By Randy Richardson
The trade winds have historically blown against the Cubs. The franchise has a woeful record with trades, which at least partially explains why it hasn’t won a World Series in 108 years.
But one of the best explanations for the team’s success the last two seasons has been a reversal of fortune in its trading game. The Cubs’ front office, led by team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer, have turned the trade winds in the Cubs favor.
Not an easy task for a team steeped in a tradition of losing the trading game.
Let’s look back at what they inherited. This is the franchise of Brock-for-Broglio, widely regarded as the worst trade in baseball history – and maybe in all of sports. The year was 1962, and the Cubs, desperate for pitching, thought that the St. Louis Cardinals’ Ernie Broglio was just what they needed. The former 21-game winner had gone 18-8 the season before the Cubs acquired him. So they were willing to give up a speedy outfielder whom they thought didn’t have enough power. Brock of course didn’t have much power, but he sure could run and hit. Brock finished with 3,023 hits, led the league in steals eight times, was a six-time All-Star and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985. Plagued by shoulder problems, Broglio won only seven games in his two-plus seasons in Chicago.
That infamous trade set the tone for what would follow over the next 40 years, which saw the Cubs on the wrong end of one lopsided trade after another. A few examples:
- On April 3, 1987, the Cubs traded pitcher Dennis Eckersley to the Athletics for Brian Guinn, Mark Leonette and David Wilder. The A’s saw something in Eckersley that the Cubs didn’t, and converted him from a starter to a reliever. The role suited him as he went on to become the most dominant closer in the game with 390 career saves. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2004. Not one of the players obtained by the Cubs ever advanced to the major leagues.
- After that season, the Cubs again wildly miscalculated. On December 8, 1987, they swapped closer Lee Smith to the Red Sox for pitchers Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi. After the trade, Smith registered nearly 300 saves. Nipper pitched only 104 more innings in the majors, and Schiraldi was out of baseball before age 30.
- On July 9, 2008, the day after division rival Milwaukee acquired C.C. Sabathia in a trade, the Cubs answered with a six-player deal that landed them their own presumed ace, Rich Harden. In return, the Cubs gave up a package of four young players to the Athletics, which included catching prospect Josh Donaldson. After being traded to the Toronto Blue Jays, Donaldson was voted the American League Most Valuable Player for a 2015 season in which he recorded a .297 batting average with 41 home runs and 123 RBIs. He is a strong candidate to repeat as AL MPV this season. Harden was effective for the Cubs, going 5-1 in the second-half of the 2008 season with an impressive 1.77 ERA but pitched poorly in his one outing in the National League Division Series against the Dodgers, lasting only 4-1/3 innings. The next season, his last as a Cub, he went 9-9 with a 4.09 ERA. Troubled by shoulder injuries, Harden’s major league career ended two years later.
The turning point came soon after Cubs owner Tom Ricketts shook up the front office, stealing away Epstein from the Red Sox and then luring Hoyer from the Padres. The two had their eyes on Anthony Rizzo, a lefty first baseman, all the way back to when he was playing high school baseball in Parkland, Florida. The Red Sox took him in the sixth round of the Major League Baseball draft and signed him with a $325,000 signing bonus. When Hoyer went to San Diego, one of his first moves was to ship three-time All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez for a package of four young players, one of whom was Rizzo.
So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when, in January 2012, the newly installed Chicago Cubs front office acquired Rizzo with the hopes of locking down first base for years to come, giving up Andrew Cashner, a promising 24-year-old first-round fireballer, to the Padres in exchange.
It was a risky move. Rizzo had gotten off to a rocky start with the Padres. In 2011, his first season in the majors, he hit only .141 with 46 strike outs in 128 at-bats. Cashner, on the other hand, had been inconsistent but had flashed moments of brilliance that had many looking at him as a future ace.
Now, four years after the new Cubs’ regime pulled the trigger on its first major move, it seems clear that Epstein/Hoyer had a good eye for talent. Their relentless pursuit of Rizzo has paid off in a big way. Now a three-time All-Star and a candidate for the National League MVP, the slugging left-hander with the dazzling glove work has become the team’s unquestioned leader. While Rizzo has risen, Cashner has fallen. Hampered by arm injuries, Cashner went 6-16 with a 4.34 ERA in 2015 and is 5-11 with a 5.22 ERA in 2016.
How big was the Rizzo trade for the Cubs? ChicagoStyleSports’ David McKenzie called the Rizzo trade “a thing of absolute majesty that transformed the culture of the Chicago Cubs for years to come.”
The Rizzo trade set the table for a series of midseason deals that followed each of the next three seasons and helped to transform the Cubs from losers to winners.
- In July 2012, the Cubs sent veteran pitcher Ryan Dempster to the Rangers for prospects Christian Villanueva and Kyle Hendricks. At the time, Villaneuva was considered the bigger catch. Of course, it is Hendricks who has so far turned out to be prize. The former 8th-round draft pick has gone 30-16 with a 2.91 ERA in his first three seasons with the Cubs. After starting the 2016 season as the Cubs’ fifth starter, Hendricks has become a leading candidate for the NL Cy Young Award, going 15-7 with the league’s lowest ERA of 2.03. Dempster, a fan favorite, retired from baseball after the 2013 season.
- In July 2013, the Cubs shipped pitcher Scott Feldman and catcher Steve Clevenger to the Orioles for two promising but struggling young pitchers, Pedro Strop and Jake Arrieta. Once again, the Cubs hit the jackpot. Arrieta, 27, was 20-25 with a 5.46 ERA in 69 Major League appearances, all but six as a starting pitcher, in all or part of his last four seasons with the Orioles. Since joining the Cubs, he’s gone 53-19 with a 2.45 ERA, hurled two no-hitters, and won the 2015 Cy Young Award. Feldman has been serviceable if not spectacular, going 25-27 with a 3.93 ERA since being dealt. Clevenger has struggled both offensively and defensively in limited playing time at the big league level
- In July 2014, the Cubs gave up ace Jeff Samardzija and right-hander Jason Hammel to the A’s for young right-hander Dan Straily and prospects Billy McKinney and Addison Russell. The Cubs seemingly gave up a lot but they got Russell, who took over the shortstop position from Starlin Castro in August of 2015 and hasn’t let go, becoming an All-Star starter at the age of 22 and one of baseball’s premier young shortstops. Smooth as silk with the glove, Russell this season has blossomed as a hitter as well. His 91 RBI’s this season are the most in one season by a Cubs shortstop since Hall of Famer Ernie Banks in 1960. As it turned out, the Cubs didn’t give up as much as it at first looked. After the 2014 season, they brought back Hammel through free agency. Samardzija has still yet to return to the ace that he once was, going 11-13 with a 4.96 ERA for the White Sox in 2015 and 11-10 with a 4.07 ERA for the Giants so far this season.
Rizzo. Hendricks. Arrieta. Russell. It is hard to imagine the Cubs having the success they’ve had these past two seasons without those four key pieces of the larger puzzle. Others they’ve filled through free agency (Jon Lester, Dexter Fowler, John Lackey, Ben Zobrist) or through the draft (Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, Kyle Schwarber).
It took Epstein and Hoyer four years to right the ship, to correct the mistakes of Cubs teams past. Sure those four years were difficult to endure but, for a franchise that has waited 108 years for the ultimate prize, it was a small price to pay.
Maybe it’s time for Cubs fans to finally let go of Brock-for-Broglio and all the other bad trades of the past. The new regime has more than settled the score.
Randy Richardson is the author of the Wrigleyville murder mystery, Lost in the Ivy, and a regular contributor to Wrigleyville Nation