The One Theo Epstein Decision That is Hindering the 2020 Cubs
While trading Tommy La Stella isn’t talked about frequently, it has proven to be one of Theo Epstein’s worst mistakes while running the Cubs.
Fans have been highly critical of the Chicago Cubs’ front office and their decision-making in recent years. Whether it’s the offseason signings of Jason Heyward, Tyler Chatwood, and Yu Darvish, or the in-season trades of Jorge Soler and Eloy Jimenez/Dylan Cease, Cubs brass has made their feelings heard. While I have mostly defended these moves by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, their decision to trade Tommy La Stella in November of 2018 had no justification and the 2020 Cubs are feeling the consequences of that move.
Second Base is The Team’s Biggest Positional Weakness
First, let’s take a look at some statistics. La Stella is currently slashing .289/.382/.500 for the Los Angeles Angels in 2020. The second baseman’s wRC+ of 144 ranks 36th in all of baseball and would be third-best on the Cubs if he was still on the roster. On the surface, it’s obvious to see why the Cubs would benefit from this production, any team would. But it’s not just the fact he has been producing at a high level; it’s the fact he’s producing at a high level at the most significant positional need for the 2020 Cubs.
Second base was a gaping hole last season. You can thank Addison Russell’s freefall into baseball irrelevance for that. And although Jason Kipnis has saved the 2020 Cubs from having MLB’s worst second base WAR, (a fantastic acquisition from Theo, I might add), he hasn’t shown the ability to play there every day yet. Couple that fact with Nico Hoerner’s struggles, and it’s easy to see where Tommy La Stella’s value would fit for this team right now.
When I bring up Hoerner’s struggles, it’s not meant to be taken lightly. The kid is laboring at the plate. He’s slashing .204/.286/.245 with a 51 wRC+, indicating that he’s hitting 49% below league average. While I have the utmost confidence that Nico will one day develop into an everyday player for the Cubs, his offensive game is just not MLB-ready right now. And with the season being only 60 games, he doesn’t have much time left to figure it out. If La Stella wasn’t shipped off, he’d be replacing Hoerner’s 49% below league average bat with a 44% above league average bat. That difference is night and day and would likely turn this Cubs lineup into one of the best in baseball with Kipnis sliding to the everyday Designated Hitter role.
The Timing of the Trade was Head-Scratching
It’d be one thing if the trade only looked bad in hindsight, but it also made little sense at the time the deal was made. In the offseason after the 2018 season, Addison Russell was coming off the worst season of his career and Ben Zobrist was heading into his final year under contract for the Cubs. Combine that with having no infield prospects on the verge of an MLB call up and it begs the question: why would you deal your best bench bat and utility infielder?
Another reason Theo Epstein erred in this decision was La Stella’s career trajectory leading up to the trade, evident by the table below.
As you can see, La Stella’s 2018 production at the plate was by far the worst of his career since his rookie season, so Theo and Jed effectively traded him at the lowest value of his career. This aligns with the return the Cubs received for La Stella, which was the dreaded ‘player to be named later’. Really? That’s the value you get from your best bench player that could, and eventually did, develop into an everyday starter? To make matters worse, the front office signed Daniel Descalso to replace La Stella. Any Cubs fan already knows how much of a disaster that acquisition turned out to be.
Trading La Stella is the Worst Move of Theo Epstein’s Tenure with the Cubs
Typically, I’m not a fan of looking at trades in hindsight, as I wrote about when evaluating the Jose Quintana deal last month. But the La Stella trade doesn’t only look bad right now, it made zero sense at the time, as discussed above. La Stella’s presence as the everyday second baseman would have not only solved a massive weakness in 2019, it would also put the 2020 Cubs lineup among baseball’s best. You don’t trade your best utility infielder when you have an aging Ben Zobrist and a proven wildcard in Addison Russell as your second- and third-best middle infielders.
Although it rarely sees the light of day with the media because he’s not a household name, trading Tommy La Stella, as I’m sure Theo Epstein would admit, is at the top of the list of Theo’s worst decisions while running the Cubs.