Impulsively, the Chicago Cubs traded away an ace and the best player in their recent trade with the San Diego Padres. When putting a magnifying glass to the transaction, the Cubs did well.
On Monday afternoon the Cubs traded right-hander Yu Darvish and catcher/first baseman Victor Caratini to the Padres for right-hander Zach Davies, shortstops Reginald Preciado and Yeison Santana, and outfielders Owen Caissie and Ismael Mena.
This trade accomplishes multiple things for the Cubs: they shed $10.5 million in salary for the 2021 Major League Baseball season, add youth, and stay competitive in the National League Central.
Darvish is due roughly $19 million per season from 2021-23, whereas Davies is due $8.5 million for the 2021 season and hits the open market after said season.
The Cubs have made it no secret to the public eye over the last two offseasons that they’re trying to keep their payroll down and, more recently, trying to remove payroll. This trade clears roughly $10 million in payroll for next season and nearly twice that in the two seasons that follow. Where can that money go towards?
Cornerstone infielders Javier Baez and Kris Bryant are free agents after the 2021 season, and there have been numerous trade rumors about the latter over the last year. It was feasible to expect the Cubs to retain at least one of Baez and Bryant. Now they could potentially have the money to re-sign both of them, depending on how they view their organizational pitching depth.
Kyle Hendricks, one of the best right-handed starters in MLB, is under contract through 2024; Alec Mills made a career-high 11 starts in the sport’s 60-game regular season; young right-hander Adbert Alzolay posted a 2.95 ERA and 29 strikeouts while holding opponents to a .169 batting average across six appearances, four of which were starts last season; maybe top pitching prospect Brailyn Marquez becomes part of the rotation in the near future?
Davies is a steady force coming off a superb season with the Padres. Recording a 2.73 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP across 12 starts, he kept runners off the basepaths, was efficient, and was one of the best starters in the NL. Davies finds success by means of heavily relying on his sinker and changeup; roughly 83 percent of his pitches last season were one of the two offerings.
How much of a drop-off is Davies from Darvish? Sure, Darvish was the runner-up for the NL Cy Young Award last season, and he has pitched like the starter the Cubs signed up for since August 2019. At the same time, he has unfortunately missed considerable time due to injury, has struggled in the postseason (Darvish owns a career 5.18 ERA across seven postseason starts), and was inconsistent across the first three seasons of his six-year, $126 million deal with the Cubs.
With both of them pitching to their capabilities, Darvish is better than Davies but by how much?
Regarding the youngsters the Cubs got for Darvish, maybe Preciado or Santana develop into a starting shortstop in the next few years? Perhaps Caissie or Mena get in manager David Ross‘ depth chart in the next few years?
Even if none of the above takes place, the Cubs at least get more youth in their farm system. Meanwhile, who’s running away with the NL Central?
The Milwaukee Brewers are a competitive bunch on a yearly basis but coming off a shaky 2020 season. The Cubs, who won the division at 34-26 last season, can’t overcome the Brewers?
The St. Louis Cardinals are a season removed from reaching the NL Championship Series but, like the Brewers, hovered around .500 last season and have a veteran ballclub. The Cubs can’t finish ahead of the Cardinals?
The Cincinnati Reds were once the budding team in the NL Central. Now Trevor Bauer is a free agent, and Sonny Gray and/or Luis Castillo could supposedly be on the move this offseason. A little further east, the Pittsburgh Pirates have struggled to pose a threat in the NL and recently traded first baseman Josh Bell.
The Cubs have their deficiencies. Their rotation is a question mark, and their bullpen could use some fine-tuning. With that said, no one in their division is an overpowering threat, let alone a World Series contender. Chicago can restock its farm system, retain their core position players, and retool across the board while competing for the playoffs.
If they’d like to improve their chances of competing in 2021, the Cubs can use some of the payroll they cleared in trading Darvish to add a pitcher on a short-term deal. Such a move would improve their rotation while preserving future payroll.
The Cubs didn’t get better by trading Darvish, but they fulfilled multiple organizational needs; this is the way they’re going to have to operate if they’re not going to enter a full-blown rebuild.