It’ll be something of an anthem this offseason (not entirely unlike the last two): the Cubs might trade Young Position Player X to acquire Pitcher Y.
The Cubs have already done it several times recently, with Gleyber Torres (among others) going to the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman, Jorge Soler going to the Royals for Wade Davis, and Eloy Jimenez (among others) going to the White Sox for Jose Quintana. And Theo Epstein has said that if the Cubs want to acquire big league talent this offseason, they’ll probably have to use their own big league talent to do it.
The big difference this time around is that each of the Cubs’ attractive trade candidates has, at least to some extent, established himself as a successful, useful big league piece. It’s one thing to trade prospects or a guy who couldn’t quite find his big league footing, but it’s another thing entirely to trade a guy who has demonstrated he can contribute meaningfully to this Chicago Cubs team.
And that’s a big part of the reason that, although it sounds so obvious in the abstract – trade a position player for a pitcher, yo! – it becomes much more difficult to narrow down the obvious move in the particular.
Consider each of the Cubs’ most realistically available and valuable big league position players:
- Addison Russell – Even if you set aside the “Cubs starting shortstop” label, I see at least two significant problems with trading Russell right now. First, the Cubs have virtually no high-quality, upper-level shortstop prospect depth. So if they trade Russell, and something were to happen to Javy Baez, they would be in serious trouble. Just because you have a guy who can slide into shortstop doesn’t mean you trade the other guy willy nilly. Secondly, Russell is coming off a very down 2017 season where, despite reasonable hopes, he did not break out. You’d almost have to accept trading Russell at “prospect” value right now, which seems unreasonably low, unless you believe he never improves with the bat from here. (I do not believe that.)
- Javy Baez – A lot of what I said about the depth problem could be said for Baez, too. And, in his case, while you aren’t as worried about trading at a low in value, Baez’s dynamic ability, versatility, and improving bat are all so very valuable to the Cubs. Yes, the Cubs could survive without Baez at second base – they have plenty of coverage there – but Baez’s presence feels like something of a roster multiplier, because he can do so much so well.
- Ian Happ – The Cubs can be covered at all the outfield positions and at second base without Happ. In that respect, he’s redundant. But when you consider the *extreme* development in his bat over the past calendar year, and the fact that he’s a switch-hitter who can play all over the outfield and at second base, it’s not hard to see Happ breaking out into a monstrously valuable player as soon as next year (especially if he can work on those two-strike issues).
- Kyle Schwarber – Sure, he’s the guy most point to as being more valuable in trade than to the Cubs. He’s a DH, they say. Me? I still see Schwarber’s defensive upside in left field as “league average,” which is totally fine. And the bat? I remain a very big believer. Of all the realistically tradable young players on the Cubs, Schwarber is the only one whose bat I could really see becoming Bryant and Rizzo-like. (Eloy Jimenez would have been the other, but … well … sigh … I mean I’m happy about Jose Quintana.) I just have a really hard time thinking it’s best for the Cubs to part with all that offensive potential at such a young age, especially when you might not get great value given his first half last season.
- Albert Almora Jr. – There are great signals in the offensive development, and he’s going to have a chance to develop into a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder with a plus bat. Jason Heyward is probably Almora’s only competition right now for that center field job, and Heyward probably only takes it full-time if Almora is moved out. Maybe that’s a stomach-able move if the return is right, but the ability to plug in a guy like Almora – well, what he could be, at least – for the next half decade in center field sure sounds compelling.
At the end of it, am I saying these five guys are totally untradable? Of course not. Bring me your offers, so to speak, and I’ll mull the value proposition for the Cubs. These guys are mentioned precisely because it’s plausible they could be moved (unlike Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Willson Contreras).
I’m saying only that, on a case-by-case basis, it isn’t obvious which of these guys the Cubs can afford to move or should be willing to risk trading away. Given the needs in the rotation, it sure seems like the Cubs may have to suck it up and deal one of these guys, but there’ll be pain associated no matter who it is.
And because you’ll absolutely demand that I name names, I’ll say that Happ and Almora seem the most movable at this time, but I don’t want to mislead by saying that: it truly depends on what the other team wants, what the Cubs’ other longer term plans are, and what is available on the other side of the table. It’s not at all hard to imagine scenarios where those two AREN’T the right guys to move (because of the pitcher available or the roster plans thereafter or whatever other plausible thing you can conjure in your mind – that’s why this stuff is difficult!).