Chicago Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez is currently the hottest power hitter in baseball. He won the NL Player of the Week award earlier this month and was named an NL All-Star, though he chose not to participate. He had hit 11 home runs over his last 21 games through Saturday. The Cubs, however, have managed to get even worse as Ramirez has gotten better, losing three out of four to Florida since the break to fall 20 games below .500.
Ramirez, like some other Cubs, has drawn interest from contending clubs around the league. Even in this post-glove stage of his career, Ramirez's bat has huge value at the third base and designated hitter positions for the Giants, the Diamondbacks, the Brewers, the Pirates (really? I'm writing that? Okay, yeah...), the Yankees and/or the Angels.
Ramirez, like many Cubs, may not be dealt, for reasons that shall be discussed forthwith. But the team absolutely cannot watch the next two weeks pass without making at least three moves to acquire young talent (especially pitching—the farm is growing a fine crop of position players, but injuries, trades and command issues have thinned the pitching harvest) and improve for the long-term.
No fewer than 10 Cubs could or should be on another roster by mid-August. Read on for a breakdown of the players and the level of return the Cubs can expect for each.
Ramirez has been immobile, but sure-handed at third base.
Contractually, Ramirez has the right to reject any trade, and he said he would do so if the team tried to move him this summer. The euphemism, blithely accommodated by the Chicago media, was that he wished to "honor the contract" he has with the club.
Hendry must not be fazed. Trade Ramirez. Trade him over and over. Trade him twice a week, until it hurts his feelings, if that's what you have to do. Sooner or later, the sheer burden of the knowledge that he is unwanted would likely drive Ramirez to accept a deal. Ramirez was a personal favorite in the good old days of the mid-2000s, a true elite power-hitting third baseman who gave up no batting average for his power. But the Cubs derive no benefit from having him rake for the rest of this season, and probably have no intention of bringing him back in 2012.
Misinformation abounded about his contract, thanks to uncertain wording on Cot's Contracts about a clause that could have guaranteed his $16 million 2012 option if he were dealt prior to this season. It is no longer in effect, so the Cubs need not worry about more than paying a $1 million assignment fee when they finally coax Ramirez into a deal.
The Tigers could get interested. The Yankees make great sense. The Angels are probably the best possible fit. The Cubs should be able to get more for Ramirez than they did for Derrek Lee last summer, and the haul there was three minor league pitchers.
Reports all around suggest the Cubs have turned away Baker suitors, feeling he fits into their plans for next season.
I want to be careful here. This is not a move, not a non-move, and not a rumor. It's a (so far unsubstantiated) rumor about the team's lack of intention to make a trade. We know almost nothing here, and it would be unfair to criticize the Cubs for something that might be specious, might be inaccurate, might be misconstrued.
That said, if Baker is a Cub next season, it stands as a fireable offense by Hendry. These are the mistakes that derail a rebuilding club: it's death by a thousand incremental overpayments. Baker is not now and will not be next season a huge improvement over, say, Marquez Smith or D.J. LeMahieu, right-handed infield bats who hit lefties and have at least as much versatility as Baker does. They would cost roughly $1 million less than Baker. That's an extra $1 million the Cubs could spend on some amateur lottery tickets next summer, either by overpaying for elite toolsy guys in the draft or spending more at the July 2 starting line for Latin American youths.
Baker can be an asset to a contender, and honestly I would be stunned if he were not dealt, rumors be damned. According to FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal, the Red Sox and Indians are reportedly interested, and since both of those farm systems could cough up a solid-to-average future regular without missing him, those are fine destinations. A one-for-one provides the best value in situations like this, where the trading chip is a non-elite contributor like Baker. Getting two fringe prospects would be much less valuable than getting one unscratched lottery ticket.
Just like Ramirez, Marshall is coveted by virtually everyone with a shot at the playoffs. Just like Baker, Marshall seems to be part of Hendry's vision for the 2012 Cubs, and the team said they will not move Marshall.
Marshall actually is an asset, to any team. He's a tremendous pitcher. He may be the most valuable trade chip the Cubs have, because there are so few complications and because he is not a rent-a-player: He is signed through next season and will make only $3.1 million in 2012.
Of course, you can make an argument that his value makes Marshall too precious to deal, especially as Carlos Marmol fumbles and seizes up before our eyes. But then again, we know how multi-year commitments to relievers tend to work out. Moving Marshall to the AL East would be a coup for whichever team landed him, and they might just pay the Cubs back accordingly with young players. Packaging Baker and Marshall in a deal with the Yankees or Red Sox could make for a great haul.
Quietly respected by people inside the game, Fukudome may be the most underrated Cub of the last half-decade. While he certainly never played up to his contract, his career .369 OBP has value, and so does his serviceable defense of right field (I love defensive stats, but don't overrate Fukudome's half-season splits). Fukudome has no-trade protection, but not iron-clad protection, and anyway he may well be coaxed into a deal to a contender as he stares the end of his stateside career in the face.
It's rare that baseball makes your course obvious and easy, but this time, it has. Hendry need only listen to the Cubs' television broadcasts to know what to do with Fukudome. Len Kasper, shoe-leather guy that he is, asked Fukudome last season whether he was more comfortable in dome-style stadiums that reminded him of playing in Japan. Fukudome enthusiastically told him he was. He then went out and hit two home runs at Chase Field in Arizona.
The Diamondbacks have need of a left fielder to round out a very strong outfield, and need a truer leadoff man anyway. Fukudome could make them a very real threat to the Giants. What is that worth? The Diamondbacks have tons of high-upside, remarkably risky arms. One of them would satisfy the Cubs.
The thought of trading Wood is heart-rending for the Cubs organization: He came back last December for a third of what the White Sox and Yankees offered, and all he asked in return was a no-trade clause so he could settle in as a Cub for life. Alas, the season has taken a much earlier and worse turn than he and the team had hoped, and though it may hurt, Hendry has to at least put together a deal and take it to Wood. Maybe Wood will not mind moving for two months, knowing he can return on a similar deal next season without missing a step.
The Yankees would likely love to get Wood back. For that matter, any contender could and would take him, since he is owed less than $1 million for the rest of the season. One mid-level prospect would get the deal done, if Wood let it go through.
On the 20-80 scouting scale, Carlos Pena's power might be a 70. His glove might be too, albeit at first base where no one would think to rate a defender that highly. While his other physical tools lag behind, however, Pena is special in one other way: he is a true 80 in the clubhouse, in the dugout, in mound meetings and interview rooms. He is articulate, intelligent, passionate, even-keeled, relentlessly positive, friendly and hard-working.
One way or another, though, someone will agree to take on Pena as a two-month rental. The Cubs may have to pay the $5 million deferred until 2012 on Pena's contract, but that should not keep Hendry from moving Pena for a solid pitching prospect.
This would be the real wave-maker, but it likely will not happen. In order for the Cubs to give up Dempster, they would have to arrive at the final weekend prior to the deadline under the following conditions:
1. Buyers remain in abundance for starting pitching.
2. Ubaldo Jimenez of Colorado has already been traded, and for a very strong return.
3. Andrew Cashner appears to be on track to return within the month from the shoulder problems that have sidelined him since April.
It sure seems tenuous. Even then, the team would face a difficult situation, because the two best prospective buyers for Dempster would be division rivals St. Louis and Cincinnati.
The upside is that both of those clubs could give up a piece whom the Cubs would view as a very meaningful building block. Cincinnati first base prospect Yonder Alonso would answer a lot of questions about the Cubs' future at that position, and with Joey Votto blocking Alonso from playing time and the playoffs looming just out of reach given the current rotation, the Reds might just pull the trigger to get the best right-handed hurler on the market after Jimenez. St. Louis, also hurting for rotation depth and rumored to be on the outs with current center fielder Colby Rasmus, might be persuaded to do the same sort of deal.
In either case, the Cubs would have to eat substantial parts of Dempster's salary both this year and next, but in each case, they would be getting a player who can more realistically help the team when next they are real pennant contenders, circa 2014. Getting Alonso would even save the team enough money at first base in 2012 to allow them to bid highest for the services of shortstop Jose Reyes.
Johnson is to the outfield what Baker is to the infield: a cheap option with pop and good defensive chops but whom you would not want to have to play against right-handed hurlers. His energy, solid-to-average speed and quick hands on fastballs make Johnson worthwhile; his numbers make him attractive.
Only his 2006 season compares to this one so far for Johnson, who has admittedly enjoyed the luxury of playing only sparingly against same-handed pitching. His .325/.368/.548 batting line is the best he has ever posted, and on the premise that his 137 plate appearances should be even remotely predictive of some decent batting down the stretch, Hendry should be able to find a suitor for a guy owed less than $400,000 the rest of the season.
Johnson and Marshall would make an attractive package to Philadelphia, who desperately need reinforcement in the bullpen and a right-handed outfielder. Johnson could also go to the Braves in a small-time deal.
For any number of perfectly valid reasons, John Grabow should not have gotten a two-year, $7.5 million contract with the Cubs in the first place. I have not harped on Hendry harder for anything during his tenure.
That said, a sucker is born every minute, and there's nothing suckers like more than adding southpaws to their bullpen when on the fringe of contention in late July. That's how the Cubs initially acquired Grabow, remember, and if Hendry is smart enough to swallow the rest of the pitcher's money, someone will bite on Grabow again.
Baseball people continue to make decisions on the basis of very, very small selective samples of relief pitching, so three good appearances for Grabow between now and the deadline could be enough to warrant at least throwing him into a deal with another piece.
Samardzija may be the most enigmatic current Cub. He has a big-league fastball with life and flashes worthwhile secondary stuff in relief, but he continues to struggle to put it all together. After five years of the dance and with two team options that only a fool would pick up remaining on the deal that lured him away from the NFL, Samardzija has very few days left in a Cubs uniform.
Getting a contender to take interest may be tricky: there are certainly better options out there. But while his ERA reflects some good luck on batted balls and a few extra balls staying in the park, he has at least learned to strike batters out consistently. Samardzija could be a surprise breakout guy down the stretch, which is why the Cubs absolutely must deal him now. If Samardzija pitches too well through the meaningless months ahead, Hendry will surely retain him for another $3 million-plus next year.