That Manny Machado trade rumor mill sure has revved up early. Last week, we had the re-rumor of the Addison Russell for Machado. This week, the Dodgers are “maybe” interested (but doubtful) with shortstop Corey Seager sidelined by Tommy John surgery.
Rumor drama aside, it’s safe to say Machado will be traded by July 31. We also know Theo Epstein flagged the woeful playoff offense as among a trio of key improvement areas at his year-end news conference last October (In case you were wondering, the other two were replace free agent starting pitchers and reduce the bullpen’s league-high walk rate).
As most Cubs fans recall, the 2017 regular-season offense again produced the second-most runs in the NL. However, instead of posting the second-highest postseason OPS (.692) among playoff teams as it did 2016, the 2017 version largely floundered. Without the veteran bats of Dexter Fowler and David Ross, the Cubs managed the lowest OPS of the playoffs (.530), along with a 31 percent whiff rate.
So the question becomes how much of a lift – especially come the playoffs – might a bat of Machado’s caliber provide? And if not him, who? To assess this, let’s first analyze the team’s biggest, but still somewhat hidden, nemesis: Elite power-arms.
In the 2016 and 2017 playoffs, the Cubs faced eight such elite strikeout pitchers: the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto, the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill and Yu Darvish, Washington’s Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, and Corey Kluber of the Indians.
Those arms were dominant in general, but were far more so against the Cubs than other teams. In 15 starts against the Cubs, they combined for a 1.69 ERA, 90.1 innings pitches, and a 9.8 K/9 rate.
In 2016, however, a combination of gritty hitting and often equally dominant pitching helped the Cubs go 4-4 in games started by those elite power starters. Then by going 7-2 in all other playoff games, the Cubs had the margin needed for the championship.
But in 2017, the Cubs offense struggled and managed a 2-5 record in games started by elite power arms. They did well against the other starters, but this created an impossible-to-overcome deficit, especially against the power-arm-rich Dodgers.
Anti-Power-Pitching Specialists Wanted
Interestingly, the Cubs’ power-pitching weakness wasn’t limited to the postseason. It was just more magnified. Consider these regular-season stats from Baseball-Reference.com:As shown, only against power arms did the Cubs’ batting average drop significantly below league average. Plus the team’s 28 percent strikeout rate against power pitchers was the third highest in the NL. Thus, any potential lineup acquisition should start by analyzing the hitter’s power-pitcher numbers.
For discussion purposes, here are numbers for six different players or “types.” These aren’t trade recommendations, per se. But four of the players listed below will be free agents this winter, and Bryce Harper is included with an eye toward 2019.
It may surprise that Atlanta’s Nick Markakis emerges as perhaps the most attractive profile here. His high average, high OBP, and low K-rate against power arms would all improve the playoff lineup. His slugging is low, but the Cubs have no shortage there. In addition, trading for a Markakis-type would certainly cost less than would Machado.
The least attractive hitter type? Probably Josh Donaldson/Bryce Harper, as they most closely replicate the Cubs’ current splits against power arms: High K, lower contact rate. They do bring high slugging percentages, but an over-proliferation of that profile seemed to fail the Cubs in the NLCS against the Dodgers power arms.
For those intrigued by classic leadoff hitters, both Ender Inciarte and Dee Gordon would add that dimension to the playoff lineup. Both are high-contact hitters with good averages against power pitchers, not to mention their Gold Gloves and league-leading base-stealing ability.
A big difference between the two is that Inciarte – if Atlanta ever made him available – would probably cost just below a Jose Quintana-ish package. In contrast, Seattle got a relative steal for an older Gordon. He cost just three middling Single-A prospects, an intriguing variable when weighing all costs and benefits.
Last, we come to Machado. He would certainly bring an experienced bat, including against power pitchers. But by how much would he improve the Cubs’ playoff win chances as compared to his trade costs. To consider, let’s introduce a final element to this analysis: A comparison to Cubs players he would potentially replace.
Weighing Russell and Baez
Let’s first note that, while Machado theoretically could replace an outfield bat (if Kris Bryant moved to outfield), we’re going to simplify things by focusing on just Addison Russell and Javier Baez. Here are those numbers:Surprised? Machado and Russell’s productivity are actually far more similar than expected. But what you get with Machado is a more experienced bat that makes a lot more contact. Machado’s 43-point edge in batting average means more potential run production than Russell, who makes up OBP ground with a very high walk rate.
In terms of his comp to Baez, Machado would appear to be a huge upgrade. However, Baez’s success against power pitchers skyrocketed in 2017 to a .901 OPS. Unfortunately, Baez couldn’t replicate that success against all those best-of-the-best playoff arms. So which Baez would Machado be replacing? Bad Baez from the 2017 playoffs or Great Baez who won NLCS Co-MVP honors in 2016?
Either way, if three months of Machado cost either Baez or Russell straight up, and that still feels too much. Just not enough increased playoff win probability to justify that price.
Alternatively, the idea of surrendering less in a trade to acquire one or two less-heralded Markakis-types would seem to have great appeal. Given Maddon’s love for optimizing matchups, this would give him more options to load up his playoff lineup against elite power starters. Perhaps it would even allow the Cubs to replicate 2016 when they effectively neutralized those elite power arms.