For the second straight offseason, BtBS is looking back on some of the biggest trades from years past. Check out all the entries here.
In January 2012, new Cubs President Theo Epstein traded for a player he once drafted while with the Red Sox, acquiring Anthony Rizzo from the Padres for Andrew Cashner. The trade also involved two lottery tickets with Zach Cates going to Chicago and Kyung-Min Na going to San Diego.
In this trade retrospective series, trades will still be evaluated based on what was known at the time. That is the only fair, logical way to evaluate trades because anybody can get lucky. Process over results. That being said, we will still take a look at how the trade worked out for both parties.
The Cubs were in bad shape after the 2011 season. Coming off a 71-win season the year after winning only 75 games, the lineup was filled with aging, expensive veterans, with Alfonso Soriano being the most notable of the group. The starting rotation was not much better. Matt Garza was solid, but he clearly was not going to be a part of the team’s future. Other than up-and-comer Jeff Samardzija, the Cubs’ pitching did not have much going for it either.
The farm system was also in bad shape. Kevin Goldstein, then of Baseball Prospectus, would rank the system 20th in the league a couple of months later. He described the system as “not a bad system by any measurement, but it has far more depth than star power.” The only players in that system who ending up having any sort of impat are Javier Báez and DJ Lemahieu, the latter of whom is currently enjoying success with the Rockies.
Theo Epstein had just been hired to work his magic and turn the team into a contender again. His first major move turned out to have a huge impact on the team’s future.
Rizzo was coming off what was a terrible major league debut. He hit a paltry .141/.281/.242 and struck out 30 percent of the time in 153 PA. That is really bad even when accounting for Petco Park and a .210 BABIP, as that line was worth a lowly 59 wRC+.
Epstein still saw the player he drafted for Boston in the sixth round of the 2007 draft. In addition, new GM Jed Hoyer acquired Rizzo himself while in San Diego, so both executives were quite familiar with him. The situation was ripe for the Cubs braintrust to reunite with Rizzo. Unlike the Padres, Epstein and Hoyer knew enough not to put much weight into 153 PA from a 21-year-old who was probably called up too soon anyway. The Cubs trusted their scouting and player development.
Andrew Cashner missed almost all of 2011 as a result of rotator cuff surgery. With the exception of one start, Cashner was used entirely in relief since debuting in 2010. He was not great, having turned in a 4.86 RA9 in 59 2⁄3 IP, but he still had the tools to be a shutdown reliever, with a fastball in the upper nineties and good secondary offerings in his slider and changeup. However, coming off such a major shoulder injury called any potential to start into question.
Honestly, I don’t know what GM Josh Byrnes was thinking with this trade. The Padres were not competitive in 2011 and did not project to be competitive in 2012. The Padres did have an excellent farm system, so the best thing for the small market team to do was to be patient and wait for the system to bear fruit. My guess is that ownership forced then-GM Hoyer to call up Rizzo before he was ready, got fed up that he was terrible even though he was called up too soon, and then forced Byrnes to get rid of him for a more major league ready player.
Trading a player who projected to be a great hitter for a pitcher who might not be able to start makes little sense. Add in the fact that cavernous Petco Park had always suppressed offense and enhanced pitching made the deal even more nonsensical. Better decision-makers would have left Rizzo to rake in Triple A in 2011, after which they would have balked at the thought of trading him for Cashner.
I doubt that the Cubs would have traded Rizzo for anything short of a Godfather offer after acquiring him. They knew what they had and this trade was the culmination of a lot of bad baseball decisions by the Padres, the results bear that out.
The Cubs smartly sent Rizzo to Triple-A to start 2012, and then called him up at the end of June. Though he was by no means bad, he disappointed over the next season and a half.
Rizzo continually adjusted and readjusted his hitting mechanics and it drove scouts and coaches crazy. In 2013, he always stood out to me because his stance was very upright and his hands were loaded very low. In 2014, he changed that into something that made him the offensive threat that he is today. Sahadev Sharma discussed it in detail here.
In the last three seasons, Rizzo’s combined 148 wRC+ ranks fifth in all of baseball among qualified hitters. What is especially impressive is just how consistent he has been.
He is only 27 years old and is showing no signs of deteriorating any time soon. Oh, and he is also an excellent fielder, with a 43 DRS since 2013. And of course, Rizzo hit .277/.373/.492 in the 2016 postseason to help the Cubs win their first championship in over a century.
As if acquiring Rizzo was not already a great move, Epstein signed Rizzo to a team friendly extension early in the 2013 season. He is locked up through 2019 with two team options for 2020 and 2021. It is worth noting that Epstein did this after Rizzo’s good but unremarkable 2012 season. He trusted Rizzo’s talent and was rewarded for it.
Here is a simple table that Cubs fans are going to love.
In 2012, the Padres had Cashner pitch mostly in relief since he was coming off major should surgery. Unfortunately, he was a replacement level player. To the Padres’ credit, Cashner worked out better as a starter than expected in 2013 and 2014. San Diego moved him to the starting rotation in 2013 and was quite good for two seasons. During that time he had a 3.32 RA9 and 4.2 bWAR. The drawback was that he was striking out barely 18 percent of batters faced.
In 2015, Cashner’s performance fell off a cliff. He had a 5.41 RA9 and was almost a full win below replacement level. He started off 2016 no better with a 5.33 RA9, and he spent time on the disabled list with a strained neck. The Padres decided that Cashner was not going to be an effective part of their future as a replacement level starter about to enter free agency, so they traded him at the deadline for a very solid return.
Paying ~$14.5 million for 3.1 WAR doesn’t seem too bad in a vacuum, but it looks worse when given the proper context: the Padres are a small market team that has not been competitive, though what they paid in dollars is dwarfed by what they paid in talent. Cashner’s biggest contribution was what the Marlins gave up to acquire him for two months.
As I have mentioned multiple times in this series, you can never tell how a player would have developed in another organization. Maybe the Cubs’ version of Anthony Rizzo would have never have emerged on the Padres, but he most likely would have been more valuable than Cashner, and he would have had an extra year of control. He could have returned a better package than Cashner somewhere down the line, so even if the Padres never made him a regular, they at the very least should have gotten much more when he was originally dealt.
Regardless of the what-ifs, it’s hard to deny that the Padres made a terrible mistake in dealing Rizzo. Sometimes a team can get lucky with a bad trade, but when the process behind it is as bad as the Padres was in this instance, the outcome can be pretty predictable. The Cubs trusted their scouting and player development, and now they have an MVP-caliber first baseman under team control for cheap through 2021.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.