At the 2017 Trade Deadline, the Cubs sent two of the top remaining positional prospects in their system, Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes, as well as a PTBNL/cash, to the Tigers for backup catcher Alex Avila and reliever Justin Wilson.
At the time, Avila was nothing more than a rental and has since become a free agent. But Wilson, on the other hand, had a year and a half of team control remaining and is still controlled by the Cubs through 2018. The Cubs needed him at the time, but so much of the thinking was they could already see they would need him in 2018, too.
I think both originally and in-an-ideal-world, Wilson was supposed to form a formidable one-two punch with Wade Davis at the back-end of the Cubs bullpen in the postseason, before taking over the reins as the full-time closer in 2018. After all, in the first half of 2017, he earned a 2.68 ERA, 3.23 FIP and saved 13 games in Detroit. He already was a good closer.
But after coming to the Cubs, Wilson struggled mightily (5.09 ERA, 3.72 FIP), particularly with his control (20.9% BB rate!), and was even left off the NLCS roster altogether.
Now, there’s still a chance he could return to the Cubs bullpen and regain his form in Chicago, or …
While #Padres will listen again on Chaska's Brad Hand as will BAL on Britton, #mntwins could make another run at LHP Justin Wilson, per multiple sources. Ex-DET closer flopped w/#Cubs, carries $4.3 M arb projection as 5+ guy. MN wanted him badly when NYY moved JW after 2015.
— Mike Berardino (@MikeBerardino) November 22, 2017
Well, then. It sounds like the Minnesota Twins could make a run at Justin Wilson. I did not see that coming.
What does that mean for and about the Cubs? Let’s think about it.
For one thing, as Mike Berardino mentions, Wilson is heading into his final year of arbitration, which means he isn’t cheap. Of course, $4.3 million is below what he’s likely to be worth in 2017, but he’s hardly a sure thing and $4.3M is not nothing. But then again, when he’s himself, $4.3M is a steal for the sort of numbers he’s capable of producing.
Consider the early 2018 Steamer projections for a moment. That system is projecting a relative bounce back for Wilson in 2018, even after his second-half meltdown: 65.0 IP, 3.15 ERA, 3.32 FIP, 1.o fWAR – 37 saves. If you consider the cost of 1.0 win above replacement to be something around the $8-10M range, Wilson at $4.3M is fantastic.
If you also believe that the Twins really did want him “badly” after 2015, and maybe even his numbers against them over the years (1.23 ERA, .509 OPS) play into things, then maybe you can squint and a see a team that values him more highly than the Cubs/market (which means there could be some available excess value).
But does that make the Cubs … sellers? Nah. At least, that’s not the way to think about it.
First and foremost, the Cubs aren’t going to move Wilson if they believe he’s going to live up to those projections for the 2018 season. Full stop. Trade value or not, he’s staying. They need relief help as much as anyone and he could very well return to the guy he was before Chicago.
But if, for some reason, the Twins overwhelm the Cubs with an offer, and the Cubs have concerns that the fit in Chicago just isn’t right, then why not move him? They can recoup some of the value they gave up in the deal last July and spend the $4-5M in 2018 salary (and luxury tax cap space) elsewhere. Plus, given the huge current free agent relief class (not to mention the various trade possibilities), they might even be able to replace him pretty efficiently.
This is one of the benefits of a being a big-market team – you can trade a good player for a prospect and then immediately go out and sign someone to replace his production. It doesn’t always work out and you can’t guarantee that free agents will follow the plan, but it’s a possibility. And, sure, it’ll cost you more dollars in the end, but that’s sort of the point. That’s the benefits of big-market financial flexibility: if you’re savvy, you can “buy” prospects.
If I were forced to bet, I’d wager that Wilson is with the Cubs on Opening Day, although not in the closer’s role. The upside he provides (closer-caliber reliever when he’s right) at such a low remaining cost ($4.3M) is just too enticing to pass up for a team that looks ready to return to the postseason.
But in the meantime, there’s not reason not to hear teams out, especially if they’re willing to go bananas.