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Why the Cubs Traded for Aroldis Chapman


Yesterday, the Cubs completed a trade for Aroldis Chapman.  The Cubs' bullpen has been the weak spot for an otherwise excellent ball club.  The Cubs' bullpen ranks 20th in the majors in FIP and 14th in ERA.  There's no question that Chapman immediately makes the Cubs bullpen better.  Chapman has a career ERA of 2.12 and a career FIP of 1.96.  He's struck out over 15 betters per 9 innings in his career.  He throws the ball really fast, so much so that when MLB introduced Statcast to the masses last season, they had to include a Chapman Filter on the leaderboard of fastest pitches thrown, because otherwise the leaderboard would just be tracking every fastball Chapman pitched.  He also features a devastating slider.  Suffice it to say, Chapman is one of the most-dominant, most-feared closers baseball has ever seen.

Not everyone is happy to see Chapman as a member of this team, though.  Over this past off-season, Chapman was involved in an incident that drew the attention of the police and MLB.  He was never arrested or charged with a crime, but he was suspended by MLB for 30 games and didn't appeal his suspension.  Chapman allegedly choked and pushed his girlfriend and then smashed a window of a car, grabbed a handgun, and fired 8 shots in his garage.  Chapman confirmed to police that he fired the gun, but charges weren't filed due to "conflicting stories and lack of cooperation from Barnea (the victim) and other witnesses," according to police.

A lack of cooperation from a domestic abuse victim is a big issue with domestic violence, and it is a main reason why abusers often don't face consequences for their actions.  This is even a larger problem when the abuser happens to be someone rich and famous, such as a baseball player.  Reliving the moments of abuse can often be traumatizing for victims.  And victims are often afraid to testify against their abuser because they fear retribution.  If an abuser commits such heinous acts because of an argument about something found on a cell phone, such as in Chapman's case, what could the victim expect if they were to testify against the abuser and help possibly put him in jail?

So, while it is true that Chapman wasn't charged with anything, that doesn't mean that he didn't do anything wrong.  He most certainly did.   This is where we get into a gray area of where a person's comfort level lays with Chapman on the Cubs.  Some might acknowledge that what he did was wrong, but that it shouldn't preclude him from being able to play baseball.  Some people may rationalize things by stating that they root for the name on the front of the jersey and not the name on the back of the jersey.  Aroldis Chapman isn't someone to revere.  He's a bad person.  Some might say that he is a decent person that did a bad thing.  But this isn't someone that got in trouble with the league for smoking a little grass.  He laid his hands on a woman and then shot up his garage.  I have a hard time buying the theory that a decent person would do something such as that.

What do we do about it, though?  Domestic abuse isn't an issue that just arose in sports.  This has gone on for a long time.  And athletes, generally, haven't faced consequences for being abusive to women.  But it's an issue that has recently come to the forefront, right around the time everyone saw the video of Ray Rice beating his wife, Janay.  The impact of that video was visceral.  It was hard to avoid.  Before then, people may have been able to compartmentalize their feelings on the issue of athletes and domestic abuse.  This video demanded action, though.  The backlash to Rice's slap-on-the-wrist punishment was swift.  And now all major sports leagues are more cognizant of the issue -- at least we hope so.

We still haven't solved the issue of domestic violence, obviously.  And it isn't just an issue with athletes.  We, as sports fans, at least acknowledge that the issue exists now.  I've seen a lot of people all over the internet talking about this issue this week.  A few years ago, I don't think I would have seen as much discussion about this.  It, more likely, would have been glossed over.  But, as we saw with the Greg Hardy situation, 

.  Baseball is a sport played by men, managed by men, and watched mainly by men.  Over the course of the last year, several men like Theo Epstein have been involved in exchanging the services of a man who allegedly choked his girlfriend.  And now a bunch of men, including me, are writing about it.

I am about to write about why this bad man can help my favorite team.  I'm part of the problem.  I am complicit.

I could urge you to not cheer for Aroldis Chapman because he is a bad person.  But, I'm no moral arbiter.  That's up for you to decide.  Do you begrudgingly accept him on your favorite team, while drawing the line at what Josh Lueke did?  Is there even a line that needs to be drawn?  Do you separate the player and his actions entirely?  Do you stop following the Cubs?  I don't know the right answer.

But I am hopeful that as we talk more about these issues, over time, a difference will be seen.  We need not fuss about how many games Chapman should or shouldn't have been suspended.  That stuff is merely window dressing that makes us feel better about ourselves after the fact.  What we really need to do is set up a better support system for abuse victims.  We need them to feel as if they are not just instruments used to get a conviction.  We need them to feel safe.  We need to stop men from abusing them.

For their parts, the Cubs and Aroldis Chapman both released statements.  Apparently the Cubs drew the line on Chapman such as this:  We're OK with you choking your girlfriend once, but a second time would be too much.  And with that Aroldis Chapman is now a Cub.  I guess we need to discuss this new member of the team, who happens to be a bad person.

Make no mistake, Aroldis Chapman will help the Cubs.  A lot of people think they Cubs gave up too much to get him, though.  Heading to the Yankees are Gleyber Torres, Adam Warren, Billy McKinney, and Rashad Crawford.  Gleyber Torres is viewed as a consensus top-30 prospect in baseball.  The other three all have a modicum of value, though to a much lesser degree than Torres.  I think this is a steep price to pay for a two-month rental on a relief pitcher.  I'm not comfortable with what we gave up.  I don't think even Theo Epstein would tell you that he is entirely comfortable with what he gave up.  But the fact is that this is what it cost to get him.

Sahadev Sharma has a very good write-up on what we are losing.  It's a lot.  But, it's probably not as much as it seems.  The non-Torres pieces are minimal losses.   To me, they really are non-factors in judging this trade.

I argued in my last article that Kyle Schwarber was too much to give up for a relief pitcher, even for one as good as Chapman but with more years of control, like Andrew Miller.  I spoke a lot in that article about why it is unwise to give up too much value for a relief pitcher.  That idea still applies, but this is a little different.  Whereas Kyle Schwarber is a known quantity, the main piece going the other way in this deal is a 19-year-old that is playing in high-A ball.  We discussed in that article how future value is less important than present value.  The hypothetical Schwarber trade would result in the Cubs getting an uptick in value this year and then an immediate loss of value once this season is over.  And while, yes, Chapman only gives us value for this year, the loss in future value is so much further along in the future that it's not as much of a worry.

Let's look at where the Cubs are sitting as team for the present, the immediate future, and the distant future.  In the present, the Cubs are probably the best team in baseball.  In the immediate future, the Cubs have every significant player on this year's roster signed through next season, except for soon-to-be free agent Dexter Fowler.  (Jason Hammel also has a club option that may or may not be picked up, but everyone else of any real importance will be back.)  It's difficult to say for sure that the Cubs will be the best team in baseball heading into 2017 without knowing what moves the Cubs and other teams make in the off-season.  But, even if they don't enter 2017 as the unquestioned favorites, they will surely be among a handful of favorites.  After 2017, though, Jake Arrieta is eligible for free agency.  John Lackey, Miguel Montero, Pedro Strop, and possibly Jason Hammel (if he is retained) will also be eligible for free agency after next season.

Those other guys don't matter so much.  Arrieta is the big name.  He's our ace.  He's the Cy Young winner.  The Cubs have a two-year window, counting this season, in which they are assured of having Jake Arrieta under contract.  They are going to do everything in their power to win a World Series before that window closes.  Trading Kyle Schwarber would take value off of one of those two teams that has a chance to win a World Series.  They're not going to do that.  Gleyber Torres wasn't going to help the 2016 or 2017 Cubs win a World Series.

The Cubs' window is much larger than that, though.  The distant future still looks very bright.  Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, and Javier Baez are all controlled through 2021.  Jon Lester is controlled through 2020, with a club option for 2021.  Kyle Hendricks and Jorge Soler are controlled through 2020.  Willson Contreras and Albert Almora are controlled through 2022.  So, while we can't assume that this window will stay open, the groundwork has been laid to contend for a long time.  The Cubs wouldn't trade Kyle Schwarber because it is conceivable that he could help them win a World Series in the immediate future and in the distant future.

Schwarber is a guy that could have a major impact in the playoffs as soon as next year.  He already showed how his bat could impact the playoffs last year.  In fact, he is the Cubs' all-time leader in postseason home runs.  Gleyber Torres is still a prospect, though.  A teenage prospect, at that.  He is the great unknown.  Maybe he turns into a really good player that could help the Cubs win a World Series four or five years from now.  But maybe not.  Schwarber isn't such an unknown.  So let's recognize that this trade is different.

Gleyber Torres was also blocked by what is already on the Cubs' major league roster.  Ben Zobrist is controlled for three more years after this one, and Addison Russell and Javier Baez are controlled for longer that.  It's hard to picture where Gleyber Torres would fit onto a Cubs roster in the next three years, if not more than that.  As such, he could be viewed solely as a trade chip.  Taking it another step, every single Cubs minor league position player prospect should be viewed through this lens.  Since the arrival of Epstein in Chicago, we've grown accustomed to hoarding prospects.  We were hoarding them for a reason.  Our major league roster was bad, and we were out to build a Super Team of elite, young players.  We've done that now.

Those young guys are now established at the major league level, and they are winning.  There's hardly any spots available for anyone else to join them.  Just last week, Albert Almora, who has more than held his own at the major league level, was sent back down to the minors to accommodate the return of Dexter Fowler.  If there are any changes to the major league lineup, it will be one of these young players getting replaced by someone even better.  It won't be by another young kid getting called up to prove his worth.  A good chunk of this lineup is set in stone for the rest of the decade.  Get used to them.

With that established, the leftover prospects are merely a figment of our imaginations.  They are names and nothing more.  They are tools that can be used to acquire something else.  Things have changed very quickly in a short time.  We aren't waiting on minor league players to join the big league club.  The wait is over.  Now the minor leagues are a reservoir for us to collect other assets to trade.  You should have seen this trade coming.  Theo's said before that he would make this move.  Talking about the trade that sent Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the A's in 2014, when Billy Beane shipped off Addison Russell, Theo said, “Billy is one of the few general managers who’s not afraid to make a deal like that to increase his chances of winning in the postseason... It was a brave trade, and I admire him for making it. We were just in a different place than they were. I like to think if we were in the same place, I would have had the guts to acquire what our big league team needed, which is what he did.”

There are a few differences between the two trades, though.  For one, Billy Beane felt that it was his time to strike -- his only time to strike.  He had what appeared to be a one-year window, with a murky forecast in his team's future.  The Cubs' time to strike is right now, too, but the future still looks very bright.  Billy Beane was a determined man, sitting at the card table, pushing his chips all in on a full house.  He lost and left the table broke.  Theo Epstein just did the same thing.  But Theo realizes that when he leaves the table (win or lose), he'll still be as rich as Croesus.  Busting on this hand would be heartbreaking, but at least Theo can enter the next card game and do the same thing again.

Most Cubs fans aren't really broken up about losing Gleyber Torres, though.  The ones questioning this trade simply feel that trading him for a rental relief pitcher was a poor use of assets.  A lot of people would have rather seen him included in a trade for a young, cost-controlled starting pitcher.  There's a couple of problems here.  For one, teams aren't knocking down doors to trade their cost-controlled starting pitchers.  The ones that are available usually have some problems with them.

Take Drew Pomeranz, for instance, who was recently traded for Anderson Espinoza.  Espinoza, like Torres, is a teenager in A-ball.  Espinosa is a pitcher and is ranked a little higher than Torres, but they probably have somewhat similar value.  Pomeranz has been a solid pitcher this year, making the All-Star team.  But, he did so while pitching in a pitcher's haven in San Diego.  And he's never pitched this well before.  And he'd never even pitched 100 big league innings in a season until this year.  And he's been more good than great.  Suffice it to say, there's some questions about Pomeranz going forward, not the least of which is if he can hold up until the playoffs this year.

And if we are looking at how much Pomeranz benefits this year's Cubs team, it's probably not much.  You really only need four starters in the playoffs.  And the guys lined up for the Cubs' Game 3 and Game 4 starts, Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey, have been worth 2.5 and 2.0 fWAR, respectively.  Pomeranz has been worth 2.4 fWAR.  Sure, you'd still have Pomeranz for two more years.  But he's already 27, and he's probably never going to be a guy that opposing teams are terrified of facing in the playoffs.  He's more just a two-year stopgap in the rotation, giving you solidly above-average production.  And this front office hasn't had much trouble finding guys like that to fill out their pitching rotation.  They also have money and more prospects at their disposal.  If worse comes to worst, they can still add a guy like Drew Pomeranz at some point.

If the Cubs really want to significantly upgrade their starting rotation for the present and for the future, they would need to acquire someone like Chris Sale.  And if you ask about Chris Sale, the White Sox aren't going to be very concerned with the teenager you have in A-ball.  They are going to inquire about guys like Addison Russell, Javier Baez, and Kyle Schwarber.  Torres might be included in a deal, but he'd be the throw-in.  Any trade for Sale might be prohibitive.  You'd be sending away value in the present, the immediate future, and the distant future.  You'd be putting all your eggs in one basket.  And that basket would be a pitcher, whose arm could go out at any moment.  There's a reason why the Cubs have built this team around hitting.  Look around the league and see all of the starting pitchers that go under the knife each year.  I don't think that's the course the Cubs want to take.

That's where Aroldis Chapman comes in.  If there was one spot on the roster that the Cubs could see an immediate, significant upgrade, without forking over assets that can help them now or very soon, it was by adding a dominant, late-inning pitcher.  Chapman certainly qualifies as that.  Gleyber Torres was never more than an asset as a trade piece.  They wanted to make a trade now, and this is who they chose.  They could have held onto Torres and waited.  But why wait?  Torres alone is never going to get that mythical, cost-controlled, elite starting pitcher that is on the trading block.  Those don't exist.

Torres's value might be at its peak, also.  He's a teenager performing well in A-ball.  He's also been praised for how polished and advanced he is for his age.  His tools aren't spectacular.  There's nothing that stands out.  He's got a little pop, a little speed, a good hit tool, and a nice arm.  But, he also has some trouble making contact.  And he doesn't have a ton of power.  And there are a lot of questions on if he will stick at shortstop.  If he goes to AA and struggles next year, then people will notice his warts.  His prospect status might suffer.  He probably doesn't have the tools to ever be considered an elite, top-5-type prospect.

The Cubs sold a prospect that never had a future with their team at possibly his peak value for a guy that might be the available player that is best-suited to help them right now.  There was a lot of talk earlier in the year about the Cubs looking like a perfect baseball team.  This talk was a little premature, as we've seen the Cubs fall off after their historic start.  But, for the most part, the underlying sentiment is true.  The Cubs are very good at nearly every facet of the game.  They are one of the best hitting teams in the league.  They are one of the best base-running teams in the league.  They are one of the best defensive teams in the league.  And their starting rotation has been one of the best in the league.  The bullpen is a different story.  It looked to be solid going into the year, but it's been a mess.  Everything is excellent except for the bullpen.

Let's discuss excellence, the value of excellence, and how it pertains to the Cubs.  If we are looking at the value of players, the best way we have to measure them is by WAR.  But, what exactly is WAR measuring?  Well, it's measuring what it says:  wins above replacement players.  A player's true value to any team is relative, though.  For instance, the Cubs are adding Aroldis Chapman in place of Clayton Richard, a guy that pretty much defines the idea of a replacement player.  But, as we discussed above, Drew Pomeranz replacing John Lackey in a playoff rotation isn't really such an upgrade.  Drew Pomeranz has more value to the Red Sox, whose rotation has been a bit of a mess.  It's all relative.

And if we look deeper into WAR and where it comes from, you can see that elite players are probably a little undervalued by such a concept.  WAR is finite.  There can only be so many wins above replacement.  There can only be so many at bats to go around.  There are only so many innings to be pitched.  So having those at bats and innings taken by excellent players is very important.

Let's look at it this way.  Say I were to give one team Mike Trout and Mark Reynolds and another team Dustin Pedroia and Justin Turner.  Which team gets better value?  Well, if we look at it by simply adding WAR (and only for this year, for simplification), Mike Trout (6.0 fWAR) + Mark Reynolds (0.0 fWAR) is less than Dustin Pedroia (3.0 fWAR) + Justin Turner (3.2 fWAR).  But, it's much easier to replace Mark Reynolds and improve your team.  It's a lot harder improving from Justin Turner and Dustin Pedroia.  You start to get diminishing returns when you are replacing guys that are already above average, as shown above with the Cubs and Pomeranz.

An elite superstar, one that's the best at what he does... that's manna from heaven.  If you literally can't find anyone better at that position, that's who you want eating up your innings and gobbling up your WAR opportunities.  You'll figure the rest out later.  Or, in the Cubs' case, you've already figured out the rest.  This is where the Cubs were at.  They had excellence all over, except in the bullpen.  So they made it excellent, too.

Now the Cubs have, quite possibly, the best one-two bullpen punch of any playoff team.  And Pedro Strop is bumped back into the seventh inning.  And there is a stable of other pitchers who have been successful in the past that are now fighting simply to make the playoff roster.  Chapman not only improves the Cubs' closing situation, but he improves every other spot in the pecking order, by extension, as guys shift into lesser roles.  You may have seen that the Cubs are 55-1 when leading going into the 9th inning this year.  And that is true.  The Cubs didn't really need to upgrade at the closer position.  Hector Rondon's done a fine job.  But, this trade was just as much about ensuring that Travis Wood wouldn't take the mound in 1-run game in the sixth or seventh inning.

That stat is a little bit misleading, too.  The Cubs have won 41 games this year by at least 3 runs.  They've won 29 games by at least 5 runs.  And they are 12-16 in one-run games.  The premise of that tweet isn't pretense.  It is difficult to gain much by improving your bullpen.  But, I think Theo Epstein understands this.  Replacing Clayton Richard with Aroldis Chapman maybe increases the Cubs' odds of winning the World Series by 1 or 2%.  Maybe.

I wrote a lot in my last article about how the playoffs are a crap shoot.  It's true.  The playoffs are absolutely a crap shoot.  There is too much randomness for us to understand how the playoffs work.  Everything you've heard about the playoffs is probably wrong.  The Cubs could add Jose Fernandez, Mike Trout, and Chris Sale and the playoffs would still be a crap shoot.  Maybe, if we are being generous, adding those guys would bump up the Cubs' projected odds of winning the World Series from 18.6% to 25% or so.  But, even still, they would be three times as likely to not win it all.

This trade wasn't about trying to solve the randomness of the playoffs.  The very definition of randomness means that it can't be solved.  But, let's look at why the playoffs are random and why even a Super Team might top out at around 25% likely to win a World Series.

Well, baseball is a game that lends itself to randomness.  Look no further than the regular season.  In any random series, a team with the best record in the league, like the Cubs, could lose to a really bad team, like the Reds -- which happened just a few weeks ago.  The best teams every year are going to lose somewhere around 60 games.  A lot of games are decided by only a few runs, in total.  It's not like in basketball, when teams are racing to somewhere around 100 points.  In baseball, you could score once and coast to victory.  That opens things up to randomness.  You've probably heard the saying that baseball is a game of inches.  And that's true, but, moreover, those inches can be monumentally important.

One catch can change the course of history.  Or one hit.  Or one missed call.  Or one fielding blunder.  Or one case of fan interference.  (Be honest:  You thought I was linking something else there.)  Playoff baseball is randomness at its finest.  And it's not just about the randomness.  A lot of it has to do with how baseball teams function.  There's not much difference between teams that make the playoffs.  Everyone is good.  And one player can't assert his dominance as easily as a LeBron James can in the NBA.  There are 25 players on a roster.  Each position player has to wait for his turn to hit.  Each starting pitcher has to wait for his turn to pitch.

Occasionally a player like Madison Bumgarner can seemingly carry his team to a title.  But, even then, his teammates do contribute, by allowing him the opportunity to do so.  Under different circumstances, maybe Bumgarner isn't able to impose his will like that.

Ah, but that's where this Chapman trade comes into play.  I talked a lot about what-if scenarios in my last article.  What if Aroldis Chapman isn't needed?  What if the Cubs are bounced quickly?  That's why Chapman's addition only bumps the Cubs' odds up a percentage point or so.  There are too many what ifs for us to account.

Sometimes Joe Carter happens, though.  Sometimes Carlton Fisk happens.  Sometimes Kirk Gibson happens.  And Aroldis Chapman could happen.  The Cubs could face a ninth-inning tie in Game 7.  And they will feel more secure knowing that Aroldis Chapman is lingering in their bullpen and not their opponent's.  

This trade is about Theo Epstein not wanting to leave things to chance.  This is about Theo Epstein not wanting to waste an opportunity.  This is about Theo Epstein not wanting to look back and ask what if.  "What if I had traded for Chapman?" This is about Theo Epstein striving for excellence.  No, this is about Theo Epstein affirming that he will not abide anything short of excellence.  This is Theo Epstein taking Mike Ehrmantraut's advice about not taking half measures.  This is Theo Epstein rolling out the best team he can assemble.  This is about improving our odds of winning the World Series, even if only by 1%, and even if it might be a tough pill to swallow.  This is Theo going all-in.

And he'll do so again, if need be.

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