In the second part of my offseason analysis of the Chicago Cubs, I’ll be diving into roster pieces that could potentially be traded. Last week, I talked about who the Cubs should target in the free-agent market. It’s tough to forecast which avenue the Cubs will use more to induce change to the roster, but it doesn’t really matter. The important part is that change will in fact happen, which Theo Epstein said in his press conference last Monday.
I expect the Cubs to field offers on almost everybody, as they should. However, here are the names that I believe are most likely to be traded: Ian Happ, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Jason Heyward, and Willson Contreras. The reason I don’t bring up Albert Almora is because he had such a horrific season that the Cubs would not get anything worthwhile in return. He’s more valuable to the Cubs’ roster than he is on the trade market. He finished the year with a 64 wRC+, 12th worst in baseball. He has proven nothing to warrant a belief that he can be an effective MLB player, so the Cubs might as well keep him as their fourth or fifth outfielder and hope he turns it around. Trading him right now wouldn’t even demand a mid-level prospect in return. I also don’t bring up Kris Bryant because, contrary to other fans’ perceptions, trading him is nonsense. He is off to the best start of a career as any player in the history of the Chicago Cubs. The only aspect of Bryant’s abilities that deserves skepticism is his health. With his shoulder injury in 2018 and his knee injury in 2019, he tends to always be injured, which is a big red flag, I will admit. However, the stats speak for themselves. He’s led the team in wRC+ twice in the last five years and has finished in the top three each of those five years. Not only that, he can play four positions on command and is as good of a baserunner as anyone in baseball. It’s actually laughable how much fans disrespect his ability and downplay his value to this team. The only way you even consider trading him is if the Cubs can somehow sign Anthony Rendon, which is a longshot. He was just offered a seven-year, $215 million extension, so we will see if he turns that down and heads to free agency or not. Other than signing Rendon, trading Bryant makes the Cubs worse in every single other scenario. And since the Cubs are not in rebuild mode, they’re not in the business of becoming worse. Trading Bryant shouldn’t, and won’t, happen.
Now, let’s get into the specifics of the five players I feel could be traded.
Willson Contreras: While many fans scoff when I bring up Willie’s name in trade talks, there are many legitimate reasons why it makes sense. First off, the Cubs have the best backup catcher in baseball in Victor Caratini, who had the ninth-best wRC+ of any catcher this year. He is simply too good to be on the bench two of every three games. Second, Contreras is not a good defensive catcher. While he has improved considerably over the past couple of years, he still had -1 DRS this year behind the plate. And to be honest, if it wasn’t for his cannon of an arm, it would be much lower. He is as bad as it gets in terms of framing pitches, which is very important for pitchers to get borderline pitches called strikes. Third, Contreras has proven to be very injury prone over the course of the years. While this is by no means a deciding factor for trading him, it helps build the argument along with all these other points. Fourth, Miguel Amaya is the Cubs’ top prospect and the number 73 prospect in baseball according to FanGraphs. He’s two years away from making the show, which aligns with Contreras hitting free agency in 2022. It’s a long way away, but whether or not the Cubs want to sign Contreras, a 31-year-old catcher, to a long term deal in 2022 is something they should think about. If the answer is no, which it probably should be, they should consider trading him now so they can get something in return. With back to back All-Star starts, that would be a very high return. Targeting a young, controllable starting pitcher, in addition to close-to-ready prospects, would be advantageous to bolster the rotation and the farm. It’s also worth pointing out that in Theo’s presser last Monday his description of Willie’s strengths honestly felt like a sales pitch to 29 MLB teams. If there’s one piece of the Cubs’ core that would be dealt this offseason, it’s Contreras. Not Bryant.
Ian Happ: Unbeknownst to most fans, Ian Happ finished the year with a 127 wRC+, tied with Willson Contreras for fourth-best on the team. He went on a tear to end the season right when most Cubs fans stopped watching, so most are unaware of how great of a season he had in totality. He’s generated some real market value with his performance this year, so I understand why he could be traded. He’s valuable on the trade market and would reap a good return. However, I advocate for the opposite. The Cubs should start him in CF on opening day and give him 600+ plate appearances next year. Although he’s not a great defender, he had +2 defensive runs saved (DRS) this year, which is formidable. He won’t make any amazing plays out there, but he won’t hinder you out there either. With how little production the Cubs received from CF in 2019, that’s a massive upgrade. He’s much better defensively than Albert Almora, who had -5 DRS this year. For some reason, Cubs fans think he’s a good CF, but that narrative really should be dispelled. He’s not. I truly believe Happ is one of the most talented players on the roster with his raw power and ability to play six positions on the field. His defensive versatility is extremely valuable and should not be overlooked. He changed some things with his swing at the beginning of the season when he was in triple-A and showed real progression once he was called up. Trading him would be a mistake.
Kyle Schwarber: Like Ian Happ, Schwarber generated a big uptick in his market value with his performance this year. Other than Nicholas Castellanos, Schwarber was the best hitter in the Cubs lineup over the second half of the season. It was like seeing highlights of 2015 and 2016. He was generating long at-bats, forcing the pitcher to attack the zone in order to retire him. Right when the pitcher made a mistake, he scolded the ball with his gap to gap power. He made some changes with his hand placement and load progression in the offseason. It proved to be successful and looks to be sustainable moving forward. Also, contrary to popular belief, he is not a bad outfielder. After a woeful defensive 2017 (-9 DRS), he accumulated the narrative that he’s a “butcher” out there. It’s factually not true anymore. After an impressive +2 DRS season in 2018, he was -1 DRS this season. While he will never be a great outfielder given his physical limitations, this isn’t much worse than Happ and way better than Almora. Plus, with how great Schwarber was at the plate the second half of the season, him being slightly below average defensively isn’t a big concern. While I do not want Schwarber traded, I would rather see him shipped off than Happ, mostly because of defensive versatility. Hopefully, they’re both Cubs next year.
Addison Russell: Like Almora, Russell would not garner a high trade return. However, I included him on this list because one of the goals of this offseason is to induce a different culture. This change of environment comes not only with hiring a new manager, but also the players in the clubhouse. I could see Theo cleaning house with Russell’s off-field issues in an effort to eliminate any distractions. This move also perfectly aligns with Nico Hoerner’s resurgence, who should start at second base on opening day next year. Having said this, I do think Russell provides valuable middle infield depth and can be a defensive replacement late in games for Hoerner. But the Cubs can sign somebody in free agency for that purpose. If I were to guess, Russell will be moved this offseason.
Jason Heyward: It may be hard to convince another team to take on JHey’s contract, which includes $86 million over the next four years (yikes), but it’s now or never. Heyward just finished his best season as a Cub and was extremely valuable with his ability to switch to CF when the Cubs acquired Castellanos. I believe his WAR does not adequately reflect this value because he’s much worse defensively in center field than he is in right field. If he played RF, his DRS would’ve been twice as high, which would have increased his WAR. I believe there is a flaw in the WAR algorithm because it penalizes players with defensive versatility, but I digress. Heyward is one of the best defensive right fielders in baseball and didn’t even rack up enough innings to qualify at that position this year. That was a major reason why the Cubs were so bad defensively. Having said this, while JHey did have a very solid year, he has not been worth his contract. While the Cubs probably wouldn’t get much in return due to that contract, I believe Heyward is as likely as anybody to be shipped off. This is mainly due to the crowded corner outfield the Cubs currently have. Between the trio of Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, and Nicholas Castellanos, one will not be retained. Moving Heyward permanently to CF is a very bad idea due to the reasons described above. He was acquired mainly due to his defensive prowess in right field. So if he’s not going to playing there, you have to get rid of him. If you sign Castellanos, you have to trade Schwarber or Heyward for a return that addresses some aspect of this roster’s weaknesses. Although trading Schwarber would allow for a much greater trade return than Heyward, Schwarber is much better offensively and is cheaper. Having said this, I do think the Cubs signing Castellanos is much less likely than the average fan thinks it is due to his potential high cost and horrible defensive stats (-9 DRS this year, fourth-worst among qualified outfielders). And if he’s not signed, I bet both Schwarber and JHey stay.
While it’s hard to forecast, if I had to predict, the three players the Cubs trade will be Addison Russell, Jason Heyward, and Willson Contreras. This may seem like a lot, but Theo talked endlessly about how they have been too stubborn the past few years regarding not trading core players that helped them win the World Series in 2016. Honestly, if there isn’t significant change to the roster, Theo is all talk and Cubs fans should be highly critical of him. One playoff game in two years with the talent on this roster is embarrassing. A significant change is needed, and not just at the manager spot.
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