While we await news of what Major League Baseball in 2020 ultimately looks like, searching for baseball fulfillment has taken on its own life. From baseball simulations, to video games like The Show, to analyzing and dissecting how/when/where MLB ultimately opens the season, the possibilities are relatively endless.
To this end, we all have our preferred method of filling the void left without actual baseball games. While I understand the impulse and benefit of current baseball — albeit in fantasy form — my preference is to look backward. Baseball is beloved as a game that endures, a game with a timeless nature. It as an institution with a history so rich, so nuanced, so impossibly intertwined with the lives of its fans that it, quite literally, feels alive.
It’s that history that continues to intrigue, especially during a crisis with no end in sight. Curiosity and hope remain that a 2020 season — in whatever iteration possible — still happens, but until then it is in looking backward that I find baseball fulfillment in its purest form.
In this vein, trade retrospectives are worthwhile endeavors. From trades that altered franchises, to speculative trades for the future, to ‘what if’ scenarios, it’s a worthy exercise to examine the unending volume of MLB trades — and the motivation behind them.
Such retrospection is especially intriguing concerning the 2016 Cubs.
A Look back at 2016’s Bullpen Needs
The 2016 regular season almost feels like a distant memory. The epic, perilous, nerve-wracking journey that was the playoffs overshadows the memory of what was an impossibly dominant spring and summer for the Northside squad.
A 103-win season, kick-started by an absurd 25-6 start, made clear the Cubs were the early World Series favorites. Never looking back after that red-hot beginning, the Wrigley faithful was delighted with a 17.5 game cushion as the regular season gave way to postseason glory.
Despite the team’s dominance the front office became acutely aware of one weakness: the bullpen. This weakness was relative, of course, given the overall strength of the roster, but nonetheless a desire to shore up the back-end of the relief core was deemed essential.
The Cubs ‘pen in the first half was actually efficient, if not elite. Because of a durable and dominant rotation, Cubs relievers had pitched the second-fewest innings in all of baseball as of July 25, the day they made the blockbuster trade. In 279.2 innings to that point, the ‘pen posted a solid 3.83 ERA, albeit with a strikeout rate (24.7) and walk rate (10.1) that were among the worst in baseball. Hector Rondon was an effective closer, and Pedro Strop was in the midst of his incredible tenure with the Cubs. Even still, the ‘pen needed reinforcement.
There’s no reason to reflect too much on the Aroldis Chapman/Gleyber Torres trade. Yes, the Cubs mortgaged a future superstar for an elite reliever with a history of domestic violence — a trend the organization continued to struggle with after-the-fact. Trading for a known abuser has aged poorly, and shouldn’t be forgotten when assessing the legacy of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer.
Sans context, however, is this: the Cubs gave up a premier youngster with years of team control for a few months of a player that enabled them to win that elusive World Series. For that reason the Cubs would make this trade every single time.
The Ripple Effect of the Trade that Didn’t Happen
It’s impossible to consider how history might have changed had the Cubs nabbed Miller instead of Chapman. Schwarber’s World Series heroics remain the stuff of legend, as does Miller’s impact on Cleveland’s run and Chapman’s dominance for the Cubs. The influence of Schwarber and Miller on the World Series itself was epic, and for that reason it is best history played out the way it did.
Still, what if propositions are fun, so let’s look examine the consequences.
Even before the Chapman trade, rumors surfaced of a Miller and Chapman blockbuster for a package headlined by Schwarber. However, the Cubs remained committed to Schwarbs despite his rehabbing knee, but were open to dealing other prospects. The Yankees were looking to capitalize on scooping up Chapman on-the-cheap from the Reds as a rental, as well as giving up two and a half affordable years of Miller for prospects that would turbo boost the Bronx Bombers back into perennial contention.
Both teams ultimately got what they wanted.
Had they swapped Schwarber for Miller the historical revisions would be ceaseless. It’s impossible to know if Miller would have been properly utilized by Joe Maddon, and if his injection into the ‘pen would have been enough for the Cubs that fall. It’s also impossible to know if the Yankees would’ve then pivoted, dealing Chapman to Cleveland. Would Terry Francona’s squad have made it to the Fall Classic without the utility reliever in Miller? Would Chapman have been enough as their new closer, supplanting already-entrenched ninth inning stud Cody Allen?
Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield centered New York’s return for Miller. Frazier remains a young, skilled player with little means of playing time, and is a potential trade chip in the near-future. Sheffield was eventually flipped for former Mariner James Paxton, whose solid 2019 season was followed by injury. Torres, of course, has cemented his path as the next great Yankee star.
For the Cubs, Andrew Miller’s presence through the 2018 season would have drastically altered subsequent transactions. Holding on to Torres would have afforded them the chance to swap him for Justin Verlander in 2017. Keeping him would have meant no Daniel Descalso mistake, and would’ve limited the likelihood of drafting Nico Hoerner while also accelerating the dismissal of Addison Russell.
Miller would have meant no Wade Davis in 2017, and likely no Brandon Morrow signing before the 2018 season. Jorge Soler would’ve been shipped elsewhere in ’17, and the Front Office might have viewed the ‘pen differently post-2018 after Miller’s departure, meaning Craig Kimbrel either would have been signed in the winter (and given a full Spring Training) or not at all.
The ripple effects are endless, the ramifications on the histories of multiple clubs forever impacted.
The Curious Case of Schwarber
Trade rumors seem to follow Schwarber. It’s as if they’re inescapable for the bulky lefty. Part of that, of course, is due to the odd fit he maintains with the Cubs — a reality that would certainly change if the DH becomes a universal MLB rule.
The endless winter rumors (pre COVID-19) remained all the rage this off-season, even if loosely assembled with comparison to past trade iterations. Given the bull’ish approach the Front Office maintains with Schwarber, the potential of the DH entering the senior circuit, and his explosive second-half in 2019, one thing seems certain:
Rumors will persist, but Kyle Schwarber will remain a Cub.
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