Monday, June 30, 2014

Trade Winds: The Perennial Losing Chicago Cubs

Unlike the teams I've profiled that would appear to be sellers, the Cubs did not add salary this season. In fact, they dropped about $14M in payroll from 2013, continuing a downward trend that began after about $144M budgeted for 2010. With at least five free agents pending, the Cubs certainly will be attempting to have a similar July that they did last year when they cashed in Scott Feldman, Matt Garza, Scott Hairston, and Alfonso Soriano. Theo Epstein and company are shrewd in trades, especially when there is a seller's market like with Garza.

On the plus side for the Cubs, they have shown improvement so far. Their .425 winning percentage is better than the last two seasons and their run differential of -14 gives the impression that the Cubs are rather competitive.  And there is a beginning of a core in Chicago that should help them get better provided they can find talent to surround those players. That's where the trade deadline comes in. While buyers will often end up regretting the deals they make if it doesn't result in a ring, sellers can grab young, team-controlled talent.

Would the Cubs make attractive partners for Atlanta? First, let's look at the pending free agents, the players the Cubs would feel the most pressure to trade rather than possibly get nothing depending on a qualifying offer.

Amazingly, no one wanted Jason Hammel this offseason. He didn't find employment until right before the season when the Cubs locked him up to an one-year, $6M contract. Hammel had been a very good starter for the Orioles in 2012 with a 3.29 FIP and 1.24 WHIP, but his numbers were poor last season. Unlike other average starters, Hammel's issue was that he wasn't an innings eater. He threw 170+ in three consecutive seasons for the Rockies between 2009-10, but his average in the five years since becoming a starter was 156 innings. Teams will pay for less than spectacular talent, but they expect innings. One of Hammel's teammates in Chicago, Edwin Jackson, has made an entire career of just throwing innings.

Since joining Chicago, Hammel has had probably his best run of pitching of his career. The 31 year-old has a 2.98 ERA and 3.11 FIP to match it. If that wasn't good enough, his WHIP of 1.01 is ridiculous considering his career and he already has one more strikeout than he did last season. Hammel looks like he's headed to a big pay day. Will it come after a couple of months with a Braves jersey on? Well, the Braves are linked to Hammel and with the injury to Gavin Floyd and recent string of "meh" outings from Aaron Harang, the interest would appear genuine. Hammel would seem easier to acquire than Jeff Samardzija, but can we buy into Hammel? His numbers show no real sign of a possible return to the mean, except that he does have the best control of his career (1.8 BB/9 compared to 3 BB/9 in his career). However, the Braves aren't the only team that could use Hammel. Unlike others, the Braves don't have a deep minor league system. Hammel would seem like a tough player to acquire without getting very creative and possibly adding a third team.

Emilio Bonifacio would also be a target, but he carries a certain amount of risk. Bonifacio has yet to begin baseball activities after being placed on the DL on June 13th with a strained right oblique. One of the most difficult injuries to get a read on is oblique injuries, as our old friend Tim Hudson knows. Provided he starts to progress, Bonifacio should be targeted by many teams for his flexibility, speed, and switch-hit bat. He was a big pick-up for the Royals last year as they tried to make a run toward a Wild Card spot and he hit .285 with a .700 OPS and 16 steals. Bonifacio has experience at all three outfield positions along with all of the infield spots except for first. He's hitting .261 and is overexposed as a starter. As a backup, he fits a nice 25th man role.

Chicago's other free agents are unlikely to attract much attention from Atlanta. They have no need for catcher John Baker and the other two, Nate Schierholtz and Carlos Villanueva, have been pretty bad this season. Offensively, outside of Bonifacio, there would seem to not be a decent fit. None of their players fit much of a role for the Braves.

Of course, of guys the Braves can team-control past this season, Samardzija would appear to intrigue the Braves. Averaging 8.6 K's every nine innings with a 1.20 WHIP, the former Notre Dame receiver has been talked about more about his win-loss record than anything. He recently declined an extension offer and the Cubs might want to cash in a huge chip when his value is at its highest. Problem with Samardzija for the Braves is that they have been burned by the big trade before. Giving up a lot of talent and not being able to sign Samardzija to a long-term contract would be a tough pill to swallow. Of course, if the Braves win it all, it becomes definitely easier to swallow that pill with a smile. Still, I can't see the Braves making the midseason blockbuster trade in this case.

They could instead seek out the price on lefty James Russell. With one more year of team control through arbitration left for Russell, he would appear to be a good target, though his numbers this season are not tremendous against lefties (.220/.304/.415). However, he's been very good of late and in his last 19 games, he has pitched 15 innings with only one unearned run allowed to go with eight hits, four walks, and 12 K's. He is a very good groundball pitcher.  While his numbers are good against righties this season, it probably is a little flukish and Russell should be kept from facing lefties. If the Cubs don't want to deal Russell, they might be more open to trading Wesley Wright, who they got last season from the Astros. He's similar to Russell as a LOOGY, though his K rate is a little down. Either pitcher would appear to fit a roll and keep the Cubs from possibly paying $4M or so for two LOOGY's next season.

The Cubs seem like a perfect target for a two birds, one stone type trade, the kind of move the Braves made two years to get Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson from the Cubs. Bonifacio and one of the lefties would appear to fill two holes for the Braves, pending Bonifacio's health. It would probably be less demanding of a trade than the Padres and Diamondbacks would demand for Seth Smith and Joe Thatcher, though the quality of the package is significantly less, too. Either way, the Cubs are a team to keep an eye on for Atlanta. I doubt the Braves make a move this July for a starter, but the Cubs have other pieces the Braves might be keeping an eye on. While reports will talk about how the Braves's scouts are at Cubs games to see a starter, it might be the other roster pieces they see as potential fits that the scouts are really there to see.

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