Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Other Side of the A's-Cubs Trade

Late on the Fourth of July, the Chicago Cubs traded starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland A's for three minor leaguers--shortstop Addison Russell, outfielder Billy McKinney, pitcher Dan Straily--and a player to be named later. The analysis of the trade has focused on (1) how it's an all-in, win-now, flags-fly-forever move by Oakland, which already had the best record in baseball, to try to win the World Series, and (2) how the Cubs farm system, already one of the best, is now flush with top prospects. Fair enough. But here's another aspect: The 2014 Cubs have lost two-fifths of their rotation. They were a last-place team with Samardzija and Hammel, and they'll be worse without them. Does that mean anything?

Yes, I think, in two ways. One, it sets up Cubs to improve their position in the next amateur draft. Baseball teams draft amateurs based on the reverse order of standings. Here are eight teams with fewer than 40 wins as I write this:
   Team          W  L  GB
   Houston      37 54  --
   Colorado     37 53 0.5
   Arizona      38 53 1.0
   Texas        38 51 2.0
   Philadelphia 38 51 2.0
   Cubs         38 49 3.0
   Boston       39 50 3.0
   Minnesota    39 49 3.5

Obviously, "games behind" here refers to games behind the team that'll pick first in the draft. As you can see, the race for worst is tight. The Cubs can improve their draft position by losing more.

Second, if the Cubs lose more, it'll benefit the teams they play. In fact, playing against a weak Cubs team could impact all three National League divisional races:
  • In the NL Central, the Brewers (first place) and Cardinals (second, 4.0 games out) have ten games left with the Cubs. Reds (fourth, 5.0 games out) have nine. But the Pirates (third, 4.5 games out) have just six. That gives Pittsburgh's opponents more easy games.
  • In the NL West, the first-place Dodgers have seven games left with the Cubs. The second-place Giants, one game out, have only three. As if the Dodgers needed help...
  • In the NL East, the first-place Braves have three games remaining with the Cubs. The second-place Nationals, half a game behind, have none.
Look, having the Cubs on the schedule was a relative advantage for the Brewers, Cards, Reds, Dodgers, and Braves before the trade was made. Even with Samardzija and Hammel, Chicago wasn't a very good club. But that relative advantage has widened a little. If the races stay tight, the teams now in first may have Cubs President Theo Epstein to thank, in part, for their post-season appearances.

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