Trading Russell for Machado Might Sound Crazy, but What If It Improves Cubs’ Chances of Landing Harper?

Sorry to be tardy to the party, but I saw all the fun everyone was having with the Addison Russell-for-Manny Machado takes and figured it was high time I offered one of my own. There I was, bebopping and scatting as ESPN’s Jesse Rogers (pro-trade) and Bleacher Nation’s Brett Taylor (anti-trade) pounded out differing opinions on their keyboards like the dueling pianos at Sluggers, when an epiphany struck me. It was an unfamiliar sensation, to be sure, so I rushed to commit my own fleeting thoughts to the page before they slipped from my grasp.

Before we get into the part about whether the Cubs should consider trading a 24-year-old (in January) defensive wizard who’s still under team control for four more years and who has tremendous potential for offensive growth, let’s look at Machado’s situation. The Orioles have made it known that they’re looking to trade their stud infielder and they’d already received at least 10 “legitimate offers” for him by the time the Winter Meetings closed.

But none of those offers was enough to blow them away, as Bob Nightengale of USA Today detailed Thursday.

The most aggressive offer, they say, was from the biggest surprise team, the Chicago White Sox. The White Sox lost 95 games last year in Year 1 of their rebuild. They may lose even more this year. They’re not supposed to contend until 2019, at the earliest.

Translation: The White Sox, according to team executives who spoke to USA TODAY Sports only on the condition of anonymity, indeed made a solid offer for Machado.

Only it didn’t involve any of their prized prospects. Not even close. The deal they offered, two executives said, were based on the belief they would have Machado for only one season.

While it’s understandable that teams wouldn’t be willing to part with a huge haul for a rental, even one with transcendent talent, the Orioles’ stipulations have further suppressed Machado’s market. In addition to putting the kibosh on the traditional 72-hour negotiating period often granted to teams in these situations, O’s owner Peter Angelos is wary of a trade that could benefit the Yankees in any way.

Not only will Angelos nix a deal to a team he fears might immediately turn around and flip Machado for prospects, he’s also ruling out those teams he believes could be sellers at the trade deadline. That effectively rules out the White Sox, among others, and it explains why they didn’t include the top talent they’ve stockpiled on the South Side.

Here’s where we loop back to the Cubs, a team that figures to be in the NL Central race to the end and that wouldn’t mind having another slugger in the middle of the lineup. I was going to be all coy here and say something about how they’ve already got shortstop and third base locked down, but I guess the title and opening paragraph have already blown the lid off the surprise.

Viewed in a binary manner, sending Russell and his years of control (plus a prospect or two) to Baltimore for a single year of Machado makes no sense. Machado is clearly a better overall player, especially on offense, but even if he meets his career average of 5.1 fWAR per 150 games, it’ll pale in comparison to what Russell should add over the next four seasons. Then you figure that Russell is capable of putting up 5 fWAR on his own in any given season.

So that’s it, right? Makes no sense. Well, unless it does.

For all his potential, the realities of Russell’s personal and professional life present the Cubs with something of a quandary. The team had been concerned with their young shortstop’s extracurricular activities since well before accusations of infidelity and domestic violence splashed across the headlines, and it’s not like those things just vanish. Then you’ve got the shoulder and foot injuries that dogged Russell all season, forcing him to miss much of the second half and leading many to question whether he should move back to second base.

Flipping to the other side of the diamond in favor of Javy Baez didn’t and doesn’t make much sense, but a change of scenery might. Despite the aforementioned issues, Russell’s talent and contractual control represent a tremendous amount of value on their own, let alone when viewed in light of the underwhelming offers the Orioles have received to this point.

I’m not necessarily trying to paint a picture of the Cubs getting rid of a malcontent or a bad character; that’s too myopic a way to view it. But the men running the team know much more about Russell than anyone reading this — unless Theo Epstein is reading, in which case, “Hi, Theo!” — so I’m saying that willingness to move him would likely be influenced by more than just baseball reasons.

We’ve now come to the idea of Machado playing on the North Side and whether having him on the roster for only a year is really worth the cost. It certainly could be if we’re looking at 2018 in a vacuum. Steamer projections have Russell at just under 3 fWAR and Machado at a little over 6 fWAR, a very significant jump that would more than justify the $15 million difference in their projected salaries.

Which brings us to whether the Cubs can afford to make the move and still round out their roster with another starter and/or closer. Given what I estimated the other day, Machado’s additional salary would push the Cubs right to the brink of what they may be comfortable spending. Trading for him would mean giving up on Wade Davis and Alex Cobb, though there’d still be room left for a lower-priced pitcher. They might also have room for mid-season acquisitions if need be.

As attractive as the instant gratification of such a splashy trade might be, the greater concern would be that Machado becomes a free agent in 2019 and leaves the Cubs with nothing but compensatory draft picks to show for it. But maybe that’s part of the plan. I know that sounds odd and I’m getting speculative here, so follow along and I promise I’ll try to put on bow on this quickly enough.

The Cubs need not concern themselves with the three days to negotiate an extension prior to completing a trade, since they’d have a whole season during which to make an impression on Machado and his agent. Not that anything is likely to prevent him from hitting the open market, but the Cubs would at least have a captive audience while setting the stage for a potential extension or a return in free agency.

Ah, but for as good as he is, Machado has never been the white whale of next winter’s class. That would be Bryce Aron Max Harper, a man at whom the Cubs might actually have a better shot by trading for Machado this offseason. In addition to freeing up salary once his final arbitration year is up, Machado’s departure would create a gaping hole in the offense that the Cubs would need to fill. And I think we can all agree that money and urgency tend to be significant motivating factors.

Some of you are probably pointing out that shedding Machado’s $17-18 million isn’t going to be nearly enough to offset what Harper will earn, and your’re right. Harper and Machado alike stand to make around twice that amount on new deals, so the Cubs would need to come up with some extra scratch. They’re also going to need to find room for Harper, who’s probably not going to become a middle infielder in the future.

Coincidentally, Jason Heyward’s full no-trade clause expires after the 2018 season, assuming he exercises his option to stay in Chicago (he will). That extra $23 million AAV sure would come in handy when pursuing the top free agent(s) next winter. And the Cubs are dealing with a very small window in which trading Heyward is viable, since he’ll regain full trade-veto power when he earns 10-5 rights after the 2020 season.

Even kicking in $25 million or so would given the Cubs significantly more available funds. You also have to consider that the rising competitive balance tax threshold affords them a little more breathing room.

I know what you’re probably thinking after reading all of this: Why not just keep Russell and trade Heyward after next season anyway? The simple answer is to clear the money Russell will be making in 2019. Javy would slide over to short after Machado leaves, then the Cubs move Heyward and sign Harper. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Except that it’s not.

Trading Russell for Machado would represent an all-in move by Theo Epstein and Co., a swing-for-the fences deal predicated on their ability to either retain Machado or sign Harper. Should they fail on both counts, they’d be left with nothing. Keeping Russell is the safer play. It does not preclude them from pursuing Harper next winter, nor does it cut the strings on their parachute as they jump out of the plane.

If only we had a time machine and could jump forward to see how everything would work out. Man, that would make me look really smart.

After writing this and going back and forth on the matter in my head more than twice, I have concluded that…I’m actually fine with it either way. I understand why the Cubs might want to trade for Machado and I also totally get wanting to stand pat with Russell. Is that bad? Was I supposed to close this by definitively declaring allegiance to one specific take? Sorry.

Back to top button