There’s not a single thing the Cubs need to do. They’re outstanding right now, and at a time when people can still buy Christmas presents without expedited shipping, the roster could be considered complete. Probably, the Cubs will come out of this offseason as NL Central favorites. From there, they could remain favorites, but I don’t want to spook any fans who might’ve become increasingly superstitious.
The Cubs could be considered complete, and in right field, they line up to have a 24-year-old Jorge Soler, a player they control through 2020, a player who, in 2014, was one of the three best hitters in the minor leagues, alongside two current teammates. Soler is dynamic and exciting and the sort of player any team would love to have in the system. Yet these rumors persist, trying to send Soler elsewhere. There’s enough smoke you sense there might be a flame: Soler might be on the move any day now. The Cubs would probably prefer a bit more certainty. Which means there are the potential makings here of a major trade.
This is going to be a big year for Soler, no matter where he’s playing. The facts of the matter are these: he had a better 2014 than 2015. He’s unusually powerful and unusually strikeout-prone, and he could head down some very different paths. In the regular season, somehow, he was out-slugged by Tommy La Stella. Then he reached in his first nine plate appearances of the playoffs. Soler can look like different players on different days, and because of the power and whiffs, he’s one of those boom-or-bust types. Teams lose their patience as those players get older. Peak Soler could reach as high as Giancarlo Stanton. Perhaps he resembles Matt Kemp or Marcell Ozuna in certain ways. And the downside looks like Dayan Viciedo. One year from now, Soler could have a lot more value, or an awful lot less.
He’s under control for a long time. Before this past season, he was the Baseball America No. 12 overall prospect, between Noah Syndergaard and Miguel Sano. It would be reasonable to think of Soler as still a prospect, with similarities to Javier Baez. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence both Soler and Baez have been included in countless trade rumors. Might be they’re not the Cubs’ kinds of players. Might be the Cubs like them fine, but think other teams might like them more. The Cubs could prefer less risk, and they obviously want to win right now.
I want to focus on where Soler could go. Again, one route is he goes nowhere. If the Cubs don’t trade him, he’s the right fielder, and he’s talented, and that’s the path of least resistance. If they decide they like his upside enough, he could bat 500 times, and he could break out. I don’t know if this is the most likely course, but I do know it’s the least interesting to discuss in December. What’s more interesting? Trades! Not so much trades like this:
The Cubs’ current focus is on trades for relievers, according to major-league sources — not high-end types such as the Yankees’ Andrew Miller, but middle-inning and setup options who would provide additional depth.
More like trades like this:
— Julie DiCaro (@JulieDiCaro) December 14, 2015
If the Cubs were to trade Soler, most likely they’d get either a center fielder or a starting pitcher with 3+ years of control. They’re comfortable enough with the idea of Jason Heyward playing center, hence his acquisition, but there’s some risk in paying a guy a lot of money and then moving him up the defensive spectrum. It’s time to speculate, with an incomplete list of targets. Emphasis on incomplete. These are some of the names that could make sense for Chicago.
One fit you might think of right away is Cleveland. They’re looking for outfielders, and both Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar are under control five years. But there are issues: Soler might not be their type, and Carrasco and Salazar have recently been much better, and the need is more for a center-field type. Baez might make more sense as an Indians target, as he could theoretically move to center. Any package for Carrasco or Salazar would need to be steep, given what Shelby Miller fetched.
Tampa Bay has a few options. Jake Odorizzi has four years of control. Alex Cobb has just two, and he’ll miss a lot of 2016. Matt Moore has options through 2019, though he’s disappointed. Drew Smyly has three years of control; Erasmo Ramirez has four. Here, Baez might again be the better fit, as the Rays have a full outfield, but they’re not necessarily set at DH. You could see an attempted deal for Odorizzi, but as with the Indians, you wonder if Soler is the Rays’ type. If he doesn’t hit for consistent power, he’s not much of anything, and with power comes relatively steeper arbitration prices.
It might get more interesting if you look at the White Sox; Soler might be more their kind of player, and Jose Quintana is controlled five seasons. Soler for Quintana, obviously, couldn’t work straight up, but if the White Sox like Soler’s foundational skills, then he’d be a centerpiece. The problem for the moment is the White Sox have a full outfield, with Avisail Garcia in right. Garcia might be too similar to Soler; there’s big raw talent, and a lack of consistent results. Maybe that would scare the White Sox off.
When you get to the Braves, you think about Julio Teheran, who’s been the subject of countless trade rumors himself. Teheran could fit in a few ways: he’s shown good talent before, and he could be controlled through 2020. Yet Teheran took a big step back last season, and has major problems against lefties. Teheran, right now, is less exciting than Soler. He was still probably the better player in 2015, but Teheran might not be enough of an improvement for the Cubs to see something as worthwhile.
Now shift perspective and think about center fielders. Yeah, the Cubs could just sign one, like Denard Span. Absolutely. But that’s boring, as far as this post is concerned, so imagine some potential trades. There’s the possibility of a fit with Boston, who has Jackie Bradley, but also Mookie Betts. Bradley has the same amount of control as Soler does, and you get the sense the Cubs would believe in Bradley’s defensive metrics. If the Red Sox are still willing to think about moving Bradley, the Cubs could sell a player big on tools. This can’t be dismissed, unless the Red Sox just think they’re done.
A bold maneuver could see the Cubs try to sell Soler to the Reds for Billy Hamilton. In this exchange, the Reds would have to give up something extra. Again, Hamilton is a plus center fielder, but the Reds wouldn’t mind trading him for a power bat, as they have needs almost everywhere. It’s pretty hard to see past Hamilton’s awful offensive performance. The Cubs could conceivably tolerate it, with their strength elsewhere. They could bat Hamilton ninth and let him accumulate his value in center and occasionally on the bases. It wouldn’t be an immediately popular move, but it would be a fascinating move.
And through all this, I’ve ignored the obvious. The obvious move: Ender Inciarte. The Cubs seem like they’re in contact. It’s apparent they’d trust Inciarte’s defensive numbers, and since the Braves aren’t about to contend, they could deal with playing Michael Bourn until Mallex Smith were to arrive. This move would bump Hector Olivera back to third base, but the Braves right now don’t have a real third baseman. Inciarte, like Soler, is controlled through 2020. The Braves probably like Inciarte fine, but they might drool over Soler’s potential.
There’s another way it makes sense: as a defense-first player with a lot relying on his legs, Inciarte has arguably peaked. He might never be more valuable. Soler is a bat-first player, still a prospect in a way, and he’s still looking to get to his ceiling. Though both outfielders are young and talented, Inciarte fits the Cubs better, while Soler is a better match for the Braves’ timeline. Of course there’s no guarantee Soler hits, but Inciarte needs to be an elite defender if he wants to continue starting long-term.
Inciarte would require more than Soler, but maybe not by all that much. The Cubs have prospects they could stomach dealing, and Inciarte would introduce to the lineup a contact bat, lessening the overall strikeout-proneness. That’s something that greatly hurt the Cubs in the NLCS. An issue, without question, is that Soler is right-handed and Inciarte is left-handed, and such a swap would make the Cubs awful lefty-heavy. But they’re not completely left-handed, and they play in a right-handed division, anyway. Handedness is one of the last things to worry about.
The main draw of acquiring Inciarte is that it’s like indirectly adding a starting pitcher. Let’s say that Heyward is a +15 corner outfielder, and a +5 center fielder. Let’s also say that Soler is a -5 corner outfielder. Now let’s say Inciarte is a +10 center fielder. The Heyward/Soler combination, by these numbers, would come out to an average defensive value. Meanwhile, Inciarte/Heyward would be +25. That’s 25 runs of run prevention, which is like the difference between a decent starting pitcher and an ace. It doesn’t have the same individual-game effect as an ace, but it looks the same over a regular season, and it helps the back-end starters and middle relievers. Trading for Inciarte isn’t just about trading for a different skillset. It’s about reducing the runs allowed, with maybe only a slight reduction in runs scored. The Cubs are going to score a lot of runs.
I don’t know what the Cubs are going to do, and I don’t know what the Braves are demanding for Inciarte in addition to Soler. Maybe they’re asking too much, and maybe because of that, this just can’t work. Maybe the Braves don’t love Soler as much as you could think. The Cubs, thankfully for them, have no shortage of options to explore. Including keeping Soler for themselves. As I said at the beginning, they’re awesome, as I write this. They don’t need anything. They could use upgrades, though. And the more I think about Inciarte, the more I like it for both sides. Some people root for players. Some people root for teams. Right now, I think I’m rooting for a trade.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.