Last year, the Cubs took a huge step forward in their rebuilding project and were contenders at least a year earlier than expected. Not wanting to mortgage the future for short-term gain, the team only made a couple of minor moves at the trade deadline, picking up pitchers Dan Haren and Tommy Hunter without giving up any of their top young talent.
But this year is different. The Cubs, preseason favorites to win it all, currently have the best record in the National League. It’s their year to go for it. And that’s why their recently completed trade for closer Aroldis Chapman was a necessary move.
The Cubs clearly need bullpen help, especially from the left side, and Chapman would seem to fit that need. But Chapman isn’t just a reliable reliever: He’s a difference maker in a way that few other relief pitchers are. He’s been one of the game’s elite closers for several years now and completely changes the dynamic of the Cubs’ bullpen, effectively making the game an inning shorter. If he’s on, the opposing team knows they have no chance. It’s been a long time since the Cubs had a presence like that at the end of the game. While Hector Rondon has done a good job overall as the closer for the past two years, this move allows him to slide into a setup role, for which he is probably better suited.
The cost for Chapman: 19-year-old shortstop Gleyber Torres, the team’s most highly rated prospect, along with outfield prospects Billy McKinney and Rashad Crawford and struggling reliever Adam Warren. The team already parted ways with Triple-A first baseman Dan Vogelbach in order to get reliever Mike Montgomery from the Seattle Mariners just a few days ago. Vogelbach wasn’t considered one of the team’s elite prospects before the season and didn’t have a future with the team anyway, since he’s a poor defender and the big league club already has an MVP-caliber first baseman in Anthony Rizzo.
Now, I can understand that Cubs fans love their current stash of young players and hate to give any more of them up. And I can understand the fear of trading away the next Josh Donaldson for short-term gain, like the Cubs did when they gave up the future MVP for Rich Harden in 2008. But it’s a move the Cubs simply have to make, especially considering that other National League teams are going to be adding on in the next week as well.
And if the Cubs didn’t get Chapman, there’s a good chance the Giants or Nationals would have. Yes, the price for Chapman was a little steep. But should the Cubs make the playoffs, they will probably have to face at least one of those two teams. In a postseason game, would they rather be playing behind him or hitting against him? We need to think of this trade as two moves in one.
And at this point, Torres is far from a sure thing. There’s no question he has talent, but he is still in Single-A ball and has a lot of work to do in order to get to the major leagues. Plus, in terms of middle infielders, the Cubs already have Addison Russell and Javier Baez at the big league level and another top prospect, Ian Happ, in the minors. This is why teams stockpile young talent, even at the same position, and figure out the rest later. The same goes for McKinney, who the Cubs acquired in 2014 in the same trade in which they got Russell. He was, at one point, a top-tier prospect in the low minor leagues whose stock is already falling before he has even reached the majors. With all the outfielders the Cubs already have, McKinney was not necessarily a part of the Cubs’ future either.
Teams don’t make a move like this just to get to the playoffs, though the Cubs don’t have a playoff spot entirely wrapped up quite yet. This is a move you make with an eye towards winning in October. You have to give up talent to receive it, and if the Cubs are serious about winning the World Series this year, this is the price they are going to have to pay. And when we consider that they have added two quality relievers without giving up Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler, or Baez, we can say that Theo Epstein & Co. have actually done pretty well.
If Torres goes on to become a star with the Yankees someday, that doesn’t mean this was a bad trade. That’s still true even if the Cubs don’t win a championship this year. Some of these moves work out and some of them don’t, but it was absolutely the right thing to do. Now, let’s hope that Chapman can help get this team over the top.
Brian Johnston is the author of the book The Art of Being a Baseball Fan, his story of following the 2015 Chicago Cubs, available on Amazon. He lives in St. Joseph, Michigan with his wife and two children.
Keith Allison – via Wikimedia Commons