The Chicago Cubs and San Diego Padres have been interacted with each other off of the field on a regular basis in recent off seasons under Theo Epstein. The Cubs President of Baseball Operations began the relationship by plucking General Manager Jed Hoyer from the Padres in October 2011. Then shortly after, in January 2012, the Cubs front office duo traded Andrew Cashner to San Diego for Anthony Rizzo, a slugging first baseman that Epstein and Hoyer were familiar with from their time with the Red Sox.
Then earlier this month, the Cubs and Padres connection was revived again. This time the North Siders hired their new manager Rick Renteria. The former Mexican national team manager at the 2013 World Baseball Classic had been serving the Padres in a coaching role since 2008.
Just like the Rizzo swap a couple of winters ago, the Cubs and Padres may not be done yet. According to Bill Center of the San Diego Union Tribune, the team that he covers is actively negotiating trades for a left handed hitter and/or a southpaw reliever. Center quoted Padres GM Josh Byrnes as saying that the Friars would have at least one deal completed in advance of the upcoming Winter Meetings.
Enter your Chicago Cubs. While the hot stove rumors have been fairly quiet for the North Siders other than the pick up of a back up catcher and the on going talks over Jeff Samardzija‘s long term future at Wrigley Field, the Cubs do have a pair of players that fit the need of what the Padres are seeking. Just as Epstein and Hoyer cashed in on lefty Sean Marshall a couple of seasons ago by dealing him to Cincinnati for Travis Wood, the Cubs could offer Marshall’s replacement in James Russell to San Diego.
Russell had a career year in 2012 as the lead left handed specialist out of the pen after Marshall’s departure. The southpaw featured a stellar 7-1 record with a 3.25 ERA and his first sub 1.300 WHIP. Unfortunately for the Cubs and his trade value, Russell’s 2013 season nearly saw his wins and losses flipped, falling to 1-6 on the year while his ERA crept up to 3.59. However, a deeper look at his numbers last season show a career best 1.215 WHIP, aided by a career low 7.9 hits allowed per nine innings. Russell’s walks per nine innings was pretty much flat compared to 2012, but it was his strikeouts that dipped down nearly a full strikeout per nine frames. That would indicate that it is not a stretch to see Russell bounce back to 2012 form in 2014. The lefty is also under team control into 2016, a fact that should further entice the Padres into offering a prospect or two to the Cubs liking.
The North Siders could provide the Padres a one stop shop option by also including Nate Schierholtz to fill San Diego’s wish list for a left handed stick. The Cubs right fielder stayed put at Wrigley after the July 2013 trade deadline, a bit of a surprise considering the bounce back season he had. The former Giant slugged a career best 21 long balls after being entrusted with the majority of the playing time in right. Like Russell, Schierholtz is also arbitration eligible this off season and would be under team control into 2015. The Cubs number 19 would also have the opportunity to return to his home state of California should the North Siders deal him to San Diego.
What Cubbies Crib readers and North Side fans care most about would be the return package Epstein and Hoyer could try to swing for Russell and Schierholtz. While it would be tough to pry away either Matt Wisler and Max Fried for these two Cubs (Wisler and Fried are both ranked in the top five of the Padres farm system per Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com), Center does throw out names like Burch Smith and Robbie Erlin.
Smith is the ninth ranked prospect in the Padres organization. The six foot four inch right hander had a cup of coffee last season, making seven starts for the Friars and appearing in 10 games overall. Smith went 1-3 with a 6.44 ERA and while those numbers are far from exciting, it should be noted that Smith has been on the fast track to the Majors, having only spent two full seasons in professional ball after being drafted in 2011. The righty has a career 15-9 minor league record and had a 2.63 ERA despite splitting time between AA and AAA. Part of that success is attributed to the fact that Smith has basically averaged two walks per nine innings and a career minor league WHIP hovering around 1.100.
Erlin also got some MLB experience under his belt in 2013. The lefty fared a bit better than Smith, going 3-3 with a 4.12 ERA over 11 appearances (nine of them starts). Like Smith, Erlin has progressed through the Padres system at a plus pace, reaching AAA in just his fourth full season of pro baseball and at the young age of 22 at the time. Erlin sports a 26-13 minor league record, including a 8-3 mark in AAA despite a 5.07 ERA at that level. With a majority of his time spent in Double A, the lefty has done a good job of keeping his WHIP around 1.000 with about two walks per nine against almost an average of 10 strikeouts per nine innings. Left handed pitchers can have the potential to be worth their weight in gold, so Erlin could be a nice part of the return from the Padres.
Both potentially Major League ready arms figure to compete for the Padres fifth starter job should they remain in San Diego’s organization come Spring Training. Smith and Erlin could just as easily be a part of the mix for the openings in the Cubs rotation behind Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, and Wood. Regardless, if the Cubs are indeed involved with the Padres in trade talks, we should be hearing more shortly as San Diego appears set to move quickly.