There are basically two ways to look at Friday’s blockbuster trade between the Oakland A’s and the Chicago Cubs that sent Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija to Oakland for Addison Russell, Billy McKinney and Dan Straily.
Number one, from the Cubs side, they just nabbed a top-10 prospect in baseball and continued putting together a group of prospects so impressive it makes one’s heart fill with glee.
The other is that, oh look, the hapless Cubs traded away two of their best four players from this season and now are continuing a cycle that hasn’t yielded them a World Series, insert something about “the curse”, etc.
The second one, even trying to remove my Cubs-shaded glasses, is shortsighted and a blatant misunderstanding of where the current state of the game is
It’s true that now, without Hammel and more importantly Samardzija, the Cubs have maybe three players they’re counting on to be a major part of the next good Cubs team — All-Star Starlin Castro, potential All-Star Anthony Rizzo and Jake Arrieta, who’s been very impressive this season after being a scrap heap pickup from the Orioles last year.
But look down to Iowa, Tennessee and even Daytona and try not to be impressed. Baseball Prospectus released its midseason top-50 prospect list Monday. It’s hard to read without tripping over Chicago Cubs players, as Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Russell, Arismendy Alcantara and Albert Almora all made the top 50 from a single farm system, with the first three making up half of the top-six prospects in baseball.
The thing about all those players is they’re position players. Most of them even play in the infield, with Baez and Alcantara being shortstop prospects who are learning other trades to get to the show quicker. Bryant, a third baseman, has been rumored to be able to play the outfield in case he’s needed there.
What one wouldn’t see is pitching, and they’d be right. There are a few okay arms in the system, like Kyle Hendricks, Dallas Beeler and C.J. Edwards, but no standout pitching prospects like Michael Wacha from St. Louis.
That could seem shortsighted, but to me, it seems like the Cubs have a fundamental understanding of what they do well — find pitching on the cheap. I mentioned Hendricks, who came over in the trade that sent Ryan Dempster to Texas. Edwards came from Texas as well, in the Matt Garza trade. Arrieta came from Baltimore with Pedro Strop in a trade for bargain-basement signing Scott Feldman. Even Straily could be a redemption story, as Arrieta as been beyond solid as a Cub after several underwhelming years in Baltimore. The same could have been said for Feldman or even former Cub Paul Maholm.
Hammel himself signed the Feldman special, taking a one-year deal, pitching his tail off for a few months and being the key to the Oakland deal, as Samardzija alone didn’t get it done.
Pitching is at an all-time high for the era, but the Cubs seem to be going the other direction — loading up on valuable hitters, surpluses at shortstop or not. They’re out in front of the curve, and even if half of their impressive prospect stack doesn’t turn out (after I left out first-round pick Kyle Schwarber, last year’s first-rounder from Oakland in McKinney and Jorge Soler), the odds are solely in their favor to generate top-flight talent out of this class. If it pans out at an above-average rate, the Cubs will be in great shape going forward.
Who knows? Maybe this winter or next year, the Cubs make a splash and sign a big pitcher or trade one of their many shortstops for some pitching help. With Castro turning things around, he could be a centerpiece of a lucrative package. Or Russell. Or Baez. Or Alcantara.
What Friday’s trade was about was asset-acquisition. The Cubs turned one real asset (Samardzija) into one for the future (Russell) that opens up a number of doors to make creative moves. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer can keep picking up pitchers on the cheap and flipping them, or finally keeping them as the wins creep up. Even with a leaky bullpen, the Cubs have had one of the best pitching staffs in baseball this season by advanced numbers like Wins Above Replacement and Field Independent Pitching, per Fangraphs.com, and anyone who has watched them for more than a game knows the offense has been the problem, not the defense.
So when analyzing this trade, it depends on your point of view. Sure, the Cubs glass got a little more empty for this season. But it looks like it’ll be half-full soon — and maybe filling up past that mark at a rapid pace.