For the most part, you don’t see me ripping front office decisions too often these days. That’s not because, as some would suggest, I’m a pure Cubs homer who wouldn’t dare question anything the organization does. Indeed, if you were around back in the days of the previous administration, you know that I’m not shy about expressing disagreement. The thing is, I don’t rip this front office much because I truly agree with almost everything they do. It’s really that simple. And, given that time has proven them again and again to be very good at what they do, I’d say the evidence is on my side on that one.
Why that preamble? Well, at the Trade Deadline this year, there was one thing the front office did – or, more specifically, didn’t do – with which I was very disappointed: they didn’t trade for Jonathan Papelbon. Sure, I offered mealymouthed defenses of the inaction (they know him well, he has a big salary and the Cubs have limited resources, etc.), but it didn’t take much reading between the lines to know that I felt like the Cubs really could have stood to add a high-quality back-end arm to the bullpen when the cost was merely money. Indeed, after the Nationals got him for virtually no prospect cost AND got the Phillies to eat a substantial chunk of his salary … it was frustrating.
And, yet, quite clearly, I was wrong. Doubly wrong, in fact.
At the time in July, I foresaw a whole lot of doom in the bullpen going forward. As you may recall, there was a very long stretch where the Cubs had almost no reliably consistent options outside of Hector Rondon, and upgrades did not look like they were coming internally. Although bullpens are notoriously fickle, the back-end of a pen is also critical in ways advanced statistics don’t always appropriately capture.
But I was wrong about the Cubs’ ability to address their issues internally (Travis Wood took off, Pedro Strop settled down, Neil Ramirez came back, etc.), and with cost-effective, widely available options like Fernando Rodney, Trevor Cahill, and Clayton Richard. The front office and the coaching staff knocked it out of the park in the second half in how they addressed the bullpen in a pinch. I am so impressed.
Which leads me to the other way I was wrong: Papelbon could have been a disastrous addition. Obviously we’ve seen what happened in Washington, and Papelbon has been worth -0.2 WAR with the Nats, AND the Nats are also still on the hook for $11 million to Papelbon next year. However serious those rumors were connecting the Cubs to Papelbon, they didn’t pull the trigger. And, indeed, Jed Hoyer suggests to Patrick Mooney (in a must-read article) that the Cubs were worried about potential chemistry issues in adding a guy like Papelbon, even as Hoyer acknowledged how good Papelbon has been and refused to say a bad word about the guy. With a young, cohesive team like the Cubs, I should have better appreciated the risks there (even if I justified the risk by pointing to Joe Maddon and the way this staff would not let Papelbon – or anyone else – become a distraction (and maybe they wouldn’t have, but it’s a risk I undersold)).
The long story short here is that, to the extent you recall the assertiveness with which I followed the Papelbon rumors and nudged at the Cubs to make a move … I was unquestionably wrong.
It’s a nice opportunity to take away a lesson about in-season moves and the possible value of inaction. This season was full of examples, in fact – many wanted the Cubs to add a bat in the outfield, but patience allowed them to get Austin Jackson instead of Gerardo Parra, who’s been terrible for the Orioles. Scott Kazmir looked like one of the best value rentals, and he’s been terrible for the Astros. Some folks wanted to see the Cubs dump Starlin Castro at all costs, and he was the best offensive player in baseball in September.