I want to preface all of this by saying that trading for Aroldis Chapman is a complicated thing for reasons that are entirely unrelated to the game on the field. My friend Jen Mac Ramos will cover this later today on this site. Aroldis Chapman was accused of domestic violence against his girlfriend and has admitted to firing a gun in anger, one shot of which went through a window and into an adjacent field. He was rightfully suspended for 30 games for it.
Acquiring him raises all kinds of ethical questions that Jen’s going to do a far better job of laying out than I would. Read her article when it comes out. I, instead, am going to talk about what this deal means as a baseball trade, because that’s also really, really interesting.
Chapman is, without a doubt, one of the most dominant pitchers in Major League Baseball. Averaging 100 miles per hour on his fastball, and capable of hitting 105, he has been virtually unhittable. From 2010-2016, Chapman has the second lowest FIP among relievers and the second most strikeouts. His highest ERA since his rookie season is 2.54. If you’re looking for a reliable shutdown reliever, Chapman is the pitcher you want to target.
There’s no doubt, then, that the 2016 Cubs just got better. The question is whether they needed to. At 59-38, the Cubs have the best record in baseball. They are seven and a half games up on the Cardinals, and even if St. Louis or Pittsburgh catches up, Baseball Prospectus gave them a 99.1 percent chance to make the postseason even before they acquired Chapman.
So, on the one hand, this deal seems like overkill. Gleybar Torres and Billy McKinney were both top 100 prospects coming into this season according to both MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus, and Adam Warren was a successful reliever and swing man for three years before his disastrous 2016. Torres, a 19 year old shortstop, is holding his own in the Carolina League, and McKinney, a 21 year old, is not embarrassing himself in Double-A. Both have a couple of question marks (Torres may outgrow his position, and McKinney may not develop power and is, at best, an average defender at a corner outfield spot), but they represent a huge return for a guy the Yankees were going to lose in two months, and who they paid very little for when they got him from the Reds..
Moreover, the Cubs can’t give him a qualifying offer under the current collective bargaining rules, given that he was dealt mid-year, so he’s even less valuable as an asset to the Cubs.
On that proverbial other hand, however, the Cubs are one of the clubs who can use Chapman the most. After all, they have a virtual lock on a postseason spot, where having an Aroldis Chapman available to shut down an opponent is a massive advantage. As we’ve learned from the Royals, the ability to shorten games can lead to incredible postseason success. This isn’t a move for the rest of the season, then, it’s a move specifically for October. And winning the World Series, a goal Chapman definitely helps them toward, arguably has more value for the Cubs (and the team’s leadership team) than any other franchise in baseball today.
And those prospects they gave up? That massive price? Well, the Cubs, more than most teams, can afford to pay it. Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Javier Baez, and Anthony Rizzo are all potentially locked in through 2021. Ben Zobrist is around until after 2019. In the outfield, Jason Heyward is under contract until at least after 2018. Kyle Schwarber doesn’t hit free agency until after 2021, and Jorge Soler until 2020. There, quite simply, aren’t enough spots for Torres and McKinney. Prospects do, in fact, have an objective value. But they also have a use value. And the Cubs, quite simply, can’t use either of them.
“Sure,” you say, “but they can be packaged for a different asset later. Maybe some cost-controlled ace starter, like Chris Archer, down the line. Wait for then, and deal them for closer to that actual value.”
Except, fictional reader I just made up in my brain, there are peak values for prospects too. Like the milk in your grocer’s refrigerator or a cherubic child actor who wins America’s heart on a family sitcom, they have sell-by dates. If the Cubs are convinced Torres won’t stay at shortstop and that McKinney won’t develop any power, it’s in their interest to trade them now before other clubs catch on. Look at what happened with the Twins and Oswaldo Arcia. Called up and successful at 21, the Twins soured on him and he languished in the minors for much of the last two seasons before he ran out of options and the Twins were forced to trade him to the Rays at the nadir of his value. And, given the history of this organization, it’s probably fair to assume that more prospects are or soon will be in the pipeline who could be used to land that bigger piece next year when one is available.
Look, it’s possible that, for all the trust we should have in them, Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein may not have gotten the better of Brian Cashman here. Torres, McKinney, and Warren may all go on to have fine careers in pinstripes. But even so, this deal does make a lot of sense for a team that sees itself celebrating the season’s end on the pitching mound at Wrigley Field, and who sees Chapman is significantly increasing the odds of that. Though, ultimately, we won’t know that for certain until October.