Why trading Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel will work out in the long term for the Cubs
After winning consecutive NL Central titles in 2007-2008, and finishing second in 2009, the Chicago Cubs have suffered through four straight losing seasons. Going further back, the last time this team won the World Series was 1908, almost a full 106 years ago. It makes sense that the Cubs would go to extraordinary lengths to build a team that will contend for longer than just one or two years.
News of a blockbuster trade between the Cubs and the Oakland A’s just serves as evidence of what the organization is trying to do. The fact that they traded their two statistically best starting pitchers for three potential future stars shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Despite stellar seasons by Jeff Samardzija (2.74 ERA) and Jason Hammel (2.98 ERA), the Cubs are virtually out of the playoff race. At 38-47, they are in last place in the NL Central, twelve and a half games behind the Milwaukee Brewers, and eight and a half games out of the second NL wild card spot. Coming into the season, the Cubs did not expect to be legitimate contenders, but rather hoped to build for the near future. To better understand how this trade accomplishes that goal, it helps to break it down by what the Cubs gave up, and what they gained.
What they gave up:
The Cubs sent packing two starters who have performed exceptionally well for them in 2014. Although he has only two wins to show for it, Jeff Samardzija (3-7) has a 2.74 ERA and 108 strikeouts at about the halfway mark of the season. Meanwhile, Jason Hammel (8-5) has a 2.98 ERA with 104 strikeouts. If both pitchers can keep up the pace with their new team, they will finish with roughly 200 strikeouts, 200 innings pitched, and ERAs at or under 3. However, it is hard to say whether Samardzija or Hammel would have been able to replicate this success in coming years if they had stayed with the Cubs.
31 year old Jason Hammel has a 4.62 ERA in nine big-league seasons, and prior to 2014, has never reached the 200-innings plateau. Jeff Samardzija, now 29, spent his first four years in the league mostly as a reliever. He has had several good years, and probably has more upside than Hammel. Though he is a solid starter, however, he is not the type of pitcher to build a rotation around.
In giving up these two pitchers, the Cubs relinquished two solid starters in the midst of their best years, banking on the assumption that these players cannot be counted on to be this good in the years to come. The move makes a lot of sense as the Cubs look to get some value out of pitchers who likely won’t contribute significantly when the team is ready to contend.
What they got back:
In return for Samardzija and Hammel, The Cubs received position prospects Billy McKinney and Addison Russell, as well has starting pitcher Dan Straily and a player to be named later. While Straily might be the only one to play for the Cubs this year, Russell and McKinney are both extremely well-regarded former first round draft picks who the Cubs hope will make big impacts a couple of years down the road.
Straily made his Major League debut in 2012, and in 2013 pitched to a 3.96 ERA, good enough for a fourth place finish in Rookie of the Year voting. Although his struggles in 2014 warranted a stint in Triple-A, he has the potential to be a dependable starter for a long time, as he showed last season. Also, he is only 25 years old. This fits in with Cubs president Theo Epstein’s philosophy of building around youth.
Billy McKinney, the 24th selection in last year’s MLB draft, is only 19, and to this point in his minor league career, has been an outfielder. He had a .326 average between two teams in his first professional season. Although he has only batted .241 in Single-A+ this season, he has shown some power, hitting 10 home runs, to go with 33 RBIs. He is several years from being ready for the Major Leagues, but could become a good hitter and defender with solid power.
The piece the Cubs received with the highest ceiling is 20 year old Addison Russell, the 11th overall pick in the 2012 draft. Prior to the 2014 season, Russell was actually ranked as the 14th best prospect by Baseball America, and the 12th best by MLB.com. As a shortstop, he is projected to be an excellent defender, as well as a wonderful hitter. In three minor league seasons, he has a .302 average, and in 2013, he hit 17 home runs, in addition to stealing 21 bases. Without a doubt, Russell is a top prospect, and the Cubs pinned a lot of their hopes on him when they made the trade.
This blockbuster trade was definitely a good move for the Cubs. They did lose two solid starters, but they got back three youngsters who could all be stars soon. The Cubs’ farm system is full of great prospects. These include shortstop Javier Baez, rated as the 5th best prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America, and power-hitting Kris Bryant, who was 8th on the list in Baseball America. This move has added to an organizational strength, one that will pay dividends in the near future.
Not only do the Cubs have a great minor league system, but they have locked up Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, both of whom have yet to turn 25, to long term deals. By building a young team, the Cubs hope to finally be contenders, and eventually win a championship. So far, they are on the right track, and soon, Cubs fans will have a team to be proud of.
Joe Setyon, sports editor of The Collegian at Grove City College, contributes to Three for Ten Sports as a baseball writer.