Trading for Aroldis Chapman Opens New Era, Slams Door on Another

If you’ve been reading, you already know that this is the third time I’ve addressed the Aroldis Chapman trade. But a topic with so much depth and breadth requires a few trips to the well and the best part of running my own blog is that I can fill that bucket as often as I like.

When the move went down, I found myself really conflicted. Not only did it seem an incredibly high price to pay in a baseball sense for a guy whose impact could end up being marginal, but there was also a moral cost. Or, at the very least, a bit of a PR kerfuffle to wade through.

I want badly for it to work out for the Cubs’ sake and I’m probably somewhere in the middle when it comes to my acceptance of the deal, but I still don’t want Chapman’s left shoulder to be the one that propels the Sisyphean rock over the top of the mountain. Many of you feel much more strongly than I one way or the other. Some hate it and feel that their fandom has been sullied, others don’t care so long as the boulder clears the apex and we can all stand and stretch in relief from the shared toil we’ve all endured to one extent or another.

When I wrote most of what I did Sunday and Monday, the trade was still a hypothetical. Well, sort of. I took it as a foregone conclusion based on Gleyber Torres being scratched and then having to sit in the Pelicans’ clubhouse checking his phone for updates like the rest of us. Once it shifted from theoretical to actual, I had to revisit and refine my appraisal. So I want to take one more swing at expressing my thoughts on the trade before moving on

In terms of how it impacts the Cubs, I think this is big. Not all the stats gurus agree, though. I know Baseball Prospectus’s Matt Trueblood has been very outspoken about his inability to find anything about the trade that makes sense from a baseball perspective. And ESPN’s Dan Szymborski had tweeted out a series of metrics that showed just how little impact Chapman’s addition will have on games in which the Cubs are leading in the late innings.

I’ve also seen win projection totals and World Series odds and such, none of which appear to have been altered significantly as a result of the addition. And I get that. But what I also get is the idea that stats can’t and don’t tell us everything. Win projections, for instance, don’t take the leverage of a given situation into account. Here, let Brendan from Cubs Related explain it:

Win estimators neutralize sequence, rightfully so. It’s nearly impossible to predict sequencing because most of the time it’s random. You shouldn’t include a variable in any statistical model unless its reliably measured. This is a limitation, however, just like any other scientific tool.

Let’s use one more example. A win projector might consider a strikeout to be worth -0.3 runs (linear weights). In such a model, the strikeout’s context doesn’t matter. If a pitcher strikes out the opposition with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 9th to solidify a 1-0 win, it’s treated exactly the same as striking out the first batter in the game. Obviously these strikeouts are different.

Simply put, the Cubs acquired advantageous sequencing with Chapman. They get to potentially pinch-hit earlier in the game, use Rondon and Strop earlier, and put out a fire when Grimm or someone else would normally try. If the Cubs have a lead, you better believe that they will be better suited to hold it.

In this, Chapman’s value is undeniable. Having a man who throws from the left side and who can run it up there at 100+ mph on the regular gives Joe Maddon all kinds of leeway in high-leverage situations late in games. As Cubs cult hero John Baker put it recently, to try to hit Chapman is to “have someone stand on a chair and throw golf balls at you from 25 feet away.” That’s big in August, but it’s huge in October.

There’s also a psychological advantage to being able to choose from three potentially dominant relievers (and they’ve even got Old Man River and his 377 career saves in the ‘pen) when the game is close. Speaking of, that’s something I took issue with in Szymborski’s objections. Bringing in a reliever isn’t just about holding a lead. Sometimes it’s about keeping the game tied or keeping your team within a run or two. Regardless of the score, it’s about shutting down innings. Chapman does that.

With this move, the Cubs may now have the best pitching staff in the National League, if not all of baseball. And they may not be done adding yet. There’s still a long way to go and all kinds of things can happen between now and the end of the season, but we’re seeing something from this team we’ve never seen before. That might not be all good, though, and I’ll get to that soon.

While much of the negative reaction to the trade came from a distaste for Aroldis Chapman the human being, much of it came from his price tag as well. Hey, if you have to look at the tag, you can’t afford it anyway. Amirite? That’s not to brush off the acquisition cost, just to say that the Cubs felt comfortable with what they had to give up. And the more I look at it, the more comfortable I become too.

Adam Warren hadn’t really been able to put it together out of the pen this season and, while he was a nice piece, he had been little more than a dime-a-dozen reliever. Rashad Crawford could be a toolsy player and might eventually make a splash, but he’s likely just organizational depth. And despite his ranking in the system and many people’s positive appraisal of him, I’ve never been high on Billy McKinney. He doesn’t have the power to stick in a corner spot and he doesn’t have the speed to…well, he just doesn’t have any speed.

Which brings us to the crown jewel of the deal, Gleyber Torres. This is where it gets interesting and harder to justify, since he was the top-rated prospect in the system. However, with two young middle infielders under team control for the next several years, Torres became a bit more expendable. I’ve repeated ad nauseam the premise that players have value in either direct contribution to the team or in what they bring back in a trade. The Cubs saw Torres’s true value as part of the latter.

I suppose I’ll address the notion that we should throw Starlin Castro in there too, since he was traded for Adam Warren prior to the season. Okay, swap him out for Warren (no, you don’t get to include them both because that would indicate the Cubs had both on the roster at the same time) if you like. And if you really want to plant that flag and die on the hill of a guy who’s put up 0.1 fWAR this season, have at it. I’ll take Ben Zobrist’s 2.8 fWAR or Javy Baez’s 1.9 all day and feel good about it.

What I don’t feel good about, what I can’t feel good about, is what this trade means for some of us in terms of lovability. Understanding full well that not everyone falls prey to such notions, the more pragmatic among you may see fit to get out of the car here. I’m only heading a little further down the road, though, so you can stay if you like. Without restating everything I’ve written and discussed over the past couple years, this Cubs team has been a different animal from those we’ve experienced in the past.

After years of outright and intentional futility, they emerged from their chrysalis as an entirely new creature, like a batterfly or something. And it was fun. My God, was it fun. The walk-off wins and the inside jokes and the catchphrases and the camaraderie. We were all along for the ride, like It’s a Small World or Space Mountain. Good, clean family fun with a bunch of guys you felt could have been your brother or cousin or nephew or something.

Content to live the dream there for a while, we just kept hitting the snooze button so we could remain cuddled in our own cotton cocoons. That’s pretty much out the window now, the alarm’s ear worm finally burrowing in too far to ignore in further nine-minute increments.

When the Cubs burst back onto the scene, it was with a bunch of dudes who made us want to hug them and each other. Now they’ve traded for a guy who some will embrace, but more will handle like a loaded diaper from a baby that’s been chugging apple juice all day. Still others won’t be comfortable touching him with a 10-meter cattle prod.

I’ll accept it because I have to — which is to say that Aroldis Chapman is a Cub and there’s nothing short of free agency that will make that not true — and I’ll probably be able to compartmentalize things to an extent. Heck, it’s only been a day and I’m already starting to do just that and set up a little fence around that particular acre of my fandom. Whether you view the team’s shift wistfully or see it as a welcome passage out of a fanciful flight of naivete, there’s no denying that the Cubs have entered a new era. We’ll find out soon enough if the price of admission was worth it.

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