CHICAGO -- If the Chicago Cubs are going to go big-game hunting for a starting pitcher this trade season, infielder Javier Baez remains the best option to reel one in -- at least according to several executives around baseball.
"Baez fits above all of them because he can play shortstop and offers the most upside with power and speed," one National League general manager said.
Another GM concurred: "I’d value Baez higher because he can play Gold Glove defense. Happ still has defensive questions. People don’t mention Baez was a shortstop and can still play there. That adds a ton of value."
Value is what the Cubs will have to give up to finally land that controllable starter they’ve been seeking. If the current trend continues, they’ll need that arm for a repeat playoff run this season, as well as in years to come. The futures of John Lackey and Jake Arrieta in Chicago are uncertain, as they’ll be free agents in November and both have struggled at times so far in 2017. The Cubs might need to make a bold move.
If last season is any indication, it will take a lot to reel in a pitcher with the above qualifications. Remember, the Cubs traded their top prospect for a rental whose job it was to pitch basically one inning. If they want a top-of-the-rotation arm, it will cost them. Minor leaguer Jeimer Candelario or even the hot-hitting Happ won’t net the Tampa Bay Rays' Chris Archer, for example. Baez might.
"Baez has a bigger body of work and a higher upside than Happ," one GM said. "So, in a vacuum of who has a higher value, it would be Baez. Obviously track record, reputation and sample size are all important when factoring in trade value."
There are so many permutations, it’s impossible to run through all the scenarios. Perhaps Happ and Candelario could land the Cubs a pitcher such as Archer. Mike Montgomery could be an arm that eventually emerges, or maybe Eddie Butler will indeed revive his career in Chicago. But a proven, top-three commodity is a different story.
If you’re wondering what Schwarber and his .186 batting average would net the Cubs, it’s still a lot ... just not in the NL.
"Schwarber probably fits best in the American League," an AL executive said. "His value to an AL team is much better than Happ or Baez."
But if that sounds more attractive than dealing Baez, consider this: Chicago has three players capable of filling a similar multiposition role already on the team in Happ, Baez and Ben Zobrist -- but there is nobody in the system who could step in and replace Schwarber's power in the outfield. If the Cubs do deal Baez, they would need to find a backup shortstop in the event of an Addison Russell injury, but those also are easier to find than power hitters with 40-home run potential.
If the Cubs decide they're willing to part with this kind of top-end talent, trade options will be there this July. Many see a buyer’s market upcoming, as pitchers such as Archer or his teammate Alex Cobb could be available. With the San Francisco Giants possibly out of the pennant race, Johnny Cueto might be a hot commodity. Some already have linked high-priced righty Zack Greinke to the Cubs, particularly considering the close ties between the Arizona and Chicago front offices. Of course, the more money the Cubs pick up on a contract such as Greinke’s, the less inventory they'd have to give up.
If Archer or another top starter can’t be had, then a pitcher such as Cobb seems attainable. But the Cubs probably won’t break the prospect bank for a rental who isn’t a guaranteed, top-end guy. If there were a larger sample size on Happ -- at least in the major leagues -- perhaps the executives polled would have a better idea of where he fits in the trade market. They’ll undoubtedly get that larger sample in the coming months. Happ hasn’t even played an inning at his natural position, second base; instead, he has been spending time in the Cubs' outfield since he was called up.
"Happ [is] a good but not great player," the executive said. "He's a Jason Kipnis type with less hit but more power."
Perhaps Happ’s value to the Cubs is greater than it is to other teams right now, as he’s comfortable hitting and can play around the diamond. This isn’t to say Chicago will move Baez, but he remains the guy who can bring back the most -- unless, of course, the team wants to dangle uber-prospect Eloy Jimenez.
"Schwarber and Happ are good, but they lose value because of their defense," one executive said.
"Baez can do all of that," another said.
Would the Cubs pull the trigger on a huge deal involving a player such as Baez or go the smaller route? Stay tuned.