When the Orioles shop Manny Machado, any destination in the AL works great. Sending him to the NL West? Splendid. NL East? Could be worse. The NL Central? That sounds like a positively dreadful idea. If that somehow happens, then please don’t let it be the Cubs. Just not the Cubs. Anybody but the Cubs. That’s the entirety of plausible outcomes on the Murphy’s law Mt. Rushmore of awful end points.
On paper, Machado looks like a good fit for the Cubs both for the short and the long terms. The Cubs don’t “need” him in order to compete this year, but he could be the piece that puts them over the top in a division where talent gaps are obviously not what they were two years ago. The Cubs current shortstop, Addison Russell plays a great defensive SS, and he’s not exactly embarrassing himself with his bat either. This train of thought in no way is an indictment of Russell’s play or potential. There’s no shame in being slightly-not-as-great as Machado.
The Cubs don’t have what I would describe as a glaring weakness. Their starting pitching isn’t going to blow too many teams away, but they’ve been able to stay healthy and keep the team in games. The bullpen can be lights out. Overall, they’ve got a top 5 offensive team. The team’s 108 wRC+ is good for 5th in MLB and their .331 wOBA 5th. They are fantastic at running the bases, and their defense is top 3 as well.
So why rock the boat?
They can be better, and the challenge is finding places to upgrade. Heyward’s bat is offensive but not in the good way, but the mere existence of Ian Happ’s life force mitigates much of Heyward’s offensive deficiencies. Anthony Rizzo has a death grip on the Mendoza line as though it’s an umbilical cord, and while they can wait for him to come around, they don’t necessarily have to. He’s a lineup mainstay near his physical prime with a beyond solid track record, so they wait this one out.
That leaves Addison Russell and the ensuing discussion about why the Cubs would even consider such a bold move.
Machado represents a substantial upgrade on offense, and there isn’t a team out there disinterested in another power bat, especially one that’s hitting for average and driving in runs. If the hypothetical discussion centers around “Russell plus prospects” for Machado, the responsible thing for the Cubs to do would be to at least kick the tires a bit.
As a bonus, obtaining Machado before the trade deadline would give the Cubs several months to influence Machado. Think of it as an exclusive bargaining period with endless opportunities to infect Machado with Cubs-itis. Instead of competing with a dozen other teams this winter, they would have to the remainder of the season to show him why he should stay.
The obvious downside here involves the risk of trading 3+ years of Addison Russell for 2-3 months of Manny Machado. I’m very much against deals like this, but if the deal makes you the heavy favorite to at least reach the World Series, it’s hard to argue against it.
As for why the Orioles would/should consider Russell as the centerpiece of a deal that also returns a prospect or three…
He’s just 24, plays great defense at SS, and he’s not eligible for free agency for another 3+ years. Although he’s yet to hit for a high average, he’s showing improved plate discipline and hasn’t hit his ceiling yet. He’s also shown brief yet encouraging glimpses of power. He’s a consistent 3+ bWAR guy per season, and he hasn’t even reached his prime.
He’s not Machado-baseball-ninja-level, but that’s not the point. The Orioles are looking to deal 3-4 months of Machado to someone in exchange for X amount of talent for Y number of months or years. Typically, quietly letting word out that a player is available precedes a buildup with the team selling hoping to maximize return by hitting the right market fluctuation. In this case, Machado’s value could yield a better return sooner rather than later as teams looking to upgrade would much prefer four Manny months to two.
It’s that circumstantial value that provides me with a counterargument against the possibility that the Cubs would be the leaders in the clubhouse so to speak. Other teams have a greater need now, so it’s a matter of whether that need motivates them enough to engage the O’s. If the Cubs do want to lead that pack of suitors, then that’s where I see Russell coming into play.
The best thing about Russell? He can be part of the long term rebuild, or he can be flipped to another team to expedite the rebuild. The Orioles could hold onto him for a year to see how the market develops. Given their intimate knowledge of the market for Machado, they should have a pretty good perspective on Russell’s relative value right now. That gives them a potential preview of the market that would develop for Russell, and make no mistake about it, a market will develop. It’s not like 3-win shortstops in their mid-20’s hit the market all that often.
If Machado becomes Russell plus a couple prospects, and then Russell becomes another few prospects, that’s effectively Machado for 5-6 prospects. Presumably, some of those would be high ceiling guys in A or AA ball, and that package deal fits with what other teams have done to rebuild. If the Orioles are using any version of those templates, it’s hard to imagine a better return.
After all, this isn’t a team looking to rebuild on-the-fly. Getting back a lot of major league talent or guys on the cusp doesn’t help a team like the Orioles in the long run. It’s not a “reload”. They don’t have many pieces in place as of this moment, and their farm system doesn’t offer a lot of solutions in the immediate future. That’s fine. They would probably be wise to wait to start the clock on some guys until next year to buy themselves an extra year of team control. Others could start trickling into the big leagues this year even before September call-ups.
This trickle-up approach would give the Orioles a good, long look at most everyone through 2019 and maybe even part of 2020. After that, stuff should start getting real. They could go all Braves or Brewers and be competitive ahead of schcedule, but unlike those two teams, they aren’t building around a bunch of established players. Think 2021 which probably looks like the ideal confluence of low payroll, cost-controlled players, youth, and experience.
Imagine waking up a month before the non-waiver trade deadline to see that your team sits in the middle of a 4-pack of teams still vying for dominance in the division. They’ve got as much talent as any team in the league, but they still haven’t put it all together for a solid stretch that helps define a season.
Then one of their rivals goes out and nabs Manny Machado. Maybe that team overpays with prospects or sells what few souls they have in the fanbase in exchange for one of the best players in baseball. Those things won’t matter. What will matter is seeing “Machado” in a lineup that already has few enough holes as is. It’s seeing the team that leads the NL in runs per game get substantially better at scoring runs.
Even worse is the thought that the Cubs could obtain Machado and then convince him to stick around either before he gets to free agency (unlikely) or after he files thanks to having the inside track. If he helps propel them into the playoffs and the Cubs make an offer he would be ill-advised to refuse, then my only consolation is that the Cubs will be pushing their future opening day payrolls to the wrong side of $200M.
The Cubs already have most of their core pieces locked down with a smart combination of guaranteed contracts, team friendly options, and arb/pre-arb years through 2020. They simply aren’t going away and have a solid 3-4 year window of opportunity as present constructed.
It’s one thing if they swing a deal for Machado without mortgaging the farm. That’s just a bad dream. If they can somehow make that deal and convince him to stay, that’s the nightmare.