Trey McNutt for Theo Epstein: Eh, Maybe.

The latest news in the Theo Epstein Chronicles has brought right-handed pitcher Trey McNutt into the forefront of the conversation. McNutt, who the Cubs drafted two years ago in the 32nd round, has recently become not just a prospect, but a top prospect in the Cubs system.

This January, resident prospect overlord Marc Hulet ranked McNutt the Number Two prospect in the Cubs system following the Matt Garza trade, while Baseball America ranked him as the 48th best prospect (also before the season).

The question is, of course, is he worth Epstein? Or, better yet, is Epstein worth him?

No. Well, in a vacuum, no. I imagine the heft of writers and readers in this region reflect Dave Cameron’s sentiments (“What is Theo Epstein Worth?”) in the GM value department. In nerdy terms, the replacement level for a sabermetric GM is much higher than it is for any position on the field.

A franchise pitcher or shortstop is almost always going to be worth more than a GM — in relative terms. In absolute terms, the GM is the single most important person in an organization — except for maybe the owner — but with guys like Billy Beane, Paul DePodesta, Josh Byrnes, Gerry Hunsicker, and multitude of others some way or another “on the market” for a GM position, an owner who wants a saber GM needn’t look long and hard.

Perhaps the compensation Epstein is receiving reflects that? He’ll be earning a shade under $4M annually (and prorated) if and when he takes the helm in Chicago — a salary which you might expect for a middle reliever or an aging slugger. Of course, that’s not say Theo Epstein is the Jose Lopez ($3.6M) or Jason Kendall ($3.75M) of GMs. No, of course he isn’t — GMs are just on a different scale, and that may be partially informed by the replaceability of them.

But, at some point, the Cubs need to begin their new era. With lame duck interim GM Randy Bush at the helm, the Cubs aren’t going to make any major moves — quite possibly none at all — until they have Epstein (or whomever their new GM is) in the captain’s chair.

This is pretty much the only stakes either team has in getting the deal done soon — and the season is not even over yet. In other words, do not expect these negotiations to end hastily.

As such, would Trey McNutt be worth Epstein? Let’s look at McNutt’s statistics (FIP by year):

Like a baby turtle happily and inexorably flapping towards the sea, Trey McNutt has clambered quickly through the Cubs minor league system. He jumped from rookie ball to Low-A in his first year, then skipped like a smooth stone in year two, visiting Middle-A (Peoria), High-A, and Double-A.

As we see, his 2010 season was impressive — well deserving of the hype it generated. However, it appears the follow-up season did not sparkle as much. McNutt turned 22 in August, so he spent the majority of the 2011 season as a 21-year-old playing in the Southern League, which has an average age of 24.1 for pitchers (the Cubs team, the Tennessee Smokies, are the youngest team in the league, however; so take that for what it is or isn’t worth — do whatever; I don’t care).

In that context, the 3.91 FIP season appears somewhere between okay and good. What should concern the Cubs, though, is the rate at which his strikeouts have decreased at Double-A:

Has he hit a wall in Double-A? Maybe. Could he still be a major league starter? Yeah, sure. He’s had one “off” season season, and it really was not that bad. Lots of minor league prospects have ups and downs. McNutt is still probably one of the top pitchers — if not the top pitcher — in the Cubs moderately strong farm system.

So, should the Cubs be willing to part with a potential second or third starter?

Eh, maybe.

Maybe if they feel the Red Sox are willing to go a season with two GMs on the payroll, maybe if the Cubs aren’t willing to wait potentially deep into the off-season, maybe if they feel like McNutt will never develop a changeup and capable third pitch, maybe if they see Epstein as a significant upgrade over any other target (he couldn’t have been any lower than their second choice), maybe if they are just tired of waiting, they will push McNutt across the table — maybe.

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

39 Responses to “Trey McNutt for Theo Epstein: Eh, Maybe.”

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  1. Nate says:

    Seems like part of McNutt’s issues this year was a slew of minor injuries- blisters, a rib problem, etc. His IP was down, which is part of why he was sent to AFL, where Keith Law said he sat 94-96 with iffy command and a change that flashed plus, but was generally off.

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  2. cmwieneke says:

    For what it’s worth, he dealt with injuries this year. He had blister problems at on point.

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  3. SDiaz says:

    Ok first, did you call the Cubs’ system moderately strong? I don’t think that is a sentiment shared by many in the prospect watching community.

    Second, what type of compensation do you feel is appropriate? This past season we saw the Marlins give two top 10 prospects to get Ozzie Guillen and in 2002 the Devil Rays sent Randy Winn ( a 4 win player at the age of 28) to Seattle for Lou Pinella. Would you not agree that a GM is much more important to an organization than a field manager? If so, it seems like Brett Jackson may be a better starting point in compensation talks than Trey McNutt.

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    • 1) I’m in agreement with you; I have previously drawn ire for calling the Cubs minor league system gutted and barren, so I tried to find a middle ground descriptor this time around. The Cubs do have some strong, young players, but they are really just middle of the pack.

      2) I’m making the assumption both teams involved are not crazy stupid.

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      • theeiffeltower says:

        I think of the Cubs as having a pretty bad group of prospects, but maybe I’m overrating the average system. Still, are there really 10 or 15 that are significantly worse?

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        2) I’m making the assumption both teams involved are not crazy stupid.

        As a Cardinal fan, I am required by ordinance 2.76a of chapter 3, to remind you that you are talking about the Cubs.

        I’m not sure where “crazy stupid” falls in the range of IQ, but if there were a team that might score at “crazy stupid” it could be the Cubs.

        Not that any of the Cub fans are reading this, baseball for them ended when the NFL resolved their lockout. Hey, I’m just saying local Cub fans, stop asking me about the Bears game already ….it’s still baseball season for some of us. Yeah, I love you too. Heh Heh.

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      • Brad says:

        I agree with CircleChange. I’m annoyed that everyone quit watching baseball when football started. As a baseball fan—and Cubs fan—I have to say that if the Cardinals win the World Series this year we will be watching documentaries about one of the most impressive and improbable champions in the history of baseball. The story is just TOO GOOD to not be enjoying right now. Not only did they do everything right but the Braves, Phillies, and Brewers all fell apart and/or couldn’t “hang” with the 2011 Cardinals. The Cardinals also did this without their co-ace in Wainright. They made a trade that added by subtracting and solidified their bullpen while everyone (even the fans) felt uncomfortable with it at the time. Berkman came back to his old self. Holliday and Pujols struggled through injury. There are so many amazing things this team has done.

        Then again if they lose nobody will care about any of this.

        On an actually related note, I feel as if the Cubs are in the mindset that if a prospect isn’t in their plans for the immediate future they have faith that their talent can be replaced by Epstein and the team he creates in the front office. They see McNutt (for instance) not as compensation for Epstein, but compensation for Epstein, all the people that will work for him, the players he will draft to build the farm system ETC.

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    • Jordan says:

      There are two sorts of value at play here. GM’s are responsible for putting together a quality major league team as well as a strong farm system – they’re generally the top dog in terms of baseball operations. So in that sense, a GM is a highly valuable asset, and it makes sense to blame him for widespread organizational failures.

      However, when you get to putting a dollar value on a GM, then you have to look at value in terms of supply and demand. There are just way more qualified GMs than major league quality players. So even though the success or failure of an organization depends far more on the GM than on, say a franchise pitcher, the pitcher will make significantly more than the GM

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      • Jordan says:

        Oops. This should have been a reply to Norm’s post below.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        While it’s possible that there are a lot of “qualified” GMs out there, we’re also talking about a GM that took a major baseball franchise from not so good to the best, and (at least initially) without doubling payroll to do it.

        While we might say that there are quite a few GMs that “could do it”, Epstein is one of the few that has done it. If we were all given credit for what we might do or what w could do, we’d all be ultra successful and highly paid.

        I think in a case like this we have to give Epstein some more credibility than the other candidates.

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  4. Norm says:

    If a GM is *only worth* a B prospect, then how can so much blame be placed on one if the team fails (or credit when they win)?

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  5. JFC says:

    The thing that you’re paying for with Theo is confidence. We know his true talent better than most GMs in the game and certainly better than anyone who hasn’t held the position. While I agree that there are maybe hundreds of people who could do just as good a job as Theo would do with the Cubs, there are also hundreds of people in this admittedly large hypothetical pool of GM candidates who would not. So much of organization building is a difficult job. It’s not simply believing in statistics. It’s management of people. It’s handling the press. It’s trading. It’s marketing. It’s all this.

    Theo can and has had a good track record in these departments. He’s not necessarily the best candidate, but he’s the most certain, and the three or four year investment that you must make with a new GM to evaluate him is very expensive in terms of opportunity cost and the holes that a GM can put you in if he’s bad at his job (see: Hendry). Theo is certainly worth a non-essential prospect when you think of it in these terms. Knowing you aren’t making a mistake is a luxury you don’t often get to have in business. With Theo you do.

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  6. Jon says:

    im surprised this is taking so long

    the red sox have zero leverage. Theo wants out, the ownership already threw him under a bus about the crawford deal.

    what leg do the sox have to stand on?

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    • JFC says:

      See Keven Goldstein’s piece at BP. I agree with him. The Sox seem to have all the leverage. The Cubs have staked their future on the guy and the Sox don’t have Theo either way, but they get to keep their assistants if the deal falls apart. A deal not happening is much less palatable to Chicago. This is probably the right way to frame the leverage.

      In my opinion, the Sox have played this perfectly. I’d do exactly what Lucchino has done here. They can afford to be unreasonable until they get an offer they like.

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    • Jamie says:

      Henry may be genuinely upset with him for asking out of his contract (and, you know, September), and might just want to make this as difficult as possible for Epstein. That would be petty, but these are rich people we’re talking about.

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      • Richie says:

        Rich people are no pettier than the rest of us. But they will wait till the last moment before settling for a nickel so long as there’s still a chance of getting 6 cents for an item. Hence their richiness.

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      • Judy says:

        They really shouldn’t be making it easy for another team to hire away their GM while he’s still under contract to them even if they’re not upset with him. The idea that they’d only expect compensation of value if they’re upset is what doesn’t make sense to me. What if the Red Sox decide they want Jed Hoyer back to replace Theo, should they expect the Padres to hand him over for nothing of value just because they want him?

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  7. Joey B says:

    IRT to the value of a Saber GM, you’re casting too wide a net with the generalization.

    1-If it is as simple as adding up columns of readily available numbers, then most of us will come up with similar conclusions, and most GMs with near-identical conclusions. Except for injuries, teams would be closely ranked, and payroll would rule.

    2-Sabremetrics doesn’t work very broadly. It works very well for 27 year old players with a long history. It works less well for injured players, switching leagues, young players with erratic histories, and barely works at all for drafting players.

    At $3M, this represents maybe 3.5-4% of the teams payroll, and even less if you want to include signing bonuses for prospects. A single good trade will save you more than $3M. A slight change in terms in signing a FA will save you $3M. Bringing up a top prospect just a few weeks later to reset the clock could save you that. How much did TB save by extending Longoria when they did?

    I think that you are really underrating the contributions of the GM simply because some decisions are more WAR related. Many are not. Think of it as a rotisserie league. On day one, everyone picks from the same publications, with some individual tinkering. Most people can do that. It is everything after that that separates the good from the medicore.

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  8. Ben says:

    I read this article like a baby turtle happily and inexorably flapping towards the sea.

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  9. drewcorb says:

    This Theo Epstein trade is a sign the Cubs are getting more creative in the ways they overpay for names. They have a SP (Zambrano), OF (Soriano), and now a GM (Epstein). I think we can now expect them to add a new owner (McCourt) to the equation very soon.

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  10. Peter Gammons says:

    Theo Epstein is worth Trey McNutt, Brett Jackson, Matt Garza, and the Cubs taking on John Lackey’s contract. This should happen any second.

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  11. Jim in NC says:

    Who says the Red Sox don’t have any leverage? They have all the leverage. They can just keep him for a year, or have him be a special assistant, or have him grow a beard and go on tour with his guitar the way Conan O’Brien did when his contract prevented him from going on TV. They have a contract, and the Cubs want to break it. They pay.

    Asking for Garza was perfectly reasonable, since the Cubs won;t be any good befoe Garza turns 40

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  12. Michael Felger says:

    It seems like the writers around here are missing one fact…the Cubs don’t have a front office at all. By bringing in Epstein, they aren’t JUST hiring a GM, they are getting a very well connected guy who will surround himself with a great staff. Is there any doubt Theo would be able to draw in more elite FO talent to surround him than say, Josh Byrnes? Even if he doesn’t take people with him this year, he has personal relationships with many people in the Red Sox organization, both baseball ops and business guys, and over the next few years many people will defect, moreso than usual. If the RS negotiate a 3-5 year window where RS employees can’t be lured away by Epstein, then compensation should be very low..but if he’s planning on taking business guys like O’Halloran as well as baseball ops people, the Cubs are essentially trying to buy a piece of the Red Sox brand, and that compensation should be much higher. The Red Sox would be better served to pay Theo his relatively insignificant salary and protect their brand than let him go and share the knowledge he aquired in Boston. You can’t protect your whole staff, but in this case the RS can protect this one guy for a season…I see no reason they should give in, they have significant leverage and ultimately it will come down to whether Ricketts caves, which is almost a mortal lock imo.

    The Red Sox have put a ton of money into their whole staff over the years, developing their own metrics and valuations. I mean, didn’t fangraphs rank the Red Sox organization #2? It seems by keeping Theo on staff, the Red Sox keep more guys in house, thus protecting their brand. I know other guys have left the RS organization over the years, but none of them have the clout Theo has. I think Hoyer brought McLeod with him, but the Red Sox had Sawdaye ready anyways. As for there being no chance Theo stays after next season when his contract expires, I don’t buy it. If the Cubs fill his spot, I can’t imagine many jobs that would interest Theo as much. Also, this is a guy who walked away from the Red Sox only to return a few weeks later, is it really out of the realm of possibility that the RS could have a great year next season and cure some of the bad feelings?

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    • l2uff says:

      the Cubs do have a front office in place, in all actuality all they are missing is a GM or assistant GM (since Randy Bush was promoted to interim). They have one of the most well respected Scouting Directors in baseball with Wilken, and they’ve been spending money in the international market under Oneri Fleita’s direction for years now (who was just extended for 4 years)….

      Honestly, the Cubs aren’t going anywhere in 2012… what does it hurt to wait for Theo’s contract with the Red Sox to expire? Allow Wilken to do his thing… keep spending money in the draft and international markets (which are scouting decisions NOT GM decisions anyway) and just fill their holes for this season through their farm while another 50M+ in contracts expire. They could even bring over Josh Byrnes as Asst. GM now while keeping the GM position open as a clear sign to Theo he’s their guy..

      In 1 years time the Cubs will have every major contract off the books except Soriano (2 years 38M) & Marmol (1 year 9.8M), they’d gain 1 year’s development time for the farm (where most of the Cubs best prospects are in the lower parts of the system)… & Quade’s contract would be expired. Epstein would have nearly 100M to spend in a loaded 2012 FA market and he’d need to sign a new manager —isn’t that an ideal situation for a GM to be walking into?

      If the Cubs just said screw the compensation talks, the Red Sox are not being fair, we’ll just wait til he’s a FA next year…. Boston would have to pay Theo almost 7M this year to be a lame duck GM (3.5M payout owed plus salary)…. and he’s probably not making baseball decisions for the team as they’ve already promoted Cherington internally and have begun the process of reorganizing their front office under a new regime.

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      • ofMontreal says:

        I like you.

        But 2012 would be a real bitch to sit thru.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        I like the comments, but hasn’t Epstein’s best moves been in the identification and development of homegrown talent like say Youkillis, Pedroia and Ellsbury and NOT in signing free agents?

        Daisuke, lackey, and Crawford cost a lot of money for their decreased production. Those signings have “Cubs” written all over them.

        Getting 20+ WAR out of homegrown talent is where Epstein’s value is. Having enough prospects to trade for Gonzales and the ability to resign/extend him is the value.

        Epstein hasn’t really shown an ability to sign really good prospects to contracts that favor the Red Sox.

        I wouldn;t give him 100M and say “work your magic Theo”, that hasn’t been his strength.

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  13. Bob says:

    An emphatic “YES” to McNutt for Epstein. A 32nd rounder for a GM who the Cubs have identified as “their guy”? Why not? You can’t tell me that Epstein won’t have a greater impact on the Cubs, positively or negatively, than a 32nd rounder. This is silly, really, when you think about it.

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  14. theeiffeltower says:

    Also, it’s “whither”

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  15. CircleChange11 says:

    A part of me still wonders how much of it is luck.

    Beane/OAK drafted Chavez, Giambi, Hudson, Zito, Mulder and signed Tejada. That’s major.

    PHL drafted Victorino, Rollins, Utley, Hamels, Howard, etc. Again, major.

    BOS drafted Youkillis, Pedroia, Ellsbury, etc and all 3 teams have gotten major WAR for cheap.

    But, how likely are the teams to do this again?

    Why hasn’t OAK been able to draft like that again? Has PHL been able to draft like that? has BOS?

    StL “found” Pujols in the 14th round and it completely altered the organization by providing 200M+ of surplus value over 10 years. Why haven’t they found another Pujols (you know what I mean)?

    So many of the “acquisitions” of GMs are obvious players that everyone wants but only a few can afford.

    How confident are we in our ability to identify and quantify what parts are “GM skill” and just “luck”? Isn’t skill something that is repeatable? Shouldn’t eh A’s have had another run of great drafts over a 3-4 year period that lead to 6-7 high quality major leaguers under team control to put together another run of playoff appearances?

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  16. aj says:

    Its all luck based to an extent. Think of it like poker, better players know how to play the game better to have better odds to win then worse players. Injury’s, personal issues, just not being able to hack it over the huge grind of a baseball season. Are issues you cant predict from a 16-24yearold kid your drafting/signing. Also some of the worst draft mistakes ever have been money driven, Matt bush in SD for example nfw he woulda been #1 if ownership didnt force the gm to spend such a low amount.

    Now the FA market is a different beast, still a good amount of luck but FAR less then drafting/signing kids. Honestly who saw Adam Dunn collapsing THAT much this year.

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    • Matt Bush says:


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    • Joey B says:

      As a Red Sox fan, I’m a fan of Theo, but you also have to wonder about the luck factor. The 8 guys drafted before Ellsbury haven’t contributed much. If the A’s don’t take Pennington at #21, would we have chosen him at #23 insteqad of Ellsbury? The 13 guys in front of Buchholz have done nothing. Did we get lucky he fell? OTOH, Garza goes at #25 and Hansen craps out at #26. So I think there is a luck factor.

      But then, you also have to include Theo’s trades. He’s gotten the best on almost all of them. Most of them low-key type of trades, but we got a lot of value over the years. He’s also provided solid value in some of the contract extensions.

      For all the talk of the Cubs, I think he would do a better job for a team like BA, where he has money to development a minor league system and extend his young players, but maybe not enough to sign big name FAs, which is not his strength.

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