Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 7/31/12

“As a whole, not specifically regarding potential deals, we need to add a lot of pitching to the system. It’s not enough to have a handful or two. You need waves and waves coming through your system, and we don’t have that. We hardly have even one wave coming, so we need to rebuild a lot of pitching depth.”

–Theo Epstein, July 18, 2012

On Monday night, the Chicago Cubs executed a pair of trades, sending players to both the Braves and the Rangers in exchange for pitching, pitching, pitching. Here’s the breakdown of those trades:

Braves get:
SP Paul Maholm
OF Reed Johnson

Cubs get:
SP Arodys Vizcaino
RP Jaye Champman

***

Rangers get:
C Geovany Soto

Cubs get:
SP Jake Brigham

The Braves trade feels a bit like a fleecing for the Cubs; the Rangers trade is at best a wash. Let us see why.

The Braves Trade

First: We must reiterate the fact that there is not always a “winner” and “loser” in the MLB trade market. Teams are often trading from strengths and according to their seasonal situation, meaning the result is not a zero sum gain, but instead both teams are benefiting.

And so, when I say the Cubs performed a bit of deadline sorcery, I am saying this more as a credit to the Cubs than a shaming on the Braves. Entering the 2012 MLB season, the Cubs had little chance to reach the playoffs, and therefore little reason to sign the likes of Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson. But Johnson, as I observed at the time, was pretty sharp for a fourth outfielder — and by limiting him to playing his strengths, a team could extract some steady WAR from him. And Maholm had been a steady performer with the Pirates over the previous three seasons, limiting his HR/FB rate and keeping his FIP low.

Both players were solid bets for decent production. So Johnson and Maholm got one-year deals, plus a team option second year for Maholm, at reasonable, if not discounted, rates. Around the time of the signing, it looked like the Cubs were starting to put together a team in the low 80s win category, and they might even be able to compete for the second Wild Card, but that was before Chris Volstad, Travis Wood and Randy Wells collectively laid a big egg and Fate handed the Cubs a 20-game losing streak.

But in the case that things did play out like this, Theo Epstein and company had still done a solid job identifying some undervalued talent on the market and grabbed two players who were clearly not apart of their long-term plans.

So, in many ways, this trade cost the Cubs nothing. Johnson and Maholm were brought in purely on speculative purposes — in speculation of a potential run at the Wild Card and, more importantly, in speculation of a possible trade deadline deal. And considering what they received in exchange, that speculation appears to have paid dividends.

Arodys Vizaino had Tommy John Surgery in during the 2012 Spring Training, but even despite the fact he will not throw a pitch until 2013, he is all but guaranteed to be the Cubs top prospect now. Marc Hulet ranked him No. 2 in a Braves system thick with talented pitching. For all the sensation that Anthony Rizzo has become on the north side, Vizcaino has the potential to be the same on the pitching side.

In 2011 — as a mere 20-year-old — Vizcaino appeared in 17 games as a reliever, and managed a 3.54 FIP and 3.82 SIERA, and he entered 2012 in competition for a rotation spot. Theo’s stated goal this trade season was to add pitching depth, and he just found a crown jewel for his prospect system.

It seems surprising the Braves would let Vizcaino — who was “untouchable” in 2011 — go for the price of two role-playing veterans, but perhaps they are much less optimistic he can retain his silly command post-surgery? Maybe they are displeased with his progress during the recovery? We do not know.

Chapman, a 25-year-old reliever with decent numbers in his second go-round in Triple-A, is a nice grab for a team that will need to construct a serious bullpen sometime in the next three years. But for now, the Cubs don’t need a bullpen and Chapman doesn’t profile much more than a middle reliever.

Rangers Trade

Whereas the Braves trade appears like a stroke of market-manipulating genius from the Epstein/Hoyer group, the Rangers trade feels more like a “That’s it?” scenario. At one time — I know the time, actually; it was 2008 and then later it was 2010 — catcher Geovany Soto looked like a beacon of hope in a Jim Hendry franchise gone old-school. Soto not only fielded the toughest position on the diamond in a, you know, not bad fashion, he also did something that no Cubs hitter in the Hendry era seemed inclined to do: He took walks.

In 2008, Soto had 23 homers and a .364 OBP. In 2010, he clapped 17 dongers and raised up to a .393 OBP. But injuries were too often his bedfellow, and he seemed incapable of staying on the field a full season. Add to that an easing creep of decline in his numbers, and suddenly Geo is getting traded for — no offense, Jake — Jacob Brigham.

A little about Brigham: He is in High-A for the second straight year; he is 24 years old; and he has not had a FIP below 4.23 since 2010, and even then, his FIP sky-rocketed to 4.76 when he moved from Single-A ball to High-A. He has trouble controlling his walks, but can also strike out a few. His home run rate (per PA) appears to be high this season, so there is a good chance his current 4.58 FIP is a good deal higher than his xFIP, but all told, Brigham is not a prospect. Not for the Rangers, at least.

Still, he might develop into a low rotation pitcher, or perhaps a useful bullpen cog, but his potential does not seem to match Geo’s history, so to speak.

Was this a bad trade for the Cubs? Well Soto’s bat at present appears to be a very strong candidate for regression, but the injury history suggests he could break again at any moment. In fact, his limited playing time this season may suggest the team lacked confidence in his overall health. Meanwhile, the Cubs have Wellington Castillo — likely now called up — and Steve Clevenger. Castillo once ranked as a No. 14 prospect for the Cubs, and he could perceivably win the starting job rather quickly. He is already 25, though, and he and Clevenger might both end up being just average-ish catchers.

All told, though, the Cubs traded from a strength — their catching situation, which had three decent options — to build on their weakness and achieve their stated goal. It is just a little surprising that Brigham was all they got in return, but who knows? In 10 years, this may be the Infamous Brigham Trade, and my descendants will come back to this spot and put a placard on where I stood to say, “That’s it?” And Brigham’s descendants will write movie scripts and include mentions of how nobody thought a young man from central Florida could become THE Jacob Brigham.

So good luck Jake. You’ll need it — because the tides of the Cubs minor league system are starting to swell with the influx of pitching talent.


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