A Less Rushed Evaluation of Cubs’ Trade Deadline Moves
Pour eight ounces of anything into a 16-ounce glass and you get the proverbial example of relative optimism versus pessimism. But whether we judge the glass as half-filled or half-empty, most of us are asking the wrong question.
That’s because our feelings about the glass say little about what’s in it. Are the contents poison? Fresh or spoiled? Enough to quench a thirst? The right vintage for pairing with fish?*
This year’s trade deadline reminded me of this lesson. The Cubs were active, and fans generally feel good about any roster churn that doesn’t disrupt the core. But setting aside the temporary excitement of trade season, how should we really judge the these three trades from a bottom-line, clear-eyed perspective?
First, let’s acknowledge the obvious. The Cubs lacked enough trade assets to realistically land any of the bigger names without giving up at least one key contributor on the major-league roster. Thus, other teams with better prospect depth naturally had a better chance for the likes of Manny Machado, Brad Hand, Chris Archer, Zach Britton, etc.
Second, the Cubs’ most important roster additions remain getting Kris Bryant, Yu Darvish and Brandon Morrow off the DL healthy and productive for the playoffs. If all three can do so, I daresay the Cubs are the probable National League favorites.
But because the Cubs didn’t know which ones will come back fully healthy, it was impossible to focus on just one target as an insurance policy. This is what the Dodgers were able to do by trading for Machado to replace the injured Corey Seager, and the Red Sox by acquiring Ian Kinsler to cover for Dustin Pedroia.
Understanding this, then how should we judge the Cubs’ three deadline deals for Jesse Chavez, Cole Hamels, and Brandon Kintzler?
For the little given up, they struck me as good deals for the regular season but with probably marginal effect on the playoffs. All three pitchers are 34-35 years old with average to poor numbers prior to joining the Cubs. We could see a change-of-scenery bump with each. But all have played full seasons, so how much gas any of them have left for an extra month of playoff baseball is a wild card.
Hamels’ name-recognition and past exploits most excites fans hoping for a big rebound. The most famous such bounceback player the Cubs ever acquired mid-season was Rick Sutcliffe. However, he was six years younger than Hamels and still in his prime. So we shouldn’t expect that kind of a rebound in this recent case.
There’s also a lot of hopeful chatter about how Hamels’ numbers this year are skewed by the Texas Ranger’s batter-friendly home park, but didn’t we hear this with Tyler Chatwood too? Plus this optimism (more “feelings” over a half-filled glass) overlooks that Hamels’ has pitched in Texas since 2015, and his numbers in Arlington have marched up from a 3.66 ERA in 2015 to 6.41 ERA this year. So one must acknowledge the park hasn’t changed in those years, just an aging arm.
The good news is Hamels doesn’t need to be Sutcliffe. He just has to be a better No. 5 than Tyler Chatwood, which means continuing to average about an inning more per start with a lower ERA. With Hamels returning to the NL and a playoff environment, this seems a reasonable gamble.
Even then, the Cubs really hope Hamels isn’t needed for any playoff starts. If Darvish cannot come back or one of the other top starters goes down, one shouldn’t expect Hamel to be better than what John Lackey gave the Cubs in the 2016 and 2017 playoffs. The best of those Lackey starts was surrendering three runs in five innings.
That said, one hopes Hamels could be an effective playoff bullpen arm in the mold of Clayton Richard and Trevor Cahill in 2015.
Speaking of the bullpen, Kintzler is certainly an upgrade over the various relievers on the Iowa Shuttle. He could benefit most from a change of scenery from the Washington Nationals’ zoo. That said, I wouldn’t slot him ahead of Steve Cishek and Pedro Strop on the right-handed setup man depth chart just yet. And in terms of Chavez, it could be a coin toss whether he makes the playoff roster.
So overall, I give the Cubs’ braintrust a B+ for giving up little in a slim-pickings trade environment for a team with few upper-minor-league trade assets. They did give the clubhouse and the fans a psychological boost. This allows the rest of the regular season to be about holding off the Brewers, avoiding injuries, and hoping for the healthy return of all three key injured players.
Then it will be onto playoff roster planning, with a lot of interesting questions still outstanding there. So whether you are a glass half-filled or -empty person, don’t take your eye off the most important parts of what the rest of the season contains.
* If you want to push the glass analogy into full red pill/blue pill territory, consider if the liquid is alcohol and its only purpose is to both escape reality and “feel” nothing. Then all that matters is what bottle is pouring into the glass.