The Cubs will traded, have traded, or are in the process of trading pitcher Chris Archer, shortstop Hak-Ju Lee, and outfielders Brandon Guyer and Sam Fuld to the Tampa Bay Rays for accomplished pitcher Matt Garza and not-so-accomplished, minimum-wage outfielder Fernando Perez. All of this is according to Bruce Levine, so I'll give him full credit for unearthing the news.
Reaction among Cubs fans has run the gamut from high praise to meh to pshaw to #@!$. I don't even have an emotional response. I'll just try to make this simple. Let's look at this in terms of baseball assets and liabilities.
Players who can play well
I apologize for the insult to your intelligence, but I'm simplifying it for my own sanity. That's really the equation in a tiny little nutshell.* If you're trying to win at Major League Baseball, you want good players, you want money, and you are contractually obligated to pay your players. Let's examine the Cubs' assets and liabilities.
Players who can play well.
The Cubs have a great catcher, a promising shortstop, corner infielders looking to rebound, a void at second, an overcrowded but undertalented outfield, a galvanized bullpen, and 12 starting pitchers. Heading into today, they also had a farm system of considerable depth if not overwhelming potential. John Sickels offers a quick grade card of the top 20 prospects in the system and a synopsis of the system as a whole, which unsurprisingly varies little from the big-league team. Strong up the middle, weak at the corners, a lot of good-to-very-good pitching.
So you could say the Cubs need corner outfielders and, given the expiring contracts of their current corner infielders, corner infielding prospects at the very least. They also need . . .
When the Ricketts family bought the Cubs for $3 zillion, they spent more money than they had, at least in cash. The last we heard from them, they were saying they could really use $300 million that they would pay back to the citizens of Illinois by not not paying their taxes for the next 30 years. But we've also heard whispers that the Cubs were looking to cut payroll by a-lot percent.
Player Contracts (all numbers courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts
Alfonso Soriano: $18 million per year through 2014
Carlos Zambrano: $17.875 million in 2011, $18 million in 2012, and a $19.25 million vesting option in 2013 if Z finishes in the top 2 of the Cy Young vote this year or the top 4 next year, so . . . yeah.
Aramis Ramirez: $14.6 million in 2011, $16 million club option in 2010 that vests if Aramis wins the MVP or the NLCS MVP or if he is traded, so . . . yeah.
Kosuke Fukudome: $13.5 million in 2011
Ryan Dempster: $13.5 million in 2011, $14 million player option in 2012, as well as $3 million in deferred payments over the next two years
Carlos Silva: $11.5 million (Cubs are getting $5.5 million from Seattle) in 2011 and a mutual option in 2012 for $12 million
Carlos Pena: $10 million in 2011 of which $5 million is deferred until 2012
Marlon Byrd: $5.5 million in 2011, $6.5 million in 2012
Jeff Samardzija: $3 million (?) in 2011
John Grabow: $4.8 million in 2011
Carlos Marmol: Pending re-signing/arbitration, probable increase from $2.125 million last year
Kerry Wood: $1.5 million in 2011
Jeff Baker: $1.175 million in 2011
Sean Marshall: Pending re-signing/arbitration, probable increase from $950,000 last year
Tom Gorzelanny: ($800,000 in 2010)
Koyie Hill: ditto ($700,000 in 2010)
Geovany Soto: ditto ($575,000 in 2010)
Randy Wells: ditto ($427,000 in 2010)
Bunch of guys making league minimum...
Has that been simple enough? Is it a big mystery what the Cubs need and what they need to get rid of? The Cubs have a ton of starting pitching. They have no one all that promising at second base. They have a farm system well stocked with what they already have at the big league level. They have a lot of giant contracts.
I'm sure you can notice the disconnect between the Cubs' assets and their liabilities, too. Geovany Soto is the Cubs' best player. He made $575,000 last year. He'll make a bit more this year. By WAR, Randy Wells was the Cubs' 2nd best pitcher last year, and he had to borrow money from Geovany Soto. Players who are good don't necessarily make the most money.
Prospects like the Cubs just traded away make, relatively speaking, almost no money at all. Since the Cubs profess to have almost no money at all, it seemed like a match made in heaven. What's more frustrating is that the Cubs just let go of, as Callis ranks them, their number 3, 4, 8, and 15 prospects in exchange for a player who fits into one of the Cubs' current strengths.
These weren't just players without contract liabilities, these were players who could play well.
Are the Cubs a stronger pitching team now? I don't know. Some people would say they definitely are, but I'm not convinced. If they are, I don't think it's by any great stretch. He's got postseason experience, which is great. But guess what, Matt: you won't be getting any more.
The argument I've heard most is that the prospects had a chance to succeed in the big leagues, but Matt Garza has proven he'll succeed now. Really? He's 27 years old, right about the age Carlos Zambrano was when he signed his current contract.
I also hear that Garza isn't eligible for free agency for another two or three years, but he did make $3.35 million last year and will make quite a bit more this year. That number will keep going up, even if he disappoints.
So, let's return to simple. The Cubs were a team with a lot of pitching, a lot of prospects, no money, and a lot of contracts. They got more pitching, unloaded prospects, and acquired a new, soon-to-be-ballooning contract. What did they keep? All their big contracts. And what's supposed to be the real good news is that the Cubs might trade one of their underpaid pitchers.
Okay, yeah, I still don't get it.
Maybe the Cubs' new 6th outfielder can shed some light on the subject. What's it like to be paid the league minimum?
* I was going to include "Players with big contracts who can't play very well" in the Liabilities column, but the fact of the matter is that it's the contracts that are the true competitive liability. If it weren't for the contract, Alfonso Soriano wouldn't be a liability to the Cubs, he'd just be out of work.