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Cubs Wed Jul 15 2015

What's Realistic for the Cubs at the Trade Deadline?

Chicago CubsFor the first time in the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer tenure, the Cubs are in position to buy at the deadline. But just because they're currently sitting in a playoff spot, doesn't mean they'll sell off their deep stable of prospects to make a run in 2015.

It also takes two to tango. You might want David Price, but he's not available despite the Tigers being 3.5 behind in the wild card and their best player on the shelf for the next six weeks. Their owner is old and wants a ring before he croaks. Crazy trade ideas get bantered about all the time, but they seldom (if ever) come to fruition. Stephen Strasburg isn't getting dealt for Mookie Betts.

The Cubs have been rumored to be in the market for the holy trinity: starters, relievers, and hitters. Every team could use a guy from each of those groups, right? But if we know anything about the Cubs front office, the move will be calculated. They know the young hitters that make up the majority of their lineup aren't close to peak yet, and pulling out the stops for 13 starts from a pitcher that's going to be a free agent in November doesn't make much sense when looking at the big picture. And before we get started, nobody is giving up a stud player for Albert Almora. Sure, he was the Cubs' top prospect once upon a time, but he's struggled as he's moved up through the minors because of real difficulties with plate discipline and consistent power. Teams aren't interested in struggling prospects unless they're getting them at a discount.

If the Cubs are going to acquire a starter, it'll either be a top-of-the-rotation guy with multiple years left on his contract, or a mid-rotation guy that's bound for free agency this winter. Nothing else makes sense. Johnny Cueto would be amazing, but why give up a Javier Baez-type prospect when he would just cost money in the offseason? Remember, the Cubs are contending earlier than "plan." This isn't as good as it gets.

Jeff Samardzija -- same thing. Though he's not really an ace, they've been down that road before, and though he prefers Chicago, the Cubs aren't going to offer him more than the $80-plus million they did before 2014. You can forget about Scott Kazmir too, because yes, even Billy Beane gets a little gun shy after deals (that made complete sense at the time) with certain GMs don't go as intended.

Though James Shields has been rumored to be on the block, and the Cubs offered him a contract late last winter in the three-year, $60 million range, and his contract after this season is three years and $63 million, he's having a rough season in what has traditionally been a pitcher's haven. The money and potential early dismissal (he can opt out after 2016) cut down all the upside unless the Padres eat a bunch of cash, and that doesn't seem likely considering the rest of their team is built to win today.

Teammates of guys like Cueto and Shields, on the other hand, are most definitely available and make some sense. Mike Leake is a league-average pitcher who's sporting strikeout and walk rates on par with his career numbers. He handles the bat well, can pinch run a la Travis Wood (which is valuable as a starting pitcher, though not so much once you get to roster expansion in September). Ian Kennedy can be lights out when he keeps the ball in the park, but that hasn't happened this year -- he sports a 2.1 HR/9 rate. That's another way of saying he wouldn't cost a ton and has massive upside (if you get lucky).

Marlins pitchers Mat Latos and Dan Haren also fit the one-year mold of mid-rotation starters, but each comes with warts. Latos has an ERA near 5.00 despite solid peripheral numbers, and Haren has been every bit of average each of the past three seasons before bouncing back this year to sport a WHIP of 1.02. He's familiar with pitching all over after having spent the last four campaigns playing for different teams, but isn't necessarily nuts about moving places after it was unknown whether he'd report to Miami following his preseason trade from Los Angeles. These two probably rank as the most likely targets for the Cubs.

On the other end of the spectrum Cole Hamels might finally be available at a price that isn't psychotic. Ruben Amaro Jr. is in his last days as GM of the Phillies with Andy MacPhail coming on board. Hamels is 31, and is under contract for three more seasons at $23.5 millon per, with a team option for a fourth year at $20 million (or a vesting option of $24 million if he has 400 IP in the previous two years plus 200 in the free agent season along with not being on the DL at season's end with an arm injury). Though he's having his worst season since 2010 mostly due to a higher than normal walk rate, Hamels has gobs of playoff and World Series experience, eats innings, and is left-handed.

It would most certainly cost a guy like Baez and maybe even Billy McKinney to secure the services of Hamels, but if you're going to open up the prospect war chest, he's the type of guy that's worth doing it for.

Though the Cubs were probably looking at the reliever market aggressively back in May, the return of Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez has shored things up quite nicely. And with Rafael Soriano but a few weeks away from being ready for action, the necessity for an arm in the bullpen isn't readily apparent. If one of Jason Motte, Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop or the aforementioned Grimm or Ramirez goes down, however, it wouldn't be surprising to see the front office move on guys like Tyler Clippard, Jonathan Papelbon (who's just about ready to take out a full page ad in newspapers across the country to get out of Philadelphia), or Mark Lowe.

With all the talk about the Cubs being in the pitching market, it's the offense that's held them back the past month. It's led to fans yearning for, and the media speculating about, a deal for a hitter, but where would that guy play? Miguel Montero, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Starlin Castro (for the rest of 2015 at least), Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler are all entrenched at their positions, and Kyle Schwarber is going to need a place to play next season, whether it's at catcher or left field.

Chris Coghlan, for as much as people like to imagine someone else playing his position, has been really solid this season. He sports an OPS+ of 110 despite having a BABIP nearly 40 points lower than his career average while hitting the ball as hard as he ever has. Though he's not much of a defender, significantly upgrading offensively in left field isn't really possible without going south on defense. Not to mention the hitting market is especially thin. Justin Upton might be available, but it will take a king's ransom to pry him away from San Diego despite being in his free agent season. That's not really worth it when guys like Schwarber and McKinney are beating down the door at Wrigley Field.

That leaves center field as the only destination to upgrade offensively. Dexter Fowler is sadly having his worst season as a pro (in his walk year, no less), but if you thought the corner outfield market was weak (we're talking Martin Prado and Gerardo Parra as the best non-Upton's available), the market for guys that can defend the center pasture will make you gag. Charlie Blackmon may be available, but he's a .246/.289/.379 hitter away from Coors -- basically a worse version of Fowler.

One guy who makes some sense as a possible difference-maker is Ben Revere of the Phillies. He wouldn't be an everyday starter, but his speed (21 steals) would be a great weapon off the bench. Considering the amount of close games the Cubs have played this year, that kind of aggressive baserunning, especially when rosters expand in September, could be a true weapon that Joe Maddon would love to have in his arsenal. If it's not Revere, though, it won't be any more than a bench bat like Jeff Baker or Ryan Raburn.

The talk of any deal for a Mets starting pitcher needs to stop. They aren't desperate enough to trade a guy like Noah Syndergaard or Jacob deGrom for Starlin Castro, and the Cubs aren't giving up Russell or Schwarber for them. Epstein and Hoyer would rather pay straight cash for pitchers this winter than give up their low-cost studs.

The Cubs will make a move at the trade deadline, but don't count on it being too crazy. Though Hamels make sense and is likely available, the free agent class this winter is loaded with aces the Cubs are interested in. Game changing hitters aren't out there, and there's no place for Maddon to put them without screwing up the present or very near future. If you want to be optimistic, get yourself excited for a Latos or Haren, and stop the foolishness of thinking the Mets want Castro so badly they'll give up a cheap ace to get him.

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Lou / July 16, 2015 6:22 PM

JA Happ may be another target as #5 starter.

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