The Cubs and their trade deadline decisions

Last week we had a heated debate and/or argument on here about the decisions the Cubs made about not trading certain players. I wanted to write something about this immediately, but wanted to collect my thoughts and not let emotion guide me. I also wanted to make sure I hadn’t just planted my feet and was arguing something just to argue. In other words, I needed to let it rest a couple of days and then think it over. That’s what I’ve done. (click the link below to continue reading)

The Cubs essentially had one of two decisions to make: rebuild or try to contend in the near future. Note that I did not say contend in 2012. I don’t believe the Cubs have to contend in 2012 to have made a good decision to move in the direction they have. I also do not believe that contending in the near future is necessarily the right decision, but it’s not really about what I think in terms of what the Cubs need or should do. The Cubs already made a decision and now it’s my turn to evaluate the forthcoming decisions to see if they help the Cubs achieve it.

This was in part due to the size of the market, the money they have coming off the books, the demands from the fans, and it’s a hell of a lot more fun trying to win than it is trying to win 5 or 10 years from now. Ask any GM and he’ll tell you the same thing. Like it or not, the enjoyment one gets out of doing a job affects their decisions. They’ve affected your decisions and they’ll continue to do so. It’s impossible not to. When confronted with two possibilities, neither of which ensures success, but one is more enjoyable than the other, you are going to choose to do the one that is more fun.

To be completely honest, I don’t know why the Cubs made the decision they did. I can only guess, but their reasons for trying to contend are mostly irrelevant. We can debate whether or not they should have went through a rebuilding project. It’s a valid debate. There are strong points in favor of just that and the opposite is true, as well.

However, the Cubs decided to move forward and whether or not subsequent decisions were right or wrong must consider that previous decision. Let’s use Starlin Castro and an extreme example to make a point. The Cubs announce today they have no interest in contenting for the next 25 years. Their stated goal, as of today, is to spend as little money over the next 25 years and then contend in 2036. Because of their new direction, it makes no sense whatsoever to not trade Starlin Castro prior to the start of next season or at next year’s trade deadline at the very latest. It wouldn’t even make sense to spend money on scouting or draft any players at all. After all, they’re not contending for 25 years and not one of the players drafted is still going to be playing baseball by the time they contend. You don’t have to agree with this decision the Cubs made, but you can’t argue that it’s not going to help them reach their goal. 

On the other hand, if the Cubs say they want to contend in 2 years, it makes little to no sense to trade Starlin Castro. It makes no sense to abandon the minor league system or to stop spending money. You may think the Cubs should wait 25 years to contend, but keeping Castro and spending money helps them contend in 2 years. Without doubt, they are in a better position to reach their goal than if they did anything else. 

The Cubs chose to try and contend. This means that those who disagree with that are going to disagree with many of their decisions. Disagreeing and claiming it’s right, wrong, good or bad are two entirely different things. One is an opinion and the other is an analysis of the decision and whether or not it helps them achieve their goal. There’s no point in arguing all decisions afterward are wrong when the Cubs are trying to accomplish something else. Basically, the Cubs choosing not to trade Sean Marshall must be evaluated in terms of whether or not it makes future teams better. We cannot reach the conclusions that not trading Marshall was a mistake because we thought they should rebuild. They chose not to do that and all decisions they made after took that into consideration. We must do the same.

We also have to be careful to not make the mistake that our opinion is right when there are many different ways to build a successful team. There’s certainly no guarantee that pushing forward will lead to success. There’s also no guarantee that rebuilding will lead to success down the road.

The caliber of prospects the Cubs would have acquired for most of their veterans would have been, for the most part, meaningless. They’d not have added any value now or in the future. There’s always a chance that a mid-level prospect just figures it out, but there’s a greater chance that a top prospect falls considerably. Second, it seems obvious to me at this point that teams that are willing to spend money and forget about rebuilding have greater success. How long have the Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates been rebuilding? They’ve gotten top picks almost every year. Whatever good players they’ve had they were forced to trade because they couldn’t afford them. Despite the top picks and trading valuable players, neither team has won a damn thing. Right now the future looks brighter for both organizations, but I’m going to bet on a team willing to spend money winning before either of them do.

Finally, there really are multiple ways to achieve success. The Rays have a small payroll and have been successful by drafting as well or better than any other team. They’ve developed talent as well or better than any other team. Or so it seems anyway. I’m not convinced they are that superior to others in that department, but instead, I’m mostly convinced they’ve gotten lucky. We know over a small sample that a lot can happen and that means that a lot of top prospects can reach their potential all at the same time. On the other end we’ve seen the Cubs prospect rarely reaching their potential. It’s difficult for me to believe that in this day and age there’s really all that much difference between the organizational philosophies on drafting and developing. Perhaps there is some and that’s part of the difference, but luck is a big factor here, too. 

The Pirates have undergone a rebuilding project seemingly every 5 years for the last couple decades. Time and again they have built their farm system up only to see it disappoint and eventually trade players from their MLB roster. They have a strong system now and could be good in the near future, but there’s probably a better chance they remain a .450 team. 

The Yankees built their team in the mid 90s on homegrown talent and then outspent every team in order for it to remain successful. They’ve gotten older and older and those players have become less and less productive. Instead of rebuilding they’ve filled whatever holes necessary with free agents. 

You can build a successful organization from within. You can build it by acquiring free agents. You can build it by being smarter than the other organizations (A’s awhile back). You can build it by focusing more on defense (Reds improved their defense by about 4-6 wins in one offseason alone). There are a number of ways to do it. No one way is right. 

It’s equally important for us to recognize that decisions are not all bad or all good. After the 2006 season I thought signing Ted Lilly was a terrible decision. Turned out to be a pretty good one, but that’s not the point. Signing Ted Lilly was not a terrible decision at the time. He was probably paid about as much as he’s worth, but that also isn’t relevant. The point is that most decisions team makes have a certain chance of becoming a good one and a certain chance of becoming a bad one. Let’s take Lilly and say he was overpaid. I thought he was at the time and because of that I thought it was a bad deal. 

Even though I knew at the time that there weren’t only 3 possible outcomes (good, ok, bad), that’s how I looked it at for some reason. It was either all good, just ok or all bad. The reality of the Ted Lilly signing is that it had a certain percentage chance of becoming a bad deal and probably an equal chance of it becoming a good deal. There was not a 0% chance it would become a good deal so thinking of it as a terrible contract was a mistake. The same is even true with Alfonso Soriano, though to a lesser extent. 

The same is also true with the decisions we were arguing about. Choosing to rebuild isn’t the 100% correct decision to make. Continuing doing whatever it is this organization does is also not 100% correct. It’s somewhere in between and much closer to the 50% mark than we probably realize. If you factor in how difficult it is to rebuild I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the Cubs made an informed decision in terms of probability, but that’s just a guess and not important to the discussion. Think of this more like a straight line and to the left you have a bad choice and to the right a good choice.

Choosing to keep Sean Marshall isn’t a terrible decision. I think it was unwise even if the team wants to contend in the near future, but we can’t box ourselves in to one possible outcome when there are, in reality, many. It’s entirely possible the Cubs see Carlos Marmol as an injury risk, or maybe they know something about his health, and keeping Marshall then becomes a good decision. I don’t know and I don’t really care, but the point is that something could easily happen that would suddenly make that decision appear to be a good one. It has a chance of becoming a good decision even if it’s more likely than not a poor one. 

Kerry Wood signed a very friendly contract with the Cubs this past offseason. I want to say it was $1.5 million for just one year. To this point in the season, however, he’s been a replacement level player and worth only the league minimum. We said at the time what a great deal that was, but the truth was that even that one had potential to be a poor decision. Even if we factor in all that we knew at the time, it had that potential. One of the things we know is that relievers aren’t reliable and the small samples they pitch each season means that they could easily not live up to their contract, regardless of how friendly it may seem. But for the most part, we ignored that possibility much like we do with other decisions. 

There’s a possibility the Cubs decisions at the deadline turn out to be good decisions. There’s a possibility they don’t, but we can’t treat the individual decisions separate of their initial decision to try to contend. We also can’t treat them as if there are only two outcomes. 

I recently looked at a way the Cubs could contend next year that included them spending a shitload of money. In the next week or two I’m going to take a more realistic approach that spreads the money and acquisitions out over the next couple of offseasons. We’ll get a pretty good idea of what the Cubs may be thinking when they made their initial decision.