Why the Cubs shouldn't make a blockbuster trade for a starting pitcher

Theo Epstein and the Cubs can afford to spend money on free-agent pitchers to keep their position player base intact. Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

CHICAGO -- The moment Theo Epstein said them, many took the Chicago Cubs president’s words as gospel: In order to fill pitching needs this offseason, the Cubs might have to trade from the core of position players that has helped them to three straight postseason appearances.

Is a blockbuster deal really in the cards as the winter meetings approach next month? Are the Cubs going to say goodbye to Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ or another of the fan favorites who have made them so dangerous?

Pitching is the name of the game, and the Cubs are clearly short on it at the moment.

“We have some real surplus with some talented players who are really desirable,” Epstein said shortly after the Cubs were eliminated from the postseason. “We have benefited from having two or three extra starting-type players on the roster. That helped us win 97 games in 2015, 103 last year and 92 this year. That’s as big a part of the club as anything. Those things show up every day for us.

“Sooner or later, you have to strongly consider sacrificing some of that depth to address needs elsewhere on the club. We’re entering the phase where we have to be really open-minded to that if it makes sense to the overall outlook of the team and the organization.”

What’s not said there is the obvious: The Cubs used up most of their top prospects in acquiring Aroldis Chapman in 2016 and Jose Quintana in July. In order to improve on the mound via trade, there’s only one place left to turn: the major league roster.

The Cubs could easily turn a current strength -- depth -- into a weakness. Is there a trade out there that makes sense?

“You can’t just sit there and say, ‘Hey, we’re moving him’ because you don’t know what the return might be,” Epstein continued. “You don’t know if the different moving parts might fit together. Going into the offseason, we’re prepared to make some tough choices and execute on them, and keeping an open mind to everything is appropriate, under the circumstances.”

Let’s examine the possibilities.

The Cubs have three tiers of tradable major league players. Tier 1 includes Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. Those two can fetch any available arm on the market.

Tier 2 includes the middle infielders, Javier Baez and Russell. (An informal poll of executives at the GM meetings earlier this month had them neck-and-neck in value on the trade market.)

Finally, there’s Tier 3, which includes players with a few more question marks, such as Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr. and Happ. They aren’t all exactly equal in value, of course, but they are behind the other two tiers in what they can fetch. There’s little doubt that the Cubs will be on the phones all winter attempting to make that exact right deal that won’t destroy their depth but will add a top-four arm to the rotation. Can it be done, and from which tier will they have to trade?

It’s going to be difficult to pull off for several reasons:

Home-run-happy league

First off, the value of Cubs players isn’t what it used to be, and not just because Schwarber had an off year. There was a time when the organization had seemingly cornered the market on power. That isn’t the case anymore.

For example, in 2014, the year before Bryant made his debut, two third basemen in the National League hit 20 or more home runs -- and no one hit as many as 30. In 2015, four third basemen hit at least 20, including Bryant. One hit more than 40, and one other hit more than 30. In 2016, 10 third basemen hit at least 20, and this past season, nine did. The trend is the same all over the diamond, including where Schwarber resides.

In Schwarber's rookie season (2015), four left fielders hit at least 20 home runs. This past year, double that number did so. Now, add the fact that Schwarber hit just .211 with a .315 on-base percentage and 150 strikeouts in 2017, and you can see where his value is: low. Several executives smiled earlier this month when asked to assess Schwarber’s market right now. “He’s a great buy-low candidate,” they said.

Except the Cubs aren’t looking to sell low on him. In fact, the Cubs undoubtedly believe in Schwarber much more than any other team. Same goes for Happ, whose 24 home runs are nice but don’t jump off the page for a rookie like they would have in the past.

There is a lot of character in the Cubs clubhouse -- it’s a big part of how the team was put together. Chicago is counting on that character to return players such as Schwarber to elite status. Industry sources indicate that he has been on a mission this offseason to “transform” his body and get back to being a hitter -- not just a slugger. Since the Cubs know him so much better than any rival, there’s bound to be a disconnect between what they feel about him and what other teams see in him.

The bottom line is that none of the Tier 3 players can fetch the Cubs a top-of-the-line starter -- at least not as a centerpiece of a deal.

The time of year isn't right

There's also the issue of who’s available from other teams. Unlike at the July trade deadline, everyone is 0-0 in the standings right now. Contenders aren’t trading away top starters, and bottom-feeding rebuilding teams already moved theirs, which leaves a few in-between organizations that could convince themselves they want to begin the season with their best starters and see how things play out.

Within the Cubs' division, Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington said as much about two potential trade pieces: outfielder Andrew McCutchen and pitcher Gerrit Cole.

Maybe Cole, who has two years on his contract before free agency, can fetch a good enough return that the Pirates would move him. If Huntington doesn’t like what he hears in the trade market, he might attempt to contend and hope for a “luckier season.”

Forget for a moment the difficulty of trading for a starter within the division, considering the Pirates would have to face Cole 10-12 times the next two seasons. Even if the Pirates are willing to do a deal with the Cubs, who would undoubtedly have interest, there’s little chance that Schwarber could be the main piece, considering the season he had and the fact that most rival evaluators consider him an AL player. Happ wouldn’t get it done, either, despite having five years of team control compared to two for Cole. Tier 3 simply isn’t enough.

To get a player of Cole’s caliber, it’s going to hurt a little more. Tier 2 starts the conversation. Would you give up four years of Russell or Baez for two years of Cole? If the Cubs believe Russell’s injury history and off-the-field problems might catch up with him or Baez has maxed out at the plate, they could attempt a trade -- but it’s risky. It’s a tough call considering that we’re talking about the two things that made the Cubs special the past few years: starting pitching and depth. To improve one, you have to hurt the other.

“We absorbed injuries the past couple of years because of that depth,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “You can’t ignore that.”

Without Baez, where would the Cubs have turned when Russell went down with a foot injury this summer? Without outfield depth, where would the Cubs have been when Jason Heyward struggled or when Schwarber missed almost all of 2016 or when Ben Zobrist sat out with various ailments?

You also can’t ignore the two holes in the starting rotation. Where’s the pitching answer if Tier 3 isn’t enough and Tier 2 is too much? There’s only one place left to turn.

Free agency is a better fit

Most of the time, free agency isn’t the answer because of the exorbitant prices teams have to pay for anyone on the market, but in the Cubs’ case, they can afford to spend money on pitching to keep their position player base intact. Bringing in free agent Alex Cobb at four years for $50 millin to $60 million makes sense. And don’t count out a Chicago return for Jake Arrieta, as there still might be a middle ground that involves option years based on incentives. Say he gets four years guaranteed with two more to kick in based on what he accomplishes in Years 3 and 4. Those incentives could range from innings pitched to Cy Young votes and anything in between. If the Cubs can’t make it work with Arrieta but Cobb joins the rotation, they can fill their No. 5 spot in the rotation with plenty of reclamation projects.

The good news is the Cubs have a No. 6 in Mike Montgomery and perhaps a No. 7 in righty prospect Jen-Ho Tseng. They’ll need more, but that’s a start.

Then there’s the bullpen. Signing both Cobb and Arrieta might take the Cubs out of the Wade Davis market, but they would have a dynamic starting staff.

The Cubs have approximately $40 million to play with, after arbitration, just to reach last year’s payroll. Use it all on pitching, mostly starters, and they won’t have to make a deal involving a position player. There might not be a good one to be had anyway.

“He [Epstein] was laying out the possibilities, and people kind of ran with that right away,” Hoyer said of that idea. “If there is a right match, with the right pitcher, it’s something we have to talk about.”

There will be plenty of talk, but will there be action? The smart move would be to sit on the position players -- allowing new hitting coach Chili Davis a chance with them -- while spending on pitching. That way, everyone wins.