Cubs Gamble on Vizcaino, Sell Low on Soto

“As a whole, not specifically regarding potential deals, we need to add a lot of pitching to the system. It’s not enough to have a handful or two. You need waves and waves coming through your system, and we don’t have that. We hardly have even one wave coming, so we need to rebuild a lot of pitching depth.”

–Theo Epstein, July 18, 2012

On Monday night, the Chicago Cubs executed a pair of trades, sending players to both the Braves and the Rangers in exchange for pitching, pitching, pitching. Here’s the breakdown of those trades:

Braves get:
SP Paul Maholm
OF Reed Johnson

Cubs get:
SP Arodys Vizcaino
RP Jaye Champman

***

Rangers get:
C Geovany Soto

Cubs get:
SP Jake Brigham

The Braves trade feels a bit like a fleecing for the Cubs; the Rangers trade is at best a wash. Let us see why.

The Braves Trade

First: We must reiterate the fact that there is not always a “winner” and “loser” in the MLB trade market. Teams are often trading from strengths and according to their seasonal situation, meaning the result is not a zero sum gain, but instead both teams are benefiting.

And so, when I say the Cubs performed a bit of deadline sorcery, I am saying this more as a credit to the Cubs than a shaming on the Braves. Entering the 2012 MLB season, the Cubs had little chance to reach the playoffs, and therefore little reason to sign the likes of Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson. But Johnson, as I observed at the time, was pretty sharp for a fourth outfielder — and by limiting him to playing his strengths, a team could extract some steady WAR from him. And Maholm had been a steady performer with the Pirates over the previous three seasons, limiting his HR/FB rate and keeping his FIP low.

Both players were solid bets for decent production. So Johnson and Maholm got one-year deals, plus a team option second year for Maholm, at reasonable, if not discounted, rates. Around the time of the signing, it looked like the Cubs were starting to put together a team in the low 80s win category, and they might even be able to compete for the second Wild Card, but that was before Chris Volstad, Travis Wood and Randy Wells collectively laid a big egg and Fate handed the Cubs a 12-game losing streak.

But in the case that things did play out like this, Theo Epstein and company had still done a solid job identifying some undervalued talent on the market and grabbed two players who were clearly not apart of their long-term plans.

So, in many ways, this trade cost the Cubs nothing. Johnson and Maholm were brought in purely on speculative purposes — in speculation of a potential run at the Wild Card and, more importantly, in speculation of a possible trade deadline deal. And considering what they received in exchange, that speculation appears to have paid dividends.

Arodys Vizaino had Tommy John Surgery in during the 2012 Spring Training, but even despite the fact he will not throw a pitch until 2013, he is all but guaranteed to be the Cubs top prospect now. Marc Hulet ranked him No. 2 in a Braves system thick with talented pitching. For all the sensation that Anthony Rizzo has become on the north side, Vizcaino has the potential to be the same on the pitching side.

In 2011 — as a mere 20-year-old — Vizcaino appeared in 17 games as a reliever, and managed a 3.54 FIP and 3.82 SIERA, and he entered 2012 in competition for a rotation spot. Theo’s stated goal this trade season was to add pitching depth, and he just found a crown jewel for his prospect system.

It seems surprising the Braves would let Vizcaino — who was “untouchable” in 2011 — go for the price of two role-playing veterans, but perhaps they are much less optimistic he can retain his silly command post-surgery? Maybe they are displeased with his progress during the recovery? We do not know.

Chapman, a 25-year-old reliever with decent numbers in his second go-round in Triple-A, is a nice grab for a team that will need to construct a serious bullpen sometime in the next three years. But for now, the Cubs don’t need a bullpen and Chapman doesn’t profile much more than a middle reliever.

Rangers Trade

Whereas the Braves trade appears like a stroke of market-manipulating genius from the Epstein/Hoyer group, the Rangers trade feels more like a “That’s it?” scenario. At one time — I know the time, actually; it was 2008 and then later it was 2010 — catcher Geovany Soto looked like a beacon of hope in a Jim Hendry franchise gone old-school. Soto not only fielded the toughest position on the diamond in a, you know, not bad fashion, he also did something that no Cubs hitter in the Hendry era seemed inclined to do: He took walks.

In 2008, Soto had 23 homers and a .364 OBP. In 2010, he clapped 17 dongers and raised up to a .393 OBP. But injuries were too often his bedfellow, and he seemed incapable of staying on the field a full season. Add to that an easing creep of decline in his numbers, and suddenly Geo is getting traded for — no offense, Jake — Jacob Brigham.

A little about Brigham: He is in Double-A for the second straight year; he is 24 years old; and he has not had a FIP below 4.23 since 2010, and even then, his FIP sky-rocketed to 4.76 when he moved from Single-A ball to High-A. He has trouble controlling his walks, but can also strike out a few. His home run rate (per PA) appears to be high this season, so there is a good chance his current 4.58 FIP is a good deal higher than his xFIP, but all told, Brigham is not a prospect. Not for the Rangers, at least.

Still, he might develop into a low rotation pitcher, or perhaps a useful bullpen cog, but his potential does not seem to match Geo’s history, so to speak.

Was this a bad trade for the Cubs? Well Soto’s bat at present appears to be a very strong candidate for regression, but the injury history suggests he could break again at any moment. In fact, his limited playing time this season may suggest the team lacked confidence in his overall health. Meanwhile, the Cubs have Wellington Castillo — likely now called up — and Steve Clevenger. Castillo once ranked as a No. 14 prospect for the Cubs, and he could perceivably win the starting job rather quickly. He is already 25, though, and he and Clevenger might both end up being just average-ish catchers.

All told, though, the Cubs traded from a strength — their catching situation, which had three decent options — to build on their weakness and achieve their stated goal. It is just a little surprising that Brigham was all they got in return, but who knows? In 10 years, this may be the Infamous Brigham Trade, and my descendants will come back to this spot and put a placard on where I stood to say, “That’s it?” And Brigham’s descendants will write movie scripts and include mentions of how nobody thought a young man from central Florida could become THE Jacob Brigham.

So good luck Jake. You’ll need it — because the tides of the Cubs minor league system are starting to swell with the influx of pitching talent.



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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.


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Anon210
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Anon210
3 years 11 months ago

“In 2010, he clapped 17 dongers”

Hope he used a raincoat…

Ryan
Guest
3 years 11 months ago

I hope the Braves clubhouse has lots of kleenex if he’s going to be clapping dongers.

Fred Willard
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Fred Willard
3 years 11 months ago

It’s the beginning of a long, long career.

Ryan
Guest
3 years 11 months ago

The Cubs longest losing streak this season is 12 games.

Chicago got the best player in this deal, which means they most likely “win” it in the long run.

Jason
Guest
Jason
3 years 11 months ago

Yeah, the long run isn’t the only run worth winning.

That and Vizcaino was never going to be a starter for the Braves, his value as a reliever, when they already have Kimbrel to close and Venters (assuming he gets his form back) to set up, is sort of redundant.

Maybe they could have gotten more… but they got what they needed, and in this case a more complete team this year may equal the value of Vizcaino’s talent, assuming that he’s able to actually realize it.

Ben
Guest
Ben
3 years 11 months ago

I think the Soto trade also depends on if any money exchanges hands. Soto was still owed almost 1.5 million bucks, and while that is chump change for both teams, I think it still factors in here.

GW
Member
GW
3 years 11 months ago

Frisco is in the Texas League (AA).

Liam
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Liam
3 years 11 months ago

“Arodys Vizaino had Tommy John Surgery in during the 2012 Spring Training, but even despite the fact he will not throw a pitch until 2013, he is all but guaranteed to be the Cubs top prospect now”

Did I lapse into a world where Javier Baez either doesn’t exist or isn’t owned by the Cubs? I’d argue that Almora and Soler would both be better prospects than Vizcaino rehabbing from TJ.

Not Neifi
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Not Neifi
3 years 11 months ago

Indeed. Baez was #15 on Goldstein’s midseason list, he’s well ahead of Vizcaino. As is Soler, who checked in at #25. Almora will probably also be ranked higher next season.

I absolutely love this deal and Vizcaino is immediately the Cubs best pitching prospect, but the original statement was an odd one.

jmarsh
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jmarsh
3 years 11 months ago

I was thinking the same thing. Baez is most likely #1 and depending on how the rest of the minor league season goes Soler and Almora will be up there too.

Dave in Delaware
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Dave in Delaware
3 years 11 months ago

Let’s speculate wildly! Who will be on the field for the 2015 Cubs?

1B Rizzo
2B Castro
SS Barney
3B Baez
LF Vitters
CF Jackson
RF Ha/Soler
C Castillo

SP Samardzija
SP Vizcaino
SP Maples
SP McNutt
SP someone added today before the deadline (or Junior Lake)

What do you think? Is this about right? Is it something to be excited about?

chuckb
Member
chuckb
3 years 11 months ago

Barney the dinosaur has a better chance of playing ss tor the cubs in 2015 than Darwin Barney does.

Kinanik
Guest
Kinanik
3 years 11 months ago

I can’t imagine Baez at third with Castro at second. Castro’s strengths–his throwing arm and quick reaction–seem to play better at third. He seems to make errors when he has to wait on balls. If Barney is at short, I expect Baez to more to second and Castro to third. But I would bet more money on Castro staying put, Baez playing second, and Vitters third, with Barney shipped off somewhere for pitching.

a5ehren
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a5ehren
3 years 11 months ago

Far more likely that Vizcaino ends up as a closer. He has a history of elbow issues that will probably keep him out of the rotation.

Josh
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Josh
3 years 11 months ago

Not to mention a failure to develop a true third pitch. He’s not going to be a starter. Get over yourselves Theo Fanboys. The braves got what they needed.

Jason
Guest
Jason
3 years 11 months ago

At this point I don’t think it’s so much a failure to develop a third pitch as a lack of opportunity. The guy is still pretty young.

That said, the injury is just going to squander more time. He’ll be at least a year to a year and a half of active playing time in the minors, post recovery, to build up his innings and develop another pitch or two, with a non-zero chance of failure.

The Braves weren’t going to do that, they valued him accordingly as a reliever, and odds are the Cubs are going to do the same.

He’s still a long shot elite starter (very long shot), but he’s a high probability prospect to become an elite closer. He’s already shown those skills *and* it’s more protection for his arm. The Cubs aren’t about to waste that potential just to take a shot at what his original potential could have been. If he becomes the kind of closer he could be, the Cubs still got a ton of value out of the deal.

This also means the Braves primarily gave up a Kimbrel backup/post-arb salary replacement to field a more complete team this year. Not so bad.

Jeff
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Jeff
3 years 11 months ago

Castro will not be moved off of short. Both scouts and stats say he has improved leaps and bounds there this year.

Boubucarow
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Boubucarow
3 years 11 months ago

It is amazing that everyone is sticking to the same pre-season story. Castro is now an above average defensive SS. He always had the skills for the position and now he is developing the mental side to put him closer to a gold glove than he is to being a poor defender.

Whether you watch him everyday or simply look at the advanced stats, there is no way he will be moved away from SS any time soon.

A-Ro
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A-Ro
3 years 11 months ago

Junior Lake is 22 and has a slash line of .295/.346./441 playing shortstop and third.

How did he end up as a possible #5 starter in your list?

jayandersonjr
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jayandersonjr
3 years 11 months ago

Junior Lake was, and possibly still could be, a pitching prospect. I don’t see him converting back, but it has been stated as a possibility.

rjohnson88
Member
rjohnson88
3 years 11 months ago

Vizcaino won’t be a starter, he will end up in the bullpen maybe as a closer.

Dave in Delaware
Guest
Dave in Delaware
3 years 11 months ago

I know that’s the conventional wisdom, but I think they’d be giving up way too soon not to try starting him. That was the plan in ATL before TJ. I’m not sure why it can’t be after it.

Nitram Odarp
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Nitram Odarp
3 years 11 months ago

Because he just missed an entire season immediately after breaking the 100 IP mark for the first time in a season? At no point in his career has Vizcaino done anything that should make you think he’s capable of handling an MLB starter’s workload. Hell, it would probably take 2013 and 2014 starting in the minors (his final 2 options BTW) just to build up enough innings where you’d feel comfortable running him out in the big leagues as a SP.

Jason
Guest
Jason
3 years 11 months ago

He’s only got 2 pitches, from what I’ve read. That plays as a closer with electric stuff. It doesn’t play so well as a starter. Not only would he have to spend that time in the minors building up innings, but he’d have to develop another pitch or two… by no means a guaranteed success.

cthabeerman
Member
cthabeerman
3 years 11 months ago

I don’t think that was the plan going into 2012. They were planning on putting him in the bullpen. He pitched only one appearance in ST, but it was a relief appearance, so there’s limited info there, but it does point towards him relieving.

-C

Table
Guest
Table
3 years 11 months ago

Liked this article, unexpected ending, strong quotile begining

Jordan
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Jordan
3 years 11 months ago

I have read so many articles about how the Cubs “fleeced” the Braves with this deal. Vizcaino is loaded with talent, but talent means absolutely NOTHING if he’s constantly hurt. The guy is currently out for the season having had Tommy John surgery. Oh, and by the way, this is the second time he’s torn that ligament in his elbow! This is not to count a whole host of other problems he’s had. He also had an ERA nearing 5 in the majors (albeit in a small sample).

Let us not forget that this is the SECOND time he’s been traded for a mediocre starting pitcher. The Braves got him for Javier Vazquez! Yeah… That’s the Yankees and Braves that have given him up for what everyone is deeming “basically nothing.”

Chris
Guest
Chris
3 years 11 months ago

He’s 21 years old. I know he’s had lots of injury issues, but he’s been nasty at every level, but the majors and I don’t think you can hold that against him as he was 20 and it was an extremely small sample size. The fact is that many pitchers have come back from Tommy John surgery just fine and some even looked better post-surgery. I will take a 21 year old who throws mid-upper 90’s and has a plus-plus curve.

jmarsh
Guest
jmarsh
3 years 11 months ago

I think the fleecing is more about potential. Sure there’s a chance that Vizcaino turns out to be a bust. There’s a chance he’s nothing more than an 8th inning reliever too.

But there’s also a non-zero chance he becomes a viable piece of the rotation too and that is more than worth a scrap heap signed starter and an aging 4th OF.

Jason
Guest
Jason
3 years 11 months ago

Whatever he becomes for the Cubs, he was never going to start for the Braves, not after TJ surgery.

He needs work to increase his innings and to develop more pitches to even sniff a major league starting rotation, and that’s assuming that he’s capable of that.

That’s not to say he’s worthless, he could be a top-end closer. My guess is that’s likely where he’ll wind up as it’s a need the Cubs will have down the line, no way Marmol sticks around that long and they’ve got no better options, and it’s a far greater chance of success. But that was most definitely his destination for the Braves, and they’ve already got that spot filled with just as much talent in Kimbrel.

Nitram Odarp
Guest
Nitram Odarp
3 years 11 months ago

Vizcaino was not competing for a spot in the Braves rotation this spring. In fact, when discussing all the possibilities for the Braves rotation prior to spring training, Vizcaino was specifically left off Frank Wren’s list. The question was whether Vizcaino would go back to the minors to continue his development as a starter or stay in the majors in the Braves bullpen.

Undocorkscrew
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Undocorkscrew
3 years 11 months ago

This is true.

Should be noted that the Cubs are covering Johnson and Maholm’s salary for the rest of the year.

Josh
Guest
Josh
3 years 11 months ago

They don’t pay attention to things like that over here. It’s more about slobbering over 20 year old prospects.

Antonio Bananas
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Antonio Bananas
3 years 11 months ago

Vizcaino is one of the top pitching prospects. Awesome, what? 1/3 top 100 pitching prospects never have more than 3 full years or something right? Another 1/3 is never better than average. Then of the 1/3 of the success stories, very few are aces.

That combined with the studies of when a pitcher leaves a team (who know more about him than anyone) he often fails. I’m both Braves and a Cubs fan. This deal was not a fleecing. It was even. If Vizcaino wins 5 Cy Young awards, it’s still not a fleecing because then you’d be using hindsight bias. There is just as much chance Vizcaino does absolutely nothing as there is he becomes an ace.

The Braves get two needed players, the Cubs get a high upside pitcher with arm problems who the Braves saw more as a reliever. High safety for the Braves in a contending situation vs high possible reward for the Cubs in a rebuild model. Even trade.

Had Atlanta traded like, Delgado and Teheran for Dempster and Maholm, that’s a fleecing.

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