One of the latest trade/free agency scenarios making the rounds is that the Cubs will look to add a big-time centerfielder/leadoff hitter once they round out the starting rotation. If they pony up for Jake Arrieta, they’ll look to acquire Christian Yelich via trade. And if they can bridge the gap with Alex Cobb, they’d use the salary savings to sign Lorenzo Cain.
We’ve heard about interest in Yelich from different places at different times, but Bruce Levine has really been banging the drum of late. In both print and on the radio, he’s promoted the possibility that the Cubs will pursue a hitter to set the table and play center. It’s been presented as more of an opinion, though, and is at least partially based on Levine not believing in Albert Almora Jr’s potential. Or maybe it’s more fair to say that Levine doesn’t think Joe Maddon believes in Almora.
I’m not sure how much of this is coming from personal conviction and how much is legitimately informed by sourced information and even off-the-record conversations, but I’m having a really hard time squaring it in my mind. A lot of that is my own admitted affinity for Almora, who I have been saying for quite some time is capable of holding down center for a World Series team. More of it is a lack of faith in either of the moves in question actually making sense.
We’ll start with Cain, who will be 32 in April and figures to command something in the neighborhood of $18 million AAV over four or five years. He has been an excellent defensive player to this point in his career, even logging the most put-outs in baseball this past season. Even though that’s sort of like racking up a big RBI total, he’s at least making the plays he needs to and then some.
Things kind of start to fall apart after that, though. Father Time is a heavy bastard and it’s hard to carry him on your back as you get further into your 30’s. Cain doesn’t figure to have quite the same range as he goes forward, so that’s a concern. A bigger concern is his offense, which isn’t particularly well suited — as in, not at all — to batting leadoff.
Cain has only logged 225 total plate appearances from the No. 1 spot in the order and he boasts a mere 6.7 percent career walk rate, part of the reason he’s got a lifetime .342 OBP despite a .290 average. And that’s from a guy with several years of experience. Almora, whose inability to draw walks has long been a bugaboo, put up a 5.9 percent walk rate and a .338 OBP last season.
That isn’t me saying Almora should be the leadoff hitter in Chicago, it’s saying Cain should not be. To take it a step further, I’m saying with no small measure of confidence that it’d be silly to pay one of these men roughly 36 times the salary of the other for a difference in production that would be negligible at best. And that’s not even factoring in that Cain has likely plateaued offensively while Almora could still improve a great deal.
Now let’s move on to Yelich, whose very nice .369 OBP is nearly 80 points higher than a career average that matches Cain’s. He’s a lefty hitter, which is a mark in his favor. He’s also nearly six years younger than Cain and has an incredibly team-friendly contract that counts just a little more than $7 million toward the luxury tax number. On paper, Yelich is an easy choice.
The big issue here is what it’d cost to get him in a trade with the Marlins, who, having already purged all the salary they need to, can hold out for a great return. You figure that Almora and/or Ian Happ would be expendable as a return, but there are some problems with either or even both of them anchoring a trade. Not only do the Marlins want to add to their stable of pitchers, they may not be interested in getting players whose arb clocks have already started ticking.
I’m not privy to the Marlins’ internal rebuild timeline, but I’m guessing it’s not only two or three years. So would they really be interested in a pair of players whose salaries will start increasing before the team is really ready to compete? Probably not. Then you consider that the lack of minor league pitching depth in the Cubs system means that they can ill afford to part with much of it, while the lack of impact talent means other teams aren’t really enticed by it.
On top of all of that, I’ve got some serious questions about how much additional value Yelich really offers from a pure production standpoint. He’s an excellent player, no doubt, I just wonder how much of the perception of him is driven by that cheap contract (which is a totally valid reason to think very highly of him). Since we’re talking about a trade, we need to evaluate what Yelich brings to the table against what the Cubs would have to give up to get him. Does he provide a surplus? Maybe, but I’m not sold that it’s a sure thing.
Not that certainty exists in professional sports, and I am aware that some gambles need to be made from time to time. I’m just not able to wrap my brain around the idea of signing Arrieta for what I believe would be too much money over too many years and then doubling down by trading a couple players off, ostensibly because there’s not enough money left to sign free agents.
Likewise, the move for Cain would be predicated on the fact that signing Cobb would leave enough money to do so. Spending on an aging centerfielder who shouldn’t bat leadoff just because you have the room sounds like something Jim Hendry would have done. Which means it should not happen.
Above all, I go back to Theo Epstein saying that having a set leadoff hitter is a luxury rather than a necessity. Making a move for either Cain or Yelich flies directly in the face of that concept, even with the Cubs being so unsettled at the top of the order that Kris Bryant makes sense as an option. After turning the whole thing over a few times, I just can’t find a way that either of these big splashes would really work out for the Cubs.