the same day and involved the same teams.
Soto played parts of three years for the Rangers and posted 1.3 bWAR for them, then finished his career with the A’s, White Sox and Angels. Injuries ruined what looked like something really promising when he had been Rookie of the Year with the Cubs in 2008.
Brigham never pitched for the Cubs. In fact, they sent him back to the Rangers before 2012 even ended.
Texas got the better of this deal.
August 5: Acquired Marcelo Carreno from the Tigers for Jeff Baker
Baker played just 15 games in Detroit (-0.4 bWAR, 7-for-35) before they flipped him to the Braves, where he went 2-for-19 in 14 games.
Somehow, he recovered and had a decent year for the Rangers (0.8 bWAR) in 2013 before finishing up his career with the Marlins in 2014 and 2015.
Carreno never played in the majors. We’ll call this one a wash, too.
November 20: Acquired Barret Loux from the Rangers for Jake Brigham
Brigham pitched in just two games in the Cubs organization, for Triple-A Iowa, and posted a 19.29 ERA. It appears he was injured and that this deal was intended to make the Cubs whole for sending Soto to the Rangers and getting an injured player in return.
Brigham then bounced around a few MLB organizations through 2015, playing 12 games with an 8.64 ERA for the 2015 Braves. Then he went to Asia, pitching in NPB in 2016, in KBO for five seasons, and three years, including still being active in 2023, for the Wei Chuan Dragons in Taiwan. Good for him, he’s likely made decent money over there.
Loux was a highly-rated prospect who just couldn’t stay healthy. He pitched in 22 games (19 starts) for Iowa in 2013 and 2015 and then the Cubs let him go. He pitched for a couple teams in indy ball in 2016 and then was done.
There was a lot of maneuvering here, but the acquisitions of Rizzo and Hendricks, without giving up much in return, make 2012 an A grade year for Cubs trades.
Give the Cubs a grade for their 2012 trades.
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