Cubs Win Justin Wilson Bidding War

While Zach Britton is the big name, and Brad Hand has been priced like an even bigger name, Justin Wilson might have actually been the most sought after reliever on the market this week. Basically every contender in baseball wanted him. The finalists were reportedly the Dodgers, Astros, Nationals, and Cubs, and the Tigers really couldn’t have asked for a better group to have bidding up the price on their best trade chip.

In the end, it appears that the Cubs put the offer on the table Detroit liked most. While the deal isn’t official yet, the teams are reportedly reviewing medical information, which means it should be done soon.

The deal is reportedly as follows.

Chicago Receives
Player Position Age 2017 WAR Rest of Season WAR Contract
Justin Wilson RP 29 0.9 0.5 Arbitration for 2018
Alex Avila C 30 1.9 0.8 Free Agent after 2017
ROS WAR is based on ZIPS/Steamer projection of 24 IP for Wilson and 170 PA for Avila.
Detroit Receives
Prospect Position Age Level Prospect Rank
Jeimer Candelario 3B 23 Triple-A #4, 50 FV
Isaac Paredes SS 18 Low-A #17, 40 FV
Prospect Rank is based on Eric Longenhagen’s preseason team write-ups.

The strong market for Wilson reflects the way the game has changed. He’s only been a closer for a couple of months now, and he has just 14 career saves. His ERA last year was 4.14. He’s never been an All-Star. Yet all of the best teams in baseball wanted him, because despite the lack of accolades, Justin Wilson is really good.

If we want to show Wilson’s improvement in one chart, this is probably the one to display.

Justin Wilson has always thrown hard, with a fastball sitting at 96 mph, but an inconsistent breaking ball limited his effectiveness early in his career. He broke out in 2015 when he figured out how to miss bats with his cutter, giving him the ability to challenge hitters in the zone with something that moved, then put them away with a fastball up. Instead of being a groundballer who got some strikeouts, he’s turned into a low-contact pitcher who blows hitters away with power stuff.

Since the start of the 2015 season, Wilson’s 28% strikeout rate is 14th-highest among relievers with at least 150 innings pitched, and fourth-highest among lefty relievers. And it’s trending up.

This year, the only left-hander striking out a higher rate of hitters is Andrew Miller. The only lefties with a lower wOBA allowed are Miller and Felipe Rivero.

And like those guys, Wilson appealed to every contender because he’s not a left-on-left specialist. In fact, Wilson’s actually been better against right-handed hitters in his career, allowing just a .270 wOBA to RHBs compared to .293 to LHBs. Joe Maddon talked about wanting to add a neutral-platoon guy to his bullpen to complement the match-up guys the team already had, and Wilson is exactly that, as he can be used in any situation against any hitter without worrying about a potential pinch-hitter.

He’s not an absolute top-tier reliever. He’s not Kenley Jansen or even Wade Davis. But Justin Wilson is one of the very best left-handed relievers in the game, and should give the Cubs bullpen a significant boost for the stretch run and the postseason. And because he’s under team control for 2018 as well, he’s not just a rental; even with a nice arbitration raise this winter, he’ll be a bargain again next year too.

Along with Wilson, the Cubs are also acquiring long-rumored pickup Alex Avila to serve as their backup catcher and bat-off-the-bench. The team has been using rookie Victor Caratini as Willson Contreras‘ reserve since dumping Miguel Montero a few weeks ago, but Avila will provide significantly more offense when he plays, and perhaps as importantly, gives the team some flexibility in how they deploy their roster in the postseason. Avila probably won’t play much first base in Chicago, as he had in Detroit, but he could also serve as the team’s regular DH vs right-handers in the World Series if the Cubs make it back to defend their championship.

Avila probably won’t play enough to move the needle that substantially, but as a solid bench bat and depth piece, his inclusion makes sense for a team that already has their high-end core in place.

To land a bullpen and bench upgrade, the team finally parted with the game’s most obvious trade chip, third base prospect Jeimer Candelario. There wasn’t a future in Chicago for a corner infielder behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, so Candelario was always going to need a trade to get some playing time. Of course, now he’s going to a team with Nick Castellanos and Miguel Cabrera on the corners, but at least Victor Martinez shouldn’t be a huge impediment at DH, given the team’s ongoing youth movement.

How the Tigers will arrange their infield to give Candelario his shot will be interesting, since there isn’t a gifted defender in the bunch. Eric Longenhagen’s preseason write-up noted that, even with a 50 FV ranking, he still saw him as a first baseman.

The theory cited above (in the Ian Happ profile) regarding the possibility of more advanced batted-ball data allowing clubs to hide bad defenders applies to Candelario, too. He lacks the lateral quickness, soft hands and footwork to play third base for me and instead projects as a first-base-only player despite an above-average arm. Others are more receptive to punting defense at third base if it means getting a bat like Candelario’s in the lineup.

There are all kinds of fantastic hitterish traits here. Candelario is fluid and comfortable in the box, he has a combination of good bat control and hand-eye coordination that allows him to spoil tough two-strike pitches, he makes in-flight adjustments to off-speed pitches, and he hits to all fields (though most of his power comes to his pull side). He’s traditionally been a better hitter from the left side but has more leverage and power as a right-handed hitter.

In aggregate, he projects as a plus hitter with average game power, a profile that places him on the fringe of playing every day at first base. That said, most think (and I count myself among those that do) that Candy’s eye for the strike zone and ability to walk tip the scale in his favor. Ultimately, he can probably become an average regular at first. His path to the majors is blocked by Anthony Rizzo, and it may take a trade or injury for him to see significant time in the bigs in 2017, though his bat appears ready.

Candelario’s offensive performance has taken a bit of a step back this year, with his strikeout rate rising and his BABIP falling in Triple-A, leading to a good-not-great 120 wRC+. Given that he’s a 23-year-old who has a projected 85 wRC+ over the rest of the season, and has defensive question marks, the Tigers aren’t getting any kind of sure thing here; this prospect profile has often led to disappointing big league performances.

But as a young switch hitter with some upside who might be capable of going right to Detroit, the Tigers get someone whose value could increase quickly if he hits out of the gate. If they can show that he’s either a good enough defender to play third in the big leagues or hit better than the projections expected, Candelario could be a nice solid piece for them long-term. There’s probably not a lot of high-end potential here, but Candelario looks like a pretty safe bet to provide some value in the big leagues.

Paredes is essentially the opposite of Candelario, an 18-year-old lottery ticket in A-ball. Eric ranked him as a 40 FV prospect heading into the year based on the risk inherent in all of these guys so far from the Majors, but now that he’s held his own in full-season ball, he’s a bit more interesting. Here’s what Eric said before the season began.

Paredes has a mature build and is unlikely to play shortstop for very long. His arm fits on the left side of the infield, but he may be a fit at second base, as well. He has average bat speed but a solid, well-timed weight transfer and power-friendly bat path that both allow for some in-game thump without hurting his ability to make contact. He hits to all fields. Like Ademan, his upside is limited due to a lack of physical projection (I don’t anticipate him to grow into 70 raw power or a 70 arm), but there’s definitely a feel to hit here and a chance for a favorable defensive profile. He has a chance to be an everyday third baseman or second baseman, but he’s only 17 and as many as four or five years away from the big leagues.

While Candelario is going to be seen as the main guy in this trade, KATOH actually prefers Paredes between the pair, ranking him 76th on the stats-only version of the midseason Top 100. Candelario ranked 83rd on the KATOH+ version of the list, which factors in prospect rankings. Paredes is the long-term upside play in this deal, and ultimately may turn out to be the better player, though he’ll require some patience and comes with far more risk.

But the Cubs are in a position where surrendering guys like this for short-term gain is worthwhile, especially given how formidable the Dodgers look to be this year. Part of why you develop prospects is to exchange them for big leaguers when you need the help, and the Cubs needed to get better this year to take advantage of their current window to win. Candelario and Paredes are both nice pieces to have around, but they are pieces the Cubs could spare.

Overall, this trade features a contender giving up non-elite prospects for a quality reliever and a solid left-handed bat, and a rebuilding team turning a year and a half of a reliever and a rent-a-30-year-old-catcher into two potential starting-caliber position players. Unlike many of the deals so far that looked slanted towards the buyer, this seems like a perfectly reasonable trade for both sides.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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4 years ago

Uh don’t mean to be a ***hole but why is it showing the Giants return for Eduardo Nunez? Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes appear to be the pieces going to Detroit