Since the story of the day appears to be the budget, let’s muse openly – and speculatively! – about how the Cubs can free up some scratch.
Whether the Cubs took a good risk last year on Tyler Chatwood or not is, right now, neither here nor there. We have only this moment. And, in this moment, the Cubs have a 29-year-old pitcher under contract for two more years and $25.5 million, coming off one of the wildest – literal pitching wildness – seasons in baseball history. Chatwood’s youth and incredible stuff are obvious pluses, but there can be no mealymouthing the reality of his role on the Cubs right now: he does not have one.
Even in a world where Chatwood bounces back in Spring Training and looks brilliant, in what role will the Cubs trust him out of the gate in 2019? Certainly not in the rotation, where there are five locked-in starting pitchers already, and where Mike Montgomery and Alec Mills should absolutely be given next ups if someone is injured in the Spring. And in a bullpen full of questions, how could you give meaningful innings to Chatwood while he tries to figure things out? And could he even figure things out in that way?
That is all to say, it would take an absolutely perfect, unexpected, and presently unpredictable confluence of events to yield Tyler Chatwood throwing meaningful quality innings in the early part of next season for the Cubs. Absent an injury of his own, that means only two things are possible:
(1) The Cubs dump Chatwood at some point this offseason; or
(2) The Cubs use a bullpen spot to just stash Chatwood until he somehow demonstrates usability.
I don’t love either of those options, and I’d imagine the Cubs don’t either. Instead, I’m sure they’d greatly prefer a modified number one, where they dump Chatwood in trade, saving some money in the process.
The problem there is that, even given his youth and his raw stuff, how much is Chatwood worth in salary? Tyson Ross just got about $6 million yesterday on a one-year deal, and as a buy low candidate (were he a free agent), I could see Chatwood getting something similar.
Might the Cubs be willing to unload Chatwood right now for a mere $3 million in savings spread over two years? Sure. Maybe. You’ve seen the financial rumors, right?
But it would be a much more efficient and effective use of that dumping process if the Cubs could just convert the dollars committed to Chatwood to dollars committed to a more clearly usable piece. Sure, maybe it’s a piece that costs a whole lot more in salary than you would otherwise prefer to pay, but that’s the whole idea here. It’s a bad contract swap.
To my wandering eye, one of the most obvious fits for a Chatwood swap is Toronto Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin. The veteran backstop will play next season at age 36, and has seen his bat slip from solidly above average before 2016 to almost exactly league average in 2016 and 2017, and then solidly below average in 2018 (.194/.338/.325, 91 wRC+). He still plays decent defense (at third base, too, in a pinch), and he remains an excellent pitch-framer.
On a Blue Jays club loaded with young catching options, Martin has become a veteran back-up. That’s not a bad guy to have, but he’s going to be paid $20 million this season. Is that really how the Blue Jays want to deploy their cash?
For the Cubs, of course they wouldn’t want to spend $20 million on a veteran back-up catcher either … but they’re already spending $12.5 million this year on Chatwood, and another $13 million next year. Is it possible the Blue Jays would rather roll the dice on a Chatwood bounceback (for two years) than have Martin in the house for one more year as a bit of a luxury?
You could play with the dollars at the margins to accommodate each team’s risk tolerance (and the larger AAV hit in Martin’s deal ($16.4M)), but doesn’t there seem like a fit here? The Cubs want veteran leadership and could definitely stand to add a quality back-up catcher with top-tier receiving skills. Moreover, the Cubs, you’ll recall, aggressively pursued Martin as a free agent, so, at least at that time, there was a clear interest in what he could bring.
Pull this kind of deal off and, even if it’s cost neutral (i.e., Cubs have to chip in some cash), it would still net them some savings overall, because they would have just added their veteran back-up catcher without actually taking on additional salary. It’s not a huge savings, mind you, but apparently every little bit helps right now.
It just seems like an obvious fit, at least for the Cubs. Maybe they don’t want to give up on Chatwood after just one whacked out year? That’s about the best counterargument I could offer from the Cubs’ perspective, but then, it’s not like he has a clear and open role anyway, even if they want to give him a shot. Where are the innings going to come from?
As best I can counter for the Blue Jays, the reason they might not be into this swap would be either that they want a veteran presence in the clubhouse as they rebuild (which, as we know, does have value), they plan to surprisingly contend next year (Vlad Guerrero Jr. is going to be insanely good, after all), or they would rather hold onto Martin until the Trade Deadline and try to get some value that way.
So maybe this isn’t a slam dunk obvious move for these two teams when you get deeper into the weeks. At a surface level, as we shoot the breeze here in the middle of the Winter Meetings, though, doesn’t it make a lot of sense?