The latest news in the Theo Epstein Chronicles has brought right-handed pitcher Trey McNutt into the forefront of the conversation. McNutt, who the Cubs drafted two years ago in the 32nd round, has recently become not just a prospect, but a top prospect in the Cubs system.
This January, resident prospect overlord Marc Hulet ranked McNutt the Number Two prospect in the Cubs system following the Matt Garza trade, while Baseball America ranked him as the 48th best prospect (also before the season).
The question is, of course, is he worth Epstein? Or, better yet, is Epstein worth him?
No. Well, in a vacuum, no. I imagine the heft of writers and readers in this region reflect Dave Cameron’s sentiments (“What is Theo Epstein Worth?”) in the GM value department. In nerdy terms, the replacement level for a sabermetric GM is much higher than it is for any position on the field.
A franchise pitcher or shortstop is almost always going to be worth more than a GM — in relative terms. In absolute terms, the GM is the single most important person in an organization — except for maybe the owner — but with guys like Billy Beane, Paul DePodesta, Josh Byrnes, Gerry Hunsicker, and multitude of others some way or another “on the market” for a GM position, an owner who wants a saber GM needn’t look long and hard.
Perhaps the compensation Epstein is receiving reflects that? He’ll be earning a shade under $4M annually (and prorated) if and when he takes the helm in Chicago — a salary which you might expect for a middle reliever or an aging slugger. Of course, that’s not say Theo Epstein is the Jose Lopez ($3.6M) or Jason Kendall ($3.75M) of GMs. No, of course he isn’t — GMs are just on a different scale, and that may be partially informed by the replaceability of them.
But, at some point, the Cubs need to begin their new era. With lame duck interim GM Randy Bush at the helm, the Cubs aren’t going to make any major moves — quite possibly none at all — until they have Epstein (or whomever their new GM is) in the captain’s chair.
This is pretty much the only stakes either team has in getting the deal done soon — and the season is not even over yet. In other words, do not expect these negotiations to end hastily.
As such, would Trey McNutt be worth Epstein? Let’s look at McNutt’s statistics (FIP by year):
Like a baby turtle happily and inexorably flapping towards the sea, Trey McNutt has clambered quickly through the Cubs minor league system. He jumped from rookie ball to Low-A in his first year, then skipped like a smooth stone in year two, visiting Middle-A (Peoria), High-A, and Double-A.
As we see, his 2010 season was impressive — well deserving of the hype it generated. However, it appears the follow-up season did not sparkle as much. McNutt turned 22 in August, so he spent the majority of the 2011 season as a 21-year-old playing in the Southern League, which has an average age of 24.1 for pitchers (the Cubs team, the Tennessee Smokies, are the youngest team in the league, however; so take that for what it is or isn’t worth — do whatever; I don’t care).
In that context, the 3.91 FIP season appears somewhere between okay and good. What should concern the Cubs, though, is the rate at which his strikeouts have decreased at Double-A:
Has he hit a wall in Double-A? Maybe. Could he still be a major league starter? Yeah, sure. He’s had one “off” season season, and it really was not that bad. Lots of minor league prospects have ups and downs. McNutt is still probably one of the top pitchers — if not the top pitcher — in the Cubs moderately strong farm system.
So, should the Cubs be willing to part with a potential second or third starter?
Maybe if they feel the Red Sox are willing to go a season with two GMs on the payroll, maybe if the Cubs aren’t willing to wait potentially deep into the off-season, maybe if they feel like McNutt will never develop a changeup and capable third pitch, maybe if they see Epstein as a significant upgrade over any other target (he couldn’t have been any lower than their second choice), maybe if they are just tired of waiting, they will push McNutt across the table — maybe.
Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.