There were so many moves this MLB trade deadline, it was dizzying to follow. One of the main trends that came out of the deadline period was the high price for bullpen arms.
Normally, these are the type of players who can be had for a bargain because they pitch too few innings to make a huge difference down the stretch of a season. At least, that used to be the argument.
This season, it seemed as though relievers were higher in demand than starters. One of the biggest relievers to switch teams was Aroldis Chapman on a two-month rental to the Chicago Cubs. Chapman is, at worst, one of the two or three best relievers in the sport, so there is no problem with the Cubs’ decision to go after him specifically. But did the organization make the optimal move in the man they targeted to improve the weakness of their World Series hopeful roster?
Chapman is really good and throws really hard. He will also be a free agent after this season is over. Chicago paid a steep price for a player who may not pitch in more than 20 or so games before the year is out.
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Additionally, they got a pair of other relievers for less in other deals: Mike Montgomery and Joe Smith. Each has had his time to shine in the Majors, but like most relievers even at the highest level, their time of excellence is either fleeting or unpredictable. That remains the argument for trading for Chapman. He is one of the few men in this job who does not show such volatile shifts in performance from year to year or even month to month. Especially for the Cubs, with aims of a pennant in their future, reliability is almost as important as a ceiling of performance.
And it’s not like the other big names that hit the market went for peanuts. As stated, it was an expensive time to be a bullpen buyer. Will Smith and Andrew Miller both cost a small fortune in prospect talent and neither is better than Chapman.
Looking around the landscape, though, it seems like there were perhaps other options for which the Cubs could have turned to instead that would have netted a quality arm without giving up such value in the minor leagues. Mark Melancon doesn’t have the big strikeout numbers or hit the radar gun as highly as Chapman, but he is arguably just as good of a closer. He has been simply stellar for four straight years now, never once accumulating an ERA or FIP over 2.82 over that time frame. He doesn’t allow home runs; he doesn’t walk anyone; he also isn’t the big name that Chapman is, but perhaps that would have made for a more useful trade.
Zach Duke is another trade target that could have solved the Cubs’ issues without sacrificing two top-level prospects. Duke essentially cost nothing because he isn’t a closer, but Chicago could have left Hector Rondon in the closer’s role and still ended up with a one-two punch in the pen. Duke also brings murder to left-handed hitters with a career OPS+ allowed of 81 against lefties.
Again, it’s hard to exactly criticize an acquisition of Aroldis Chapman. And perhaps at this point in the franchise’s history, going for broke so to speak is the right move to make anyway, regardless of other options. There is also no guarantee that Chicago could have gotten any of these other specific pieces. Bird in hand… Baseball isn’t a predictable sport, to begin with. All the Cubs were trying to do was give themselves the best chance at capturing a World Series title. Chapman does nothing but help that.