By Bruce Levine–
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. (CBS) — The Cubs’ pursuit of young controllable pitching has been transparent from the beginning of the offseason. Cubs brass is certainly looking at all options in acquiring pitching, including free agency and the conventional trade route. The question of who the Cubs may make available to get a big-time pitcher in a trade is one of the great unknowns as the Winter Meetings opened Sunday.
Notably, would the Cubs ever consider moving 24-year-old infielder Javier Baez if a frontline pitcher was offered? Because foes will certainly inquire about Baez’s availability.
“Moving a player with the upside of Javier Baez will get the Cubs a top-flight young pitcher,” an executive said. “They certainly will hesitate, considering the show Baez put on in the playoffs this season. Baez to me is already one of the most special defensive players in the game. He has a potential to be a dominant offensive player, with just a little bit more experience. The question is will they consider moving him?”
The Cubs will have a hard time convincing themselves that trading Baez would be worth a young pitcher, unless they were getting a slam dunk arm in return. The Rays are believed to be open to moving several pitchers: 27-year-old right-hander Jake Odorizzi, 28-year-old Chris Archer or 27-year-old left-hander could be had in a properly packaged deal.
A former Cubs minor league prospect, Archer would be the sexiest choice. He’s under team control for the next five seasons for a total of $39 million. The first three years of the deal average $6.3 million, then there are two team options.
Archer is the type of pitcher with the type of contract that you must consider if you’re in the frame of mind to trade Baez. Archer tied for second in the American League with 233 strikeouts in 2016 and posted a 4.02 ERA. He also led the league in losses with a 9-19 record, though that’s a deceiving statistic given that Tampa had the AL’s second-worst offense. Archer has a lifetime 3.51 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 9.3 K/9 rate. He has averaged more than 200 innings and nearly 220 strikeouts per season across the past three years, an indiction that he’s an elite pitcher.
Still, there are plenty of reasons to say no to trading Baez on the Cubs’ end. He’s one of the best defensive players in the game. He took over the starting job at second base late in the Cubs’ championship season in 2016, and he’s also insurance with All-Star potential if an injury ever occurs to shortstop Addison Russell or third baseman Kris Bryant.
How would you talk yourself into moving the exceptional Baez? Well, slugger Kyle Schwarber will return as an everyday player in left field. The Cubs have 35-year-old second baseman/outfielder Ben Zobrist under contract for three more seasons, and the team still wants to get him regular at-bats. The ascension of Baez at second base makes that more difficult, but the Cubs also have to weigh the need for a lead-off hitter with outfielder Dexter Fowler presumed gone in free agency. Zobrist is their best option there, as he had a .386 on-base percentage in 2016 and a .358 mark for his career. Newly signed outfielder Jon Jay is a potential lead-off hitter too, with a .352 career on-base percentage, but he’s expected to platoon with Albert Almora in center field.
Baez can become a superstar, and he’s already a difference-maker with his bat and in the field. Baez hit .273 with 14 homers, 59 RBIs and a .737 OPS in 142 games in 2016, when he also severely cut down on his strikeouts.
On the flip side, the Cubs have to weigh their future at pitching. They have let Jason Hammel walk in free agent, and Jake Arrieta and John Lackey will hit free agency after 2017.
The Cubs will also look at rehabbing projects like right-hander Tyson Ross and reliever Greg Holland. Both are free agents with big upside if they return to form, and the Cubs would love to add a starter and closing candidate to the mix with the next couple of seasons in mind.
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.