As the Cubs march on to their first National League Championship Series since 2003, it’s important to note that while Chicago’s high-profile transactions (the high draft picks and the signing of Jon Lester) have garnered most of the headlines, it’s the organization’s lesser moves — many of them in-season transactions — that have aided the Cubs’ meteoric rise.

Let’s get hyped moves out of the way. Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein successfully recruited Jon Lester, one of his former war horses with the Red Sox, over the winter, handing the southpaw starter $155 million over six years.

The high draft picks have helped, too. I’ve found myself fawning over Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo, and Kris Bryant…and Javier Baez…and Addison Russell…and Jorge Soler — did I mention Kyle Schwarber? — just like the rest of America.

The 22-year-old Schwarber (No. 4 overall, 2014), 23-year-old Bryant (No. 2, 2013), and 22-year-old Baez (No. 9, 2011) were high-choice first-round draft picks by the Cubs, a product of five straight losing seasons from 2010-2014. The 21-year-old Russell (No. 11, 2012, by the Athletics) came over in the Jeff Samardzija deal in July 2014. The 26-year-old Rizzo was acquired by the Cubs in January 2012 as part of the package for Andrew Cashner, who was a former first round pick of Chicago in 2008. (Rizzo, a sixth-round pick of the Red Sox in 2007, was sent to San Diego in the first Adrian Gonzalez trade.) The 23-year-old Soler, who defected from Cuba in 2011, was signed to a nine-year, $30 million contract in 2012.

That’s impressive scouting — but also, a lump sum of luck — at work.

But, I after I saw this tweet from Joe Sheehan during Game 4 of the Cubs’ NLDS tilt with the Cardinals, I took notice of the unheralded bunch contributing to Chicago’s cause. As Sheehan’s tweet notes, Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard, and Francisco Rodney combined to record six outs and four strikeouts in the deciding Game 4 for the Cubs.

Cahill, a one-time effective starter in the majors, was due $12 million this year, but $6.5 million of his salary was paid by the Diamondbacks. The Braves ate the rest of that money when they designated Cahill for assignment in June. The Cubs inked Cahill to a minor-league deal in early July and threw him in the bullpen. Richard, who didn’t pitch in the big leagues in 2014, played on a minor-league contract. Rodney, who led the majors in saves in 2014 and can still light up a radar gun, made $7 million this season, but the Mariners had already paid nearly $6 million of Rodney’s 2015 salary when they shipped him to the Cubs in late August.

That’s not the end of the Cubs’ bargain hunting bearing fruit. Eighth-inning man Pedro Strop (2.91 ERA, 10.7 K/9) came to Chicago from Baltimore in the Jake Arrieta trade in July 2013 — that swap seems to have worked out — and earned $2.53 million this year. Speaking of Arrieta, the possible NL Cy Young Award winner made just over $3.6 million in 2015. Cubs closer Hector Rondon (1.67 ERA, 8.9 K/9) was a Rule 5 selection by Chicago in December 2012 and earned $544,000 this season.

It’s important to acknowledge the not-so-trivial details in roster management. Finding those diamonds in the rough is where presidents of baseball operations, general managers, and their scouting/analytical staffs earn their coin. Casual baseball fans know how good Lester is, and anyone can read, Baseball America, or FanGraphs a day before the amateur draft and read up on the can’t-miss prospects.

In spite of the production they’ve received from their homer-happy youngsters, without those savvy smaller moves, the Cubs may have no bridge from Jason Hammel to the late innings in Game 4.

The Reds must be constantly vigilant and pursue similar transactions in the coming years. They can’t be afraid to trade for a discarded prospect or take a flier on someone in the Rule 5 draft instead of pigeonholing their roster and inking cheap utility infielders or washed-up relievers. There’s a difference between stingy and economical, and given the Reds’ apparent financial constraints, it’s important for the front office to walk that line and locate as many bargains as possible, especially since it’s never clear who may help you win a future playoff game.

37 Responses

  1. tct

    This is good stuff. I mentioned in a comment yesterday that I would like to hear more about what successful teams are actually doing in particular, instead of just calling them analytic or non analytic. And one key to the Cubs success is an ability to find underrated pitchers outside of the organization. We talk a lot of their homegrown talent, but most of their pitching staff isn’t homegrown.

    It would be interesting to know if all these pitchers were identified with a similar process. In other words, is there something statistically that all these pitchers had in common that identified them to the Cubs staff. Or was it just a scouting triumph? Perhaps a mix of both?

      • bcat5721

        This is really interesting. I think what it comes down to is not having a GM who can predict the future and make all the right moves… it’s having a guy who CONTINUOUSLY puts his team in a position to have the best CHANCES to succeed, no matter the scenario. Then when things do come together, yeah they sometimes seem random, but it’s because those things were only a few of the multitude of smart decisions that ultimately led to overall success.

    • Aaron Lehr

      Very much agree with this comment. I’d take it even a step further. Did scouting produce all those key role players, or did they just happen to all figure it out at the right time? Obviously that would take much more research… but the Astros didn’t get much back for Fowler, who became an above average lead off hitter for the Cubs, and bounced back with a solid season in center after an abysmal one last year, producing the best overall year of his career. Did Theo see that coming?

      In 2012 Strop walked 5 batters per 9 and had an xFIP of 4.00. The day the Cubs traded for him in 2013 he had an ERA over 7 and a negative WAR. Did the Cubs still see something in him? Could they have predicted that he’d be worth 2 wins over the last two years in middle relief?

      A couple years ago I did a deep dive into Jocketty’s tenure with the Cardinals. He’s been given a lot of credit for the success of those teams, but when you look closely you start to wonder how much he actually had to do with it (Carp turning into ace after TJ surgery, Duncan turning journeymen into #2-3 starters, veterans becoming unlikely stars, etc).

      I’m not saying Theo isn’t great. Honestly I’d love it if the answers to my above questions were “yes, there is something great GMs and scouts see in players who get passed up by other teams”. And maybe the reason it’s hard for us to pick up on it is because we aren’t great GMs and scouts. But when good teams come out of nowhere (Royals from last year?) I just have to wonder how much of it was actually planned.

  2. BoldOD

    The Reds did take Josh Hamilton in the Rule 5 draft (via the Cubs if I recall correctly), curious as to who would have made the decision on that one at the time?

    • reaganspad

      Wayne Krivsky. Wayne could add hitters the same way that this cubs team adds pitchers.

      I love the bad contract pick up. I see value in those scenarios. Everyone on this board wants to trade Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips. Heck, if you get teams to pick up enough of those bad contracts like many suggest here, I would want to add players like that.

      Now we tried that last year with Marlon Byrd and his value was so/so.

      There are other values out there to be had.

      Guess you have to see what you get for Chapman first, but Walt waits too long in my opinion. Rebuilding a bullpen with quality should happen asap after we trade Chapman.

      I wonder if Sean Marshall gives us a discount to sign for next year

      • Shchi Cossack

        For a pitcher with his injury history, especially shoulder injuries, Marshall would not need to provide a discount. The best Marshall can hope for is a minor league contract with incentives if he makes a major league roster. Unfortunately, if WJ is running the show, signing Marshall to a ‘minor’ league contract guarantees him a majoe leagu contract.

  3. Steve Mancuso

    The Cubs have done a great job of scouting. The Arrieta and Strop for Feldman deal ended up being a steal.

    Note how the Rizzo-for-Cashner (2012) and Russell-for-Samardzija (2014) trades, the Cubs gave up pitching for hitting. They spent their international money on Soler (2012) another hitter. Every first round pick since Epstein became GM has been a hitter (Almora, Bryant, Schwarber, Happ). Baez was picked in the first round just before Epstein took over. The Cubs explicitly said their strategy was to compile hitters and just pick up pitching later in free agency because that was easier.

    I think they’ll continue to follow their plan and acquire another free agent top-tier starting pitcher this off season. Possibly reunite Joe Maddon and David Price.

    • Jeremy Conley

      i understand this general line of thinking, but it seems sort of odd to talk about how easy it is to find good pitching when the Reds had one of the worst pitching staff’s in baseball.

      • Michael E

        I have said over and over, never is it harder or easier to find hitting or pitching over the other. Too many still stuck with steroid era idea of a good hitter, so it appears only 10 of them exist today. Some would benefit from reading up on “relativity”. When a .260 hitter now is as good as a .290 hitter was 6 years ago, you must change your concept of what a good hitter is…relatively speaking (compared to current peers and league averages). The very fact we must always compare to league averages means an average hitter will always be available at the same rate, year after year…same for an average pitcher. The only way that isn’t possible is if one or two players skew the averages greatly (like a 600 AB .050 hitter or a 220 ip 9.00 ERA pitcher)

        The prospect list does confirm we have a bigger batch of pitching choices, so we SHOULD be better at pitching in a few seasons, but right now, the hitting is sadly better. As for the minors, most of our teams play in pitchers parks/leagues, so its hard to tell if our prospects are mediocre or bad or just getting screwed stat-wise by parks. I almost wish we had a PCL AAA team so we can send our best hitting prospects there to get confidence. Then keep our best pitchers in AA and promote them directly to MLB. Use journeymen, 30 year old, minor league free agents to pitch in the AAA launching pad as we don’t really care about their confidence.

    • lwblogger2

      Yeah, it was a steal. Man, I’m not happy with that trade for my O’s. The stuff was always there for Arrieta and the O’s were just too quick to give up on him. I don’t get it.

      The thoughts of the Cubs adding Price are kind of scary. Arrieta, Price, Lester is a nasty top 3.

    • Matt WI

      Great link, thanks for posting it… that’s like straight out of Moneyball… old scouts going “um, body shape isn’t right, pass.”

    • TR

      I have to like Schwarber since we’re both from Middletown and we both attended IU. The Cubs have got themselves a hitter.

  4. WVRedlegs

    The Cubs have a bonafide blueprint.
    Jocketty got his blueprint trademarked in 1995 from some company named ACME and some coyote looking fellow.
    Hopefully this will be the only time the Reds draft in the top-10, let alone top-5 for the next decade. They really need to make this one count. They can’t screw this one up like they did in 2014 with the Nick Howard reach and debacle at #19.

    • Michael E

      I agree more about a blueprint than the need for gung-ho all-SABR, all the time. Most good franchises have a plan and stick with it…and with spots of good luck, jump ahead of the other team with a good plan that doesn’t have that luck.

      I don’t fell like Jocketty has any plan. He’d rather the product on the field be solid and then not make any moves and let them age.

      I thought O’Brien and Krivsky had a plan, even if not well funded by Linder. Bowden’s only plan was to bring in a dozen cast-offs and hope one is comeback player of the year. Partly due to Schott being a scouting, minor league, front office cheapskate, but also due to Bowden being a bit of a clown of a GM. Talk about NOT liking pitching, Bowden did not care about pitching and we usually sucked because of it while the Braves and Co kept on winning divisions all due to pitching.

  5. Shchi Cossack

    I would throw one more transaction out there as a key cog in the Cubs machine, the offseason trade of Straley and Valbuena for Fowler to fill a real need for a top of the order hitter and CF. The Cubs gave up a pitcher who wound never have contributed to the Cubs playoff run and 2 seasons of a league average corner IF for 1 season of Fowler. The Cubs added a key peice to their lineup to compete in 2015 and the Stros added a player needed to compete in 2016 when they expected to be competative and saved some salary in 2015 (never mind they actually competed a year ahead of schedule).

    • lwblogger2

      Valbuena has been pretty good. I like that trade for both teams.

  6. Jeremy Conley

    The thing that stands out the most to me is that most of the moves discussed in the article were for relievers, and the Reds have had a terrible bullpen for the last two years. In fact, Reds relievers have lost 62 games over the past two years.

    The Reds need to take a look at these kind of moves. Relievers have long been the most volatile players year-to-year. When your pen isn’t working, you have to be quick to shuffle guys in and out. Take a rule 5 pick, give the ball to a kid in the minors, make a trade for an underperforming starter Do anything you can to keep a steady string of cheap arms with upside coming in. Do not sign guys like Kevin Gregg because they got some saves in the past.

    • tct

      But some of those guys weren’t relievers when the Cubs got them. Wood, Richard, and Cahill were all legitimate starting pitchers whose value was down because of injuries or ineffectiveness. The Cubs turned them into quality relievers..

      The only thing I seem to disagree with the mainstream analytic community is on the value of relievers. Context neutral stats can’t tell you the true value of high leverage relievers. The beauty of relievers is that you can pick exactly what situation you can use them in. You will rarely find relievers near the top of the WAR leader board. But relievers usually make up a large percentage of the WPA leader board.

      Now I’m not saying that you should give huge free agent contracts to relievers. They are just too volatile. But I don’t think that prospects should be dismissed because “he’s probably just a reliever.” And I think that you should sometimes consider moving a back of the rotation guy to the bullpen to get more value. If the choice is between a top of the rotation guy or a high leverage reliever, then you take the starter. But if you have a middling, number four type starter who you think could be a high leverage reliever, then you should consider making that move. 70 elite, high leverage innings is more valuable than 180 slightly below average, low leverage innings.

      • tct

        Let me add that one reason I didn’t like the Marshall trade was that I thought that Wood could be nearly as good as Marshall as a reliever. Go check out his stats in relief this year. Pretty solid. The Reds love to try to convert relievers to starters, but they don’t seem to realize it can work the other way even if the starter doesn’t throw in the high 90’s.

      • lwblogger2

        Good call on starters to relievers. There are some marginal starters who can be excellent relievers. They ditch their weakest pitches and are able to go max-effort for an inning or two, therefore increasing velocity. It’s a lot easier to move from SP to RP than from RP to SP.

    • Michael E

      …and they were obtained despite the fact the stats and analytics around these guys sucked. So that makes a SABR lead resurgence seem less plausible to me…unless we use SABR to bring in bad players knowing there is no way to go but up? Maybe that’s the key.

      • tct

        But we don’t know what analytics they were looking at, if any. If their traditional stats were good, they probably wouldn’t be undervalued in the first place. Maybe they were using something like pitch f/x to see movement on pitches. Maybe they were just identifying one pitch that they thought they could build on. Or it could be something related to scouting, like a mechanical flaw they thought they could fix.

  7. seat101

    One area which makes me hopeful is the Reds’ willingness to look at pitchers who don’t necessarily ‘light up the radar gun.’

  8. redsfan06

    The sad thing about the dumpster diving relief pitcher signings is the Reds have had the same needs two years running. Walt wasted more money on Gregg and Badenhopp than the Cubs are spending on pitchers who are contributing. Walt just loves to sign those veteranary types, both relief pitchers and backup infielders. He often rewards a player who is yet another year older with a 2 year contract. Wonder how the Cubs are going to handle their discoveries going forward?

    • Moses

      Those “veteranary types” are for the dogs!

    • lwblogger2

      I was good with the Badenhop signing when it happened. He had thrown well the past couple seasons in Boston and the money wasn’t rediculous. After a poor season in 2015 though, it will be curious to see if WJ picks up his option or not. I’m worried that it will be picked up and his “rough first month” will be cited as the only thing he had that didn’t go well and that he “pitched well after that rough first month” will be cited as the reason his option was exercised.

  9. Michael E

    That last paragraph is what I am all about…couldn’t agree more. Stop keeping mediocrity just because you have a spot. Take chances.

    Also, luck played a large role, but no doubt the GMs the surrounding group of leaders are better with those teams than our Reds group (proof in the pudding).

    As for Richard, Rodney, Cahill and other in-season pickups, SABR had NOTHING to do with that luck, obviously, because their SABR stats were putrid in most cases. So if you relied on SABR and a plethora of digital data, the guys wouldn’t have been brought in at all. It seems like the manager did more for them than I thought he’d be able to…apparently Maddon is a bit more impactful than I previously thought he’d be.

    • redsfan06

      In 4 partial seasons with the Orioles, Arrieta had a 5.74 ERA, 4.72 FIP and a 1.74 SO/W ratio across 63 starts. In 67 Cubs starts, he has 2.26 ERA, 2.62 FIP and a 3.89 SO/W ratio. I’m not sure what the Cubs saw in him, but his results with Baltimore certainly didn’t project him to become a CY candidate.

      • Chuck Schick

        While good fortune played an obvious role with the Arrieta move, we don’t know the depth of proprietary analytics the Cubs ( or any team) posses. They’re not paying Ph.D’s to read FanGraphs all day.

        Was there something they saw in Arrieta ( video or metrics) that showed he was dramatically underperforming his talent level? Perhaps…or maybe it was sheer luck. My point is we have no idea what data they have relative to what is available to the public.

      • Aaron Bradley

        Arrieta would have an occasional gem with Baltimore, and Epstein probably witnessed some of that while GM in that division.

  10. Charles Mesterharm

    Nothing that Jockety or the front office has done to date leads me to believe they are capable of rebooting a computer, let alone a baseball team. My time line may not be exact, but I believe the Cubs, got a new owner, who picked a new GM and then implemented their current plan, not a retreaded idea from 20 years ago.

    On a side note, I live in the Houston area, per someone I trust who deals with the Astros, they were trying very hard to trade for Chapman, Jockety wanted two top 10 prospects from the Astros plus a lower minor guy, all pitchers, of course, take it for what it’s worth.

    • redsfan06

      With all the interest in Chapman, I suspected Walt might be overplaying his hand. The Rangers supposedly made a strong offer too. Maybe The Nats hire Dusty and he lobbies them into overpaying for him.

      • lwblogger2

        Rumor has it that the D’Backs also had a strong offer on the table for him.

  11. sezwhom

    The 21-year-old Russell (No. 11, 2012, by the Athletics) came over in the Jeff Samardzija deal in July 2014. Huge oops by A’s GM Billy Beane. My issue with Reds is that Jocketty seems a tad long in the tooth. Epstein is young and look what the Brewers just did. Reds need a younger visionary in the GM chair. Cards, Cubs, and Pirates are so far ahead of us now.

    • lwblogger2

      I’m not sure it’s his age. It’s more that he seems to be inflexible and not willing to move into the digital age.