This week Inside the Clubhouse looks at what led the Cubs to trade Yu Darvish, what’s next with Jon Lester and more.
The Chicago Cubs, fresh off winning the National League Central, just traded a player who finished second in the NL Cy Young voting and claimed it to be a baseball-focused transaction. Moving Yu Darvish to the San Diego Padres not only raises questions about what the Cubs will be able to do in 2021, but also where the franchise’s priorities lie in building off its most successful stretch in more than a century.
Immediately following the trade, new Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer claimed that the deal was not financially driven, saying their goal was to “move a player in the second half of his contract and acquire a lot of young talent.” Some evaluators believe Owen Caissie and Reginald Preciado are future big leaguers while the two other prospects, Yeison Santana and Ismael Mena, are toolsy players with upside.
But the reality is that the Cubs traded Darvish, one of the best pitchers in the National League, for Zach Davies and four lottery tickets. Three of the four prospects are teenagers who haven’t taken a professional at-bat while the other is a 20-year-old who hasn’t advanced beyond rookie ball.
Darvish is entering his age-34 season and has $59 million left on his contract. The Cubs could have eaten a large portion of his remaining salary to acquire a better prospect haul featuring, say, pitcher Ryan Weathers and others. Instead, the Cubs ate $3 million of Darvish’s remaining contract and received an underwhelming haul in return, with Hoyer saying it was the best deal the team could get.
So yes, while financials were not the sole reason the Cubs traded Darvish, it was indeed one of the primary factors. And it signals the beginning of a new era for both franchises.
Former president of baseball operations Theo Epstein forecasted such a teardown when he left the Cubs earlier this winter. Chairman Tom Ricketts told ESPN in June that financial losses during the COVID-19 pandemic were “biblical,” then laid off more than 100 employees and mandated payroll cutting in 2021. It started with non-tendering Kyle Schwarber and has now extended to parting with their best starting pitcher.
This is likely just the beginning. While Hoyer said the team is not “extensively shopping” Willson Contreras, the Cubs have held discussions with multiple teams about the All-Star catcher, according to league sources, who noted that no deal is imminent. Kris Bryant has been the subject of trade rumors. Quite simply, no Cubs player is off limits in trade talks as the front office looks to rebuild their farm system.
For the Padres, the move cements their status among the National League elite. General manager AJ Preller continues to be aggressive upgrading his roster when most teams continue to slash payroll, citing revenue losses and uncertainty about the upcoming season. In the span of 120 days, he has added three aces — Darvish, Blake Snell and Mike Clevinger — to a rotation that includes Dinelson Lamet while parting with only two of the organization’s top 10 prospects.
Paired with an offense that features Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr., it puts the Padres in position to compete with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Most of their core is signed for multiple years, Clevinger will return in 2022 and Preller has not been shy expressing his desire to sign Tatis Jr. to a long-term extension.
Under normal circumstances, it is highly unlikely Darvish is traded. But the Cubs are looking to retool for the future and Preller once again took advantage of a unique opportunity. Now, the Padres’ World Series window is open and it is not closing anytime soon.
Joe Musgrove the next Pirate to go?
The belief is the next Pittsburgh Pirates player to be traded will be Joe Musgrove.
Musgrove, 28, is on the radar of teams that missed out on Darvish and Snell. His market has picked up recently, according to Jon Heyman of MLB Network, and the Pirates’ asking price for the right-handed pitcher remains high.
Musgrove missed three weeks in 2020 with a triceps injury, but finished the year with a 3.86 ERA and a career-high 33.1 strikeout percentage. He was nearly traded to the Toronto Blue Jays at the August trade deadline, but the deal fell apart at the eleventh hour. And while his 4.33 career ERA is not indicative of a future top-of-the-rotation arm, the underlying numbers paint a different picture.
Gerrit Cole, last three seasons in Pittsburgh: 3.52 ERA, 3.35 FIP, 3.60 xFIP, 22.7 K%, 6.2 BB%.
Joe Musgrove, last three seasons: 4.23 ERA, 3.69 FIP, 4.03 xFIP, 22.8 K%, 5.7 BB%.
“You’re not acquiring Musgrove to be Gerrit Cole. That’s not him,” one high-ranking National League official said. “You’re acquiring him because he is a lot better than he’s shown in Pittsburgh.”
In 2020, Musgrove increased the usage and spin rates of his slider and curveball. He finished the season with 13 shutout innings against the Cardinals and Indians, and some evaluators who have studied him closely believe it’s a sign of what’s to come.
Considering he is under control at a reasonable rate for the next two seasons and still in the prime of his career, Musgrove is quite possibly the most attractive starting pitcher remaining on the trade market.
Chicago Cubs talks with Jon Lester slow to progress
At the beginning of the offseason, free-agent pitcher Jon Lester communicated to Cubs owner Tom Ricketts and top executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer that he wants to return to the organization to win his 200th game in Chicago.
The two sides have remained in contact, but there is little indication of progress toward a deal, according to league sources.
There was a thought that once Darvish was traded, that the Cubs may use the money freed up to sign Lester and fill out the rest of the roster. But Hoyer does not envision the Cubs being serious players in free agency, telling reporters, “We will spend again. We will be back in that market again” when the team “has the bones [of a contender] necessary to do that.”
Lester, 36, has declined in recent seasons, finishing the year with a 5.16 ERA in 61 innings after struggling in 2019. But he is one of the best pitchers in recent Cubs history, and would provide a known commodity to a rotation in desperate need of proven arms behind Kyle Hendricks and Zach Davies.
Lester’s market has yet to develop and he is expected to remain unsigned well into January. A return to the Cubs should not be ruled out, but there is a real chance he is playing elsewhere in 2021.
Why the Phillies acquired José Alvarado
Familiarity often leads to deals, and it indeed helped the Philadelphia Phillies identify reliever José Alvarado as a trade target.
Both Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and Joe Girardi saw Alvarado up close in the American League East. From 2017-2019, Alvarado pitched against the Red Sox 18 times, throwing 16 innings and allowing three runs while striking out 19 hitters.
But Phillies assistant general manager Jorge Velandia once played on the same Venezuelan baseball team as Alvarado and the two know each other very well. He was confident that Alvarado would bounce back from a nagging shoulder injury and return to his 2018 form when he was one of the most promising young relievers in baseball.
Alvarado, 25, comes with health and conditioning concerns, though a source close to him said he is in “the best physical condition” of his career. He is eligible for arbitration for the first time in his career and if the two sides are able to reach an agreement, it will likely be on a non-guaranteed deal, as Matt Gelb of The Athletic wrote.
It means that the Phillies would be protected if those concerns linger. Alvarado is only the beginning of the Phillies’ offseason quest to rebuild their bullpen, and most of their additions will likely be of a similar variety.
Around the Horn:
- Of the 301 free agents with MLB experience, only 31 have been signed to major-league deals while 12 others have signed minor-league contracts. It leaves 86 percent of the players unsigned entering the new year, with the New York Mets signing the most (6) followed by the Kansas City Royals (5) and Seattle Mariners, San Francisco Giants and Atlanta Braves (4).The St. Louis Cardinals remain interested in re-signing second baseman Kolten Wong, as Heyman reported. There are other teams interested, but after declining his $12.5 million club option, it is unclear if the Cardinals will be able to offer Wong the best deal in free agency.