The Cubs, Chapman, and the New Price for an Elite Reliever

When a baseball trade happens, it’s common practice for folks to want a winner or a loser anointed right away. It’s only natural to desire an instant verdict, to immediately express an opinion. Truth is, it’s impossible to declare a winner or loser on the day of a trade. It might be impossible to do so until the careers of every player involved are finished. It might even take longer than that. It sure looks like the Blue Jays are going to win the Josh Donaldson trade, but what if Franklin Barreto turns into a Hall of Famer?

The expected deal between the New York Yankees and the Chicago Cubs is different. There’s external factors we don’t typically have to figure into a trade evaluation. Aroldis Chapman is likely heading to the Cubs. Some prospects will be going back to the Yankees, including a really good one. It’s interesting, strictly from a baseball perspective. Strictly from a baseball perspective, we won’t know who will have won or lost this trade for more than a decade. But this is one of those rare times when you can rightfully declare a winner or loser on the day of the trade, if inclined.

Aroldis Chapman’s been accused of choking a woman and firing eight shots in the garage of his home, for which he was suspended 30 games. I’ve since heard folks refer to him as a monster. You’d be hard-pressed to argue with that description if the police report is accurate. We enjoy sports because they provide us a necessary diversion from the terrors of the world and the tedium of daily life. It becomes harder to glean pleasure from the diversion when the diversion and the terrors begin to intertwine. The Chicago Cubs had a young man in their organization who, as far as we can tell, is an upstanding citizen with a bright future ahead of him, personally and professionally. They seem, in this case, to prefer the troubled man with the dark history. You could say the Cubs already lost this trade.

I know this is FanGraphs. I know you came here for baseball analysis. This is supposed to be the diversion from your favorite diversion. We’re getting to that. The real-life stuff is just so much more important, and it needs to be discussed. Front and center.

It’s difficult to transition back into the trivial stuff. Feels dirty. But that’s what you came here for. This is the best I can do.

Despite a month of mediocrity, the Cubs still look like the best team in baseball. They’ve got the most wins, the most expected future wins, and a run differential that sticks its tongue out while pointing and laughing at the rest of the run differentials. Despite a recent winning streak, the Yankees still look like an obvious seller. They’ve got worse than a one-in-10 shot of making the postseason with an aging roster that still features some intriguing soon-to-be free agents. Baseball-wise, Chapman is one of those intriguing soon-to-be free agents.

The Cubs certainly don’t have much need for upgrades in the position-player department, and the rotation moving forward still looks about as good as they come. That leaves the bullpen as the remaining area where the Cubs could meaningfully improve their odds of winning a World Series, and that’s what the trade deadline is all about, after all. You can’t say, if the deal for Chapman becomes official, that the Cubs aren’t more likely to win the World Series today than they were yesterday. They would have added one of the best relief pitchers in baseball. Maybe the best. The best team would be getting better.

The questions are: how much better? How much would those odds go up? And at what cost?

The cost sure looks hefty. Gleyber Torres is the big piece included in the deal. Torres is a 19-year-old out of Venezuela, a shortstop by trade with the tools to stick. Baseball America recently called him the 27th-overall prospect in the game. He’s a prospect chip likely worth somewhere around $50 million in surplus value. Chapman will throw 20 or 30 innings for the Cubs and hit the open market without draft-pick compensation.

When I speculated on the possibility of a complete Yankees teardown last week, I considered Torres as a potential starting point for an Andrew Miller trade, figuring Chapman’s value as a rental was too limited to command a prospect of Torres’ caliber. Once again, it appears as thought the anticipated market for an elite reliever was undersold. I used the Miller trade between Baltimore and Boston at the 2014 trade deadline as my baseline for a Chapman return. Miller was an impending free-agent left-handed reliever with a 44 FIP- and no off-field baggage. Chapman is currently an impending free-agent left-handed reliever with a 46 FIP- and his history. And, granted, a longer track record supporting his on-field performance.

Miller cost Baltimore Eduardo Rodriguez, BA’s No. 67 overall prospect, and at the time, it seemed like an overpay. We were surprised by that Miller return, and Chapman just cost far more than that. Maybe Torres’ age and distance from the majors somewhat suppresses his trade value relative to this prospect value, but Torres isn’t even the only piece heading out. It’s still a shocking return. We were surprised at what the Padres got for Craig Kimbrel this offseason. At what the Phillies recently received for Ken Giles. Hell, even at what Mike Montgomery just netted the Mariners. Safe to say, there’s a sizable gap between the public’s valuation of elite relief arms and the industry’s valuation. We’ve known this. Thing is, the gap seems to continue growing.

The Yankees are on the verge of turning a quartet of essentially non-prospects from seven months ago into one of the most valuable young assets in the prospect world in Torres, a pitcher who’s had success for them in the past in Adam Warren, another legitimate major league prospect in Billy McKinney, and more. You can read Eric Longenhagen’s scouting reports on all the prospects involved right here.

It looks like the kind of return we might’ve expected for two-and-a-half reasonably priced years of Miller. It’s the kind of return that forces us to once again re-evaluate our perception of a reliever’s trade value. The kind of return that forces a club like the Royals to think long and hard about selling what they’ve got at the back-end of their bullpen, and has to make the Yankees wonder what they could get for their lefty with real trade value. Even considering the possibility of the suspension that loomed over Chapman and suppressed his trade value in the offseason, the difference between what it cost the Yankees to acquire Chapman and what they’re about to receive for him is both staggering and puzzling.

As for the Cubs, they’re about to get what they need to increase their odds of winning a World Series in 2016 for a price they evidently feel comfortable paying. Chapman’s a truly dominant force, pitching with a new style that’s seen him cut his walk rate nearly in half. Between Chapman and Hector Rondon, the Cubs would have the best one-two punch of relievers of any playoff-bound team. They only had two reliable options in the bullpen — Rondon and Pedro Strop — and now they’d get a third. Doesn’t get much more reliable on the mound than Chapman. The Cubs are only asking six innings from their starters in the postseason, now. In a perfect world, they’d require a total of seven pitchers per playoff series — all remarkable arms. It doesn’t matter that the Cubs already had the highest World Series odds. They wanted the odds to be better, and now they will be.

It’s probably not worth worrying about the fact that Torres is a shortstop while the Yankees already have Didi Gregorius and Jorge Mateo, just as it’s illogical to consider Torres more expendable to the Cubs due to the presence of Addison Russell and Javier Baez. Torres’ value is Torres’ value regardless of his environment, and that value is sky-high. It’s not a problem that the Astros have both Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa. It’s not a problem that the Rangers have Elvis Andrus, Rougned Odor, and Jurickson Profar. The Cubs are glad to have Baez around even with Russell. None of Gregorius, Mateo, or Torres are sure things. If any of those three fail for whatever reason, the club will be glad to have the others. If all succeed, the Yankees either have three excellent infielders or an immensely valuable trade piece to patch another hole. Regardless of circumstance, adding a Gleyber Torres to your farm system can only help it, just as adding an Aroldis Chapman to your bullpen can only do the same in the quest for a World Series.

This whole deal boils down to several interesting discussions regarding differences in perception. The perception between future value for a club with a wide-open window and present value for that same club with a 107-year World Series drought. Perception regarding allocation of resources and the value of an elite reliever. Perception regarding the cost for marginal upgrades in unpredictable, short-series playoff baseball. Perception regarding the value of talent vs. character. It’s a lot to unpack. Probably more than any one person can handle.

We hoped you liked reading The Cubs, Chapman, and the New Price for an Elite Reliever by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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RedsManRick
Member

As a Reds fan, please excuse while I go cry in a corner.

redsoxu571
Member
redsoxu571

If karma exists at all, the Yankees are going to get hit really, really hard for turning a major profit on being willing to invest in a lesser-evil Greg Hardy. If that rationalization helps, please go ahead and use it.

Johnston
Member
Johnston

Nope. The Yankees are profit greatly from all this and are going to use this latest trade to stick it to the Red Sox for years. Cashman has hosed three other GMs so badly that it’s actually funny. Fortune favors the brave! Hail, Cashman, who made the deals everyone else was afraid to make!

Evan Carter
Member
Member
Evan Carter

Why does karma punish the Yankees for this.
They did nothing but see an opportunity and act.

Johnston
Member
Johnston

And to act boldly, when other teams wet their pants and dithered.

It’s almost enough to want to make me want to be a Yankees fan.

Johnston
Member
Johnston

You should have been crying anyway.

Greg Simons
Member
Greg Simons

It’s a bit like the Shelby Miller trades. Sure, the Cardinals got Jason Heyward, but a year later Miller essentially turned into Ender Inciarte and Dansby Swanson. (Yes, I know there were a few pitchers involved, too.)