The Cubs had a pretty uneventful trade deadline, creating a little unrest among the natives by moving four righty relievers and holding onto their most valuable players. While most fans were happy to see Ian Happ and Willson Contreras back in the lineup Tuesday night, the whole thing felt really anticlimactic after weeks or even months of speculation that the two would be headed elsewhere in potential blockbusters.
It was like going to see a really hyped-up summer tentpole movie only to find out all the good parts had been given away by the trailer. Jed Hoyer held firm to the high prices he’d set going in, claiming the offers simply weren’t good enough to justify moving either
“I think that was because in a lot of these markets, you had very rational buyers and did not have buyers who are willing to part with certain prospects,” Hoyer told reporters via Zoom in the wake of the deadline. “We talk about building the next great Cubs team. We’re trying to do that on the back of really good prospects. Simply trading players to say you got prospects that you don’t believe in or don’t find very talented, that doesn’t make anything great at all.
“We never found deals that exceeded the value of the players we had [this is important for later]. And when we did, we made some deals that we got really talented arms. But I do feel like in some of the other markets, the buyers were amotivated.”
The resultant lack of movement had many around the baseball world shaking their heads and wondering what in the hell the Cubs were thinking. Among them was Jim Bowden of The Athletic, who gave the Cubs a D on his trade deadline report card due to their inability to move the two All-Stars. I frequently disagree with Bowden’s takes, however, and that’s certainly the case when he says they got “modest returns for the three relievers they dealt.”
It’s probably a bit unfair to point out that they actually dealt four relievers, all of whom were explicitly listed in the piece, because that may have just been an honest mistake. And I can understand why Bowden might not be very bullish on the Cubs’ returns because non of them came into professional baseball via international free agency and thus could not have had their signing bonuses skimmed.
The key point here is that the Cubs could have gotten a great deal more at the deadline, which is echoed by Sports Illustrated’s Emma Baccellieri. She listed the Cubs among four losers, citing their failure to get anything from two All-Stars, Contreras in particular, after “it was so obvious he would be leaving that he got a standing ovation in his presumed last game at Wrigley Field.”
The three other losers, in case you’re interested but don’t want to click that link, were the Orioles, White Sox, and Rockies. It wasn’t a great deadline for the Windy City. Has anyone written a headline featuring “Bored of Trade,” or should I get ahead of that?
When it comes to getting out ahead, I have to admit that my initial reaction to the Cubs’ inactivity was to declare it a failure pending the possibility of a Contreras extension. I agreed with Baccellieri that they could have gotten something, particularly when the market for their two star players appeared to be pretty robust. But the more I’ve pondered it, the more I realize taking such a binary view eliminates too much of the additional context Hoyer is speaking about above.
It’s not simply a matter of getting a trade return for Contreras that exceeds the value of qualifying offer compensation. Just to make sure we’re clear on that, the Cubs could tab Contreras with a QO and would then be awarded a compensatory draft pick probably in the No. 77-80 range should he decline it and sign elsewhere. Hoyer pulled top 10ish organizational pitchers for two of the relievers he traded, so Contreras was easily worth a top-3 guy, right?
Maybe, but let’s circle back to that bolded text above and think about what it might really mean. Hoyer isn’t just talking about the individual value of Happ and Contreras, he’s talking about the organization as a whole. Wait, what? Think about it: the Cubs have a 180-player limit for their Domestic Reserve List, so acquiring more than one prospect in a deal for a big leaguer means they’re going to have to lose players from that list.
The system is already so full of position players that the Cubs selected 16 pitchers out of 20 picks in the recent draft, plus they just added three pitchers via trade. Since all three of those pitchers are Rule 5 eligible this offseason, adding to what was already going to be a 40-man roster crunch, bringing in another top-level prospect would only exacerbate the issue.
It’s one thing to have “too many shortstops” at the lower levels of the minors, but if you start clogging the upper reaches of the system, you run the risk of stunting development. After all, there are only so many reps to go around. So when you think about a player like Mark Vientos of the Mets and see that he’s got a 30% K-rate at Triple-A, you have to wonder whether he offers an improvement over what the Cubs already have in place.
That’s just one cherry-picked example, but the basic idea is that it was far more complicated than saying the Cubs needed to get something for Contreras. I would suspect Hoyer and the rest of the front office established a cost that took into account not just what their All-Star catcher was worth on his own, but also what the organization would need to get back in order to justify the opportunity cost of displacing other players from either the 40-man or the system altogether.
It’s definitely a gamble that may have narrowed their path forward, but these low grades are only based on the presumed answer and don’t into account the work the Cubs did to get there.