The 4-part plan for Cubs at Trade Deadline
You're the general manager of the Chicago Cubs -- congrats! -- and you're looking at the current situation your team finds itself in. Expectations are so high that last year's 95-win season, the fourth straight 92-plus win season after a century of, well, you know, was viewed as a disappointment. You've got a relatively thin farm system, a high-profile manager in the final year of his contract, and Cole Hamels and half your bullpen headed toward free agency.
Oh, and you're one game behind the Cardinals for first place in the NL Central, a battle which will likely be heated for the next two months, at least until you finish off the season by playing seven of the final 11 games, including the last three, head-to-head against St. Louis. So: What do you do?
There's not an easy answer here, because there never is. You've already demoted Addison Russell and recalled Ian Happ. You're expecting Hamels, currently rehabbing an oblique injury in Triple-A, to be back soon, completing a rotation quintet with Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, José Quintana, and Yu Darvish.
Fortunately, your needs are clear. You need a reliever, maybe two. You need a bat, maybe two, at least one of whom is capable of playing the outfield, and particularly can help hit lefty pitching. You need to figure out second base and center field, and perhaps most important of all, you need to pray to whichever deity you choose that Kris Bryant's sore knee is as minor as it sounds.
You can't trade top prospects for the top players, like you once did with Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jiménez, because you don't really have those prospects anymore. You can't count on impressive young pitcher Adbert Alzolay, currently on the injured list in Triple-A. But you can't sit still, either. If last year's Wild Card loss was unacceptable, missing out of the playoffs entirely will be worse. There's not one perfect plan here, but here's _a_ plan.
1) Go get some relievers. Obviously.
This isn't exactly the most inventive take, because everyone knows the Cubs need some relievers, even after adding Craig Kimbrel, and everyone knows that every contender needs some relievers.
But just because it's obvious doesn't mean it's not a need, and Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have shown time and again that Deadline time is reliever time; over the past four years, they've added at least one reliever each year, names like Aroldis Chapman, Justin Wilson, Brandon Kintzler, Joe Smith, Jesse Chavez, and Fernando Rodney. They'll do that again this year, too, with the added knowledge that every reliever they can get is one that the Cardinals, Brewers, or Wild Card competitors don't get.
The first place to start is with a lefty, as Cubs lefty relievers have been baseball's ninth-worst, though part of that was the departed Mike Montgomery, and Kyle Ryan alone won't solve the problem. (Friday's acquisition of Derek Holland may help, but he doesn't solve the need.) This probably won't be Will Smith, who will be the best available reliever if the Giants even make him available, which they may not. It could be notable names Jake Diekman or Tony Watson or Andrew Chafin, but we've seen the Cubs go off the radar before.
In that spirit, let us suggest: Baltimore's Paul Fry, who has held lefties to a mere .123/.286/.228 this year, Tampa Bay ground-ball machine Adam Kolarek (.179/.236/.209), or a crosstown trade for Aaron Bummer of the White Sox, who has the second-highest ground-ball rate in baseball while allowing lefties only two extra-base hits this year.
On the righty side, well, there's no shortages of names. Our go-to right now is Texas' Chris Martin, who has struck out 31 since his last walk (on April 30) and, as a free-agent-to-be, likely won't cost much, making him a perfect fit here. Name a name: José Leclerc. Scott Oberg. Seth Lugo, if you can shake him away from the Mets, or San Francisco's Sam Dyson. Probably not Shane Greene, who hasn't pitched as well as his numbers would indicate. Or how about Wade Davis, the former Cubs closer who saved 32 games for Chicago in 2017 and has a 0.68 ERA away from Coors Field. The exact name is less important than the idea it will be someone. (We'll go with Martin if we must.)
2) Stand pat at second base.
You know who'd be a perfect fit here? Whit Merrifield... except the Royals almost certainly won't trade him, and would probably require more return than the Cubs could offer if they would. You know who wouldn't be? Rumored additions Eric Sogard and Derek Dietrich. Sogard's .299/.363/.480 is wildly out of character with the rest of his career -- only two other hitters are overperforming their underlying performance more based on wOBA vs. xwOBA -- and since Dietrich's three-homer game on May 28, he's hitting .163/.333/.296 with two homers. (One of which was very much a Coors-fueled dinger.)
Those three aside, your second-base options are... taking a chance on Cincinnati's Scooter Gennett, who has struggled in his first two weeks since returning from injury? Hoping Joe Panik or Ian Kinsler find new life on the North Side?
No. Stick with Robel Garcia, who has paired impressive power with too many strikeouts. Play Happ some at second, even though he'll spend more time in the outfield. Give David Bote, recipient of a contract extension, more reps. Cross your fingers that Ben Zobrist makes it back. Cut Daniel Descalso loose, if you must. See if top prospect Nico Hoerner can give some life in September, if you're really desperate.
These aren't perfect options, but options are limited. No point in trading for a player who isn't actually an upgrade. If there's improvement here, it's coming from within.
3) Go get that outfielder.
Here's what the Cubs have: Jason Heyward in right/center, having something of a rebound season. Albert Almora Jr., still a strong defender, though a nearly unplayable one at the plate (over the last calendar year, he's hit all of .236/.270/.352). Kyle Schwarber, a platoon bat who has been a league-average hitter this year with below-average defense. And, now, Happ, who can play all three spots but is below-average defensively in center and is a much better hitter against righties (career .839 OPS) than lefties (.698). (Bryant also plays some outfield, though the knee issue may curtail that.)
Another way of saying that is that three of those four are better against righties, the one who isn't (Almora Jr.) ought to be a defense-only bench player, and only Heyward is an every day starter. That being the case, the rumor connecting the Cubs to lefty-mashing Nicholas Castellanos makes some sense, though his poor defense would make it awkward if they ever had Schwarber and Castellanos in the corners at the same time.
That's one option. The rumor connecting the Cubs to Arizona outfielder Jarrod Dyson is another, though his defense-heavy game is somewhat redundant to Almora's. A lefty-mashing center fielder probably isn't coming -- sorry, Cubs fans, you'll get no Mike Trout or George Springer here, though extracting the suddenly-hot-and-hitting-lefties Manuel Margot from San Diego's crowded outfield is a fun thought -- and the red-hot Yasiel Puig won't work here because of last month's fracas with Pedro Strop, so sometimes the most obvious rumor makes the most sense: Go get Castellanos.
That's right, we're sticking to the chalk on this one. Since the start of 2018, the only outfielders to hit lefties better than Castellanos are Aaron Judge, J.D. Martinez, and Trout, and the cost would almost certainly be minimal. (Castellanos is a good-not-great-hitter who is hardly alone in the RF/DH market with Puig and Hunter Pence, and good-but-not-great players who are rentals don't usually fetch much; the Tigers got little for Martinez, a far superior hitter, at the Deadline two years ago.) You can use Almora off the bench to get past the defensive deficiencies.
That way, against lefties, you could do something like Almora in left, Heyward in center, and Castellanos in right. Against righties, Schwarber in left, Heyward or Happ in center, and Heyward or Castellanos in right.
It's not ideal, but the outfield market is extremely thin right now.
4) Stop batting Schwarber leadoff so often.
The Cubs moved Schwarber into the leadoff spot on May 16, very defensibly; Almora and Descalso weren't producing, Zobrist wasn't available, and the old rules of "fast guy must bat first" no longer apply. The thing is: It hasn't worked.
In 40 games before May 16, the Cubs scored 5.35 runs per game. In 62 games since -- everyone led off by Schwarber or Almora, save for one-game cameos from Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez -- it's been 4.83. That's not entirely Schwarber's fault, but only three teams (all non-contenders in Baltimore, Detroit and Miami) have posted lower on-base percentages out of the leadoff spot than the Cubs' .296.
There's not a simple answer to this, because the answer is "they don't have a full-time leadoff man." For example, it's perfectly fine to bat Schwarber leadoff against righty pitchers; his .822 career leadoff OPS against righties is fine. It's totally unacceptable to do so against lefty pitchers, as they did on Tuesday against Madison Bumgarner, because Schwarber has a career .579 OPS leading off against lefties. (Schwarber went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts; the Cubs lost 5-4.)
You might experiment with Báez here, or even Bryant. You could have fun with Willson Contreras, who has a .384 career OBP against lefties, which the Cubs did for the first time this season against lefty Gio Gonzalez on Friday evening.
It just can't be "take one of your weakest hitters against this pitcher and give him the most plate appearances." It can't work. It hasn't worked.
So, to sum up: Trade for Castellanos, Martin, and, let's say Fry. Leave second base alone. Make a batting-order change. That's not exactly a big flashing neon lights Trade Deadline, we understand, though it was only last month that they signed Kimbrel, and that should count. This Trade Deadline isn't shaping up to be full of stars, and the Cubs don't have the prospects to get those types anyway. The minor moves around the edges could be the best way to put them over the top.