The title of this piece abandons any pretense of holding you, the reader, in suspense. The trade the Cubs and Yankees agreed to in July of this year was always referred to as “the Aroldis Chapman trade,” and with good reason. Chapman was the headliner, the player the Cubs sought out and committed to adding to their roster, regardless of price. It’s only now — after the Cubs have won, the parade has finished, and the offseason has nearly run its course — that the last clause in that sentence has begun to inspire some feelings of regret.
At the time of the trade, the Cubs knew exactly what they had in Gleyber Torres: a consensus top-tier prospect, and very possibly a future superstar. Baseball America listed Torres as the No. 2 international prospect of 2013, describing him as “a savvy player with present skills and the potential for five average or better tools.” The main fear was that he wouldn’t be able to remain at shortstop, due to his compact 5’ 11”, 185-lb frame. Since then, however, as Eric Longenhagen said this July, “things have gone about as well as anyone could have hoped.” He had maintained his range, added muscle and power, and hit .275/.359/.433 as a 19-year-old at High-A.
And since the trade, things have gone even better. In October, Baseball America ranked Torres as the top prospect in the newly stacked Yankees system. The defensive concerns were gone: Torres is “an excellent bet to stay at shortstop because of his soft, quick hands and smooth actions around the bag.” Most exciting, however, is his offensive potential, which BA described as “special,” citing his pitch recognition, “uncanny” ability to put bat on ball, and plus power. Keith Law, at ESPN, is even more enthusiastic, ranking Torres as the No. 4 prospect in all of MLB, also citing his pitch recognition, approach, and defensive abilities. There is every reason to be over-the-moon about Torres.
And then, on the other side of the ledger, there’s Chapman. He spent about three months with the Cubs, including their postseason run, and threw 42 1⁄3 innings of relief. In the regular season, he was outstanding, striking out 45 percent of batters en route to a 1.01 ERA and 0.82 FIP. In the postseason, he was less good, and particularly in key spots — such as, say, the eighth and ninth innings of Game 7 of the World Series — he faltered some. Still excellent; still one of the best relievers on the planet. Just not the best.
Chapman, of course, was not the only Yankees reliever traded this summer. Cleveland, Chicago’s opponent in the World Series, picked up Andrew Miller from New York. Miller, while not as overpowering as Chapman, was by many measures the better pitcher in 2016:
And Miller is also still on Cleveland’s roster, for this year and the next, at $18 million for the both of them. Chapman, of course, just signed a five-year, $86-million contract with the Yankees. Miller is 31; Chapman, 28.
The point is not that one is clearly better than the other. In the short term, they looked comparable; in the long term, the two extra years mean that Miller almost certainly carries more value. The point is that the Cubs seem to have not done any shopping, negotiating, or comparing of prices. For half a season of Chapman, they sent the Yankees their new No. 1 prospect; for two-and-a-half seasons of Miller, Cleveland sent the Yankees their new Nos. 2 and 7 prospects (again per Baseball America).
The easiest way to explain the seemingly above-market rate the Cubs paid for Chapman: They knew what they wanted, and set out to get it, regardless of cost. The Cubs of late July didn’t have many weaknesses, but a dominant lefty reliever would shore up the few they did have. Andrew Miller is also a lefty, but Aroldis Chapman is Aroldis Chapman. (From the Cubs’ perspective, that referred to the mystique and reputation that he’s in possession of, not the domestic violence incident that stuck him with a 30-game suspension to begin 2016.) When the Cubs started negotiating with the Yankees, I suspect they were never willing to walk away without completing the deal. That’s a sure-fire way to get taken for a ride.
Of course, the Cubs have the most obvious counterargument in baseball history at their disposal, and it’s a pretty convincing one. They were looking to improve their odds of winning the World Series with this trade; then, they won the World Series. At the time of their trade, and in the months after their win, it has been easy to dismiss any criticism of the deal as quibbling over price. From that perspective, the front office boldly moved to break a century-old curse, and succeeded in doing so; everything else doesn’t matter.
But based on Torres’s youth and ability, and the way he’s rocketed up the prospect rankings this offseason, I think it won’t be much longer until we’re calling this the Gleyber Torres trade, not the Aroldis Chapman trade. The Cubs paid a lot, and got a little in return. In a few years, this might be as unhappy a memory for Cubs fans as could possibly result from the 2016 season.