It was only a matter of time before the Kyle Schwarber trade rumors started coming in as fast and furious as a series of nitrous-boosted car-racing flicks. The most recent comes from Kenny Kelly of McCovey Chronicles, who ratchets my “anthropomorphic trade rumor” label for Schwarber up to “beef golem given life by a dinger-crazed wizard.”
The main thrust of the idea is that the Giants, with longer odds than the top teams to sign Bryce Harper, might view War Bear as the bargain bin Plan B. His big lefty power would play well at AT&T Park, though his low batting average might tweak a few old-schoolers on the Left Coast. And though it’s not the AL destination so many have long assumed, Kelly notes that San Francisco won a title with Pat Burrell “clomping around in left.”
Okay, cool, but what’s in it for the Cubs? A reliever, says Kelly, who goes on to list Hunter Strickland, Tony Watson, and Will Smith as possibilities. Smith, a 29-year-old lefty, is presented as the only one of the trio with enough juice to pull Schwarber on his own, with the others requiring additional prospects to make a deal work.
I don’t know, man, trading three years of Schwarber for just one of a reliever is a little tough for me to swallow. And I understand that Smith put up a crazy 4.73 K/BB ratio with a 0.51 HR/9 mark that’s lower than all but two of the 13 relievers with higher K/BB last season. Oh, and that ratio came from him posting 12.06 K/9, the fifth consecutive season in which he’s gone over double digits.
Smith has also made at least 53 appearances each of the last four seasons, highlighted by 78 and 76 games in 2014 and ’15 with the Brewers. His fastball still has pretty much the same velocity and his slider was the best of its kind among relievers last season in terms of total value. And though he’s murder on lefties, he’s far from just a LOOGY and his usage isn’t limited to platoon splits.
Speaking of value, we learned recently that more of it is derived via trade than any other source of player acquisition. Cool, so the Cubs would come out golden! Well, except maybe the Giants would, especially considering they’d be getting three seasons of production for one. For the Cubs, though, you have to consider exactly where that production is coming.
Think about replacing Justin Wilson with Smith in that lefty setup role next season. Wait, that’s really kind of a wash. Smith walked fewer men on a per-inning basis, but their numbers weren’t so drastically disparate that you stand up and take notice. Although Smith did pitch 53 innings over 54 appearances, while Wilson needed 71 outings to accumulate 54.2 innings. That’s big if more reliability on an outing-to-outing basis is your jam.
The real issue I have here is not so much with the disparity in control between the players being swapped, but with the fickle nature of relief pitchers in general. Add in the Cubs’ noted issues with onboarding new pitchers and you can perhaps see why I’m so skeptical of a move that gives them only one year of any reliever. Unless, you know, the thought is that Smith at his best gives the Cubs a better chance to win in 2019 than Schwarber at his best. Which I find dubious.
Another possible angle on this comes into play if you do believe the reports that the Cubs are trying to act judiciously from a payroll standpoint. While Smith ($4.1M) is projected to earn $1 million more than Schwarber ($3.1) in arbitration for the coming season, that figure would represent the team’s only obligation moving forward. Schwarber continuing to develop would mean bigger production for the Cubs, but it would also mean much higher paydays over the two subsequent arb-eligible seasons.
I’m not saying such financial matters are a concern for the Cubs in this specific regard because they damn sure shouldn’t be. But I wanted to turn over all the stones and it’s never just a matter of swapping value for value on a purely statistical basis when reviewing trade proposals.
In looking over the possibilities Kelly laid out, I’m not so sure I wouldn’t prefer Watson-plus over the same with Strickland or for Smith straight up. Even though Strickland’s club control mirrors Schwarber’s, he’s nearly a wash salary-wise and his decidedly meh performance doesn’t give the Cubs anything they can’t find cheaper elsewhere. He’s also a righty.
Watson will be 34 in May, which could be concerning, but he’s a lefty and the kind of proven strike-thrower (career 2.45 BB/9) the Cubs have struggled to fill their bullpen with over the last few seasons. He’s owed the second half of a two-year, $3.5 million contract for 2019 and then has a $2.5 million club option for 2020, so he’s neither expensive nor a long-term investment. He’s also made at least 70 appearances in each of the last five seasons and at least 67 for the last seven.
I don’t want to see Schwarber go, but I can see the merit of a trade that brings back prospects in addition to Watson (or another very solid reliever). Well, if Watson (or another very solid reliever) continues to pitch like he has for the past two seasons. But I don’t want to see Schwarber go, and I’d like it even less if said return ends up falling as flat as other recent pitching additions.
In order to make a final determination, my plan is to build a time machine so that I can jump forward to see how the various scenarios play out. Wait, I guess that means I need to figure out how to affect each of those alternate realities. Bummer. As for the time machine, that’s easy. I’ll just need to find a way to borrow it from Schwarber, who actually used it to watch himself play in San Francisco a couple years ago. Hmm, perhaps that’s a sign.