Has Theo Epstein Found MLB's New 'Moneyball' in International Market?
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Theo Epstein and the Chicago Cubs might be onto something. A new "Moneyball," perhaps.
No, they're not exploiting a previously hidden corner of sabermetrics that will help them build an empire that will demand Michael Lewis' immediate attention. All they've done is come up with a cool idea that other clubs around Major League Baseball might be keen on copycatting in the future.
If you weren't keeping your ear to the ground last Tuesday, you missed the Cubs being busy bees on the trade market. They kicked off the summer trading season by making not one, not two, but three deals.
The biggest sent right-handed starter Scott Feldman and backup catcher Steve Clevenger to the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for right-handers Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop. As a bonus, the Orioles threw in some international slot money.
The bonus money was what the day was all about. When the dust settled, Baseball America reported that the Cubs had added close to $1 million to their international bonus pool, increasing it from $4,557,200 to $5,520,300.
That gave them more money to spend on international prospects than any other team in baseball, all just in time for the opening of the international signing window.
Alright, I have to stop here and admit that I've been treading a little slowly to this point. I write many words about baseball, but this is a rare situation where I find myself writing about something new and a little weird.
Heck, even Baseball America had to give the Cubs credit for pioneering a "new kind of trade." After all, maybe you'll remember that maneuvering such as this wasn't possible or necessary all that long ago.
The international signing process used to be the wild west, with no limits on how much much teams could spend on the kids they wanted. The league sought to change that, and did so with new rules put in place in the collective bargaining agreement that was signed in 2011.
As MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo explained it, the league altered the international signing scene in much the same way it altered the draft: by implementing spending pools with a system of penalties for exceeding said pools. For a change, teams would only have so much money to spend on international prospects.
For 2013, the international bonus pools were going to be tiered according to 2012 winning percentages. Because the Cubs were the second-worst team in the league last year, they were going to have the second-most money to spend on the international market after the Astros.
The early buzz, according to a subscription-required article by Baseball America's Ben Badler, was that the Cubs were going to spend every dime. And more if they had to, meaning they were ready to deal with the penalties that would come their way for going over their allotment.
But first, Badler said the Cubs would surely make "a trade" to try and increase their pool so they could have more wiggle room. The Cubs, of course, made several trades to increase their pool.
And then they went to town.
Within days, the Cubs had agreed to deals with Venezuelan shortstop Gleyber Torres and with Eloy Jimenez, an outfielder from the Dominican Republic. Jonathan Mayo had both of them in the top three in his rankings of the top 30 international prospects. The Cubs also agreed to a deal with No. 17 prospect Erling Moreno and are now closing in on a deal with No. 29 prospect Jen-Ho Tseng, according to Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com.
The deals aren't all official yet, but the wheeling and dealing of Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer adds up to a huge haul of international talent coming the Cubs' way. Their rebuilding phase is poised to get a monumental boost.
The complication now is that the Cubs are currently projected to to exceed their allotted pool by 13.6 percent, according to Sanchez. That puts them deep in the penalty area, which in this case would mean a 100 percent tax of the overage and the loss of the ability to sign any international prospect for more than $500,000 in the next signing period.
If the Cubs go over their allotted pool by more than 15 percent, they'll face an even harsher penalty: a 100 percent tax and an inability to sign any player for more than $250,000 in the next signing period.
However, the Cubs still have some room to maneuver. The CBA allows for clubs to acquire up to 50 percent of their initial bonus pool money, and that means the Cubs could make a deal or two to acquire as much as $1,315,600 in additional slot money.
And the Cubs could very well do that. They've already traded off some pieces, but they still have guys like Matt Garza and Nate Schierholtz who could potentially be dealt for bonus pool money.
No matter how much more money they end up acquiring, it sounds like the Cubs are going to be paying some penalties when the signing window comes to a close. That eventuality doesn't scare the Cubs, however, as Gordon Wittenmeyer of the Chicago Sun-Times has reported that the team really is that enthused with the available talent this year. And after being the most profitable team in baseball last year, the fact is that the Cubs can spare a few extra bucks.
Then there's this: The Cubs paying penalties for their spending on the international market this year likely isn't going to stop other teams from borrowing their idea, which is both very simple and brilliant at the same time.
The Cubs never were going to get top prospects for the pieces they dealt away last Tuesday. Yet the deals they made enhanced their standing to acquire top prospects internationally. We could one day look back on the non-memorable trades they made last Tuesday as deciding factors in the acquisitions of players who became stars.
I found myself thinking that the Cubs effectively invented baseball's answer to trading for draft picks, which is something that can only be done under certain circumstances. The concept is the same, anyway, as the Cubs chose to pass up a chance to acquire mediocre talent for the capacity to acquire potentially great talent.
Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune wrote that the Cubs found a way to "beat the system" with their handling of their international bonus pool and subsequent signings, but that makes it sound like they found a bunch of loopholes to exploit.
The Cubs really didn't, though. They were operating within the rules in acquiring bonus money through trades, and their apparent willingness to pay the price for their spending hardly qualifies as them exploiting a loophole. Their lousy record this year will result in another big bonus pool next year that the Cubs might be willing to part with in trades rather than actually spend, but hey, it's not like the Cubs are guilty of sabotaging what could have been a great season in order to put themselves in that position.
In other words, the Cubs haven't done anything that is guaranteed to make Major League Baseball rethink the policies it just put in place for international spending. Other clubs in the middle of their own rebuilding phases should be able to follow in the Cubs' footsteps by making trades that allow them to load up for the international spending window, and other clubs presumably will do just that.
When trading players for international money is all the rage, we'll all be remarking on how the Cubs did it first.
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