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Cubs Sat Jul 05 2014
Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein got offered one of the top hitting prospects in the minor leagues, and they didn't hesitate to make their move. For the third consecutive year, the Cubs have traded 40 percent of their starting rotation to add prospects -- this time, doing it all in one deal.
The Cubs tried on a few occasions to extend Jeff Samardzija past 2015, even offering him a reported $85 million over five years in their latest overture a few weeks ago. Samardzija declined, in search of Homer Bailey money, and it became an utter guarantee that he was going to be traded. Jason Hammel, a $6 million reclamation grab in free agency last winter, was always thought to be a tradeable piece, as the Cubs have done with Paul Maholm and Scott Feldman in 2012 and 2013.
The A's are in win now (and next year) mode, and are trading for two guys that are at their absolute peak. Prior to this season, Samardzija was a guy that could go out and throw 200 innings, but was never consistent enough for a full season of quality pitching as a starter. He's put together a higher WAR so far in 2014 than he has in any full season he's pitched in the major leagues. His control has shown massive improvements over the past few seasons, and now has three pitches he can consistently put in the bottom third of the strike zone. Can he continue this type of performance for more than three months? That's always been the question for Samardzija, and he will now have to prove it in the tougher pitching league (though in a great ballpark for throwers). There is zero chance the A's sign him long term, and will either be traded next year so Billy Beane can re-stack his farm system, or he'll be allowed to hit free agency -- where the Cubs might be in prime position to re-acquire him.
Hammel is having a career year in Chicago, and the two main reasons have been health, and a change in what pitches he throws the most. Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio is 3-for-3 in helping pitchers on one-year guaranteed deals get to the next level and become assets for the organization. Hammel was well aware that the Cubs would probably trade him if he started off well, but he didn't care, and said he'd still consider signing with the Cubs next offseason if they were interested.
In return for their top two trade targets, the Cubs keep adding to their stable of premier hitters in the minor leagues. Baseball has seen a substantial dip in hitting and run scoring as chronicled recently by the New York Times and Buster Olney of ESPN, and the theory that Hoyer and Epstein are rolling with is to stack the lineup with eight excellent hitters, and let the pitching work itself out like it has each of the last three years at the big league level.
Addison Russell is the centerpiece of the deal from the Cubs perspective, as a true shortstop who can hit everything while also displaying the patience of a hitter much older than he (20). He's a consensus Top 10 prospect in all of baseball, and despite missing a chunk of 2014 with a torn hamstring, he's smacked around double-A pitching, and has a chance at making the big league team at the start of 2015 because of his advanced approach and slick defense.
You might wonder why the Cubs acquired another shortstop considering that Starlin Castro is under contract for five (or six) more years at a modest $44 million and his having the best offensive season of his career (based on wOBA), along with Javier Baez (the team's top prospect) playing the same position and starting to hammer triple-A pitching. The answer is that the front office wants assets. Whether these guys end up playing for the big league team, or are dealt for other players to fill holes doesn't matter. Commodities are commodities, and if you want to start imagining a future lineup, you can probably pencil in Russell at SS, Castro at 2B (he said he'll move wherever), and Baez at 3B (moving there to keep his power bat healthy, plus he has the arm). That would then push the team's other super-prospect Kris Bryant out to RF, which is the spot many people thought he'd move to anyway when he was drafted.
The position flexibility of these players will be key if they're all to make it to the big leagues, and not every one of them will reach their lofty expectations. More big time prospects equals a better chance for the team to be successful long term, even if a few guys flame out at some point.
Billy Mckinney is the other main prospect the Cubs got in return, and he was widely considered the A's second best prospect (behind Russell). The 2013 first round pick is just 19 years old and holding his own in high-A. He's probably confined to left field in his future, but his bat will play at any position, and as a lefty, he's a wanted commodity in a sport that is starved for offense.
Dan Straily is soft tossing control artist that uses four pitches and speed changes to get guys out, and he'll start in triple-A Iowa for the Cubs as the team figures out how to fill in the holes of the major league rotation (likely with some combination of Dallas Beeler, Chris Rusin, and Tsuyoshi Wada).
The organization has been wildly successful trading starting pitchers the last few years, and have seemingly done so at the perfect point in time. Below are the four starters the Cubs have traded the past two years. The ERA figures listed are, in order, their ERA with the Cubs during the season they were traded, their post-trade ERA for the rest of that season, and their total ERA in the season's after they were traded:
Ryan Dempster - 2.25/5.09/4.73 (retired)
Paul Maholm - 3.74/3.54/4.56
Matt Garza - 3.17/4.38/4.10
Scott Feldman - 3.46/4.27/3.92
All four pitchers have an ERA over 4.00 if you take into account every single start since the day they were traded, and the only guy who's gotten under 4.00 in the years after they were traded was Scott Feldman, who only sneaked under that mark after his last start.
In return for those four, the Cubs have three current bullpen arms with ERAs of 1.19, 2.83, and 4.14 (Neil Ramirez, Pedro Strop, and Justin Grimm -- who's ERA was at 3.02 before his last two outings) along with two of their top pitching prospects in the minors in CJ Edwards and Kyle Hendricks. Don't forget about Arodys Vizcaino, who's working his way back into the bullpen after surgery. Ramirez is a likely candidate to make a run at a rotation spot again next year too. Mike Olt is tied for second on the team in homers despite massive struggles making consistent contact.
Not only has the front office dealt guys at the perfect time, they've gotten fantastic returns on their investments. Samardzija and Hammel were arguably their two best assets out of all the starters the past few seasons, and they got the highest quality haul in return -- including a Top 5 talent in all the minor leagues.
The Cubs have once again weakened the current team to strengthen their chances at long term success. Starting in 2015, 'The Plan' will come to fruition with the graduation of many of their top prospects.