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Considering Lance Lynn to the Chicago Cubs

Intra-division trading is often considered taboo, but dangling the soon-to-be free agent to the Cubs could be a smart long-term play

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

On June 15, 1964, the St. Louis Cardinals sat in 8th place in the National League, ahead of only the Houston Colt .45s (renamed the Houston Astros the next season) and the New York Mets, two recent expansion teams. The Cardinals trailed the Philadelphia Phillies and San Francisco Giants by seven games, hardly an insurmountable deficit but one which would look quite a bit less daunting if there were not another five teams separating them.

One of the five teams between first place and the Cardinals were the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs needed pitching help, so they made a move for one of the Cardinals’ better starters, 28 year-old Ernie Broglio. In 1963, Broglio had a 19-9 record with a 2.99 earned-run average. In 1960, in his age-21 season, the righty won an NL-leading 21 games and finished third in Cy Young voting (a retrospective assessment of his value suggests he probably should have won the award). The Cubs also acquired veteran pitcher Bobby Shantz and outfielder Doug Clemens. In return, the Cardinals got pitchers Jack Spring and Paul Toth. They also got Lou Brock.

Brock had been something of a disappointment for the Cubs. He was younger than Broglio—a few days shy of his 25th birthday—but in Broglio, the Cubs had what they perceived as a sure thing. As it turned out, of course, they did not—the rest of Ernie Broglio’s career was plagued with arm injuries and he threw his last Major League pitch at 30. Meanwhile, the Cardinals made an incredible run and won the 1964 World Series, Lou Brock remained with the Cardinals through 1979, when he retired as baseball’s all-time stolen bases leader, he got his number retired, he went into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, so on and so forth. It turned out to be one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history.

Because of free agency, a modern-day Brock-for-Broglio trade would not work out quite the same way that it did in 1964. But teams having different needs and different organizational motivations remains a fact of life in baseball. Some teams are positioned to win now and are willing to mortgage some of their future in order to improve their odds in the present. Other teams are sellers, hoping to recoup some future value for players who could have more value with teams more likely to compete for championships now.

Because of the torrid paces set by the NL West’s Los Angeles Dodgers, Arizona Diamondbacks, and Colorado Rockies, a Wild Card spot appears increasingly unlikely for any team from the East or Central. Despite a slow and disappointing start, the Chicago Cubs remain the favorites to win the 2017 NL Central. Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals’ current odds to make the playoffs stand at 11.7%.

Although they have had a hot stretch, the Cardinals are a bad week or two from their odds tumbling in the next month, placing them fully in the “Sellers” column for the trade deadline. This does not necessarily mean that the Cardinals are in full-on rebuild mode, but if the team believes that their odds of making the postseason are virtually non-existent, it is in the best interest of the team in the long term to recoup some value for players who will be reaching free agency after the 2017 season.

Lance Lynn is the most prominent of those players. Lynn, who has been with the big-league club since 2011, is third only to Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter among Cardinals pitchers in Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement this century, and while he has struggled recently, he does have a track record of being an above-average starting pitcher. But because the Cardinals have a surplus of talented pitchers, he may not have a role with the 2018 Cardinals anyway—the rise of prospects like Alex Reyes, Luke Weaver, and Jack Flaherty may make Lynn redundant.

For the Chicago Cubs, carried to a 2016 World Series title thanks in large part to their effective starting rotation, a starting pitcher may, like in 1964, be what they desire to make another run (though obviously, they will try to avoid giving up the next Lou Brock in the process). The rotation, formerly a strength, has struggled in 2017—only Jon Lester has an ERA and FIP (barely) below 4, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks have had significant performance drops, John Lackey has been replacement level, and Eddie Butler has struggled to keep his strikeout to walk ratio above one.

Yu Darvish is the best rental on the market, but he would come at a higher cost. Perhaps it would be worth it to the Cubs to give up more to acquire the higher-end Texas Rangers starter than it would take to get Lynn. But it would behoove the Cardinals to discuss making trades with anyone who will listen and be willing to give up valuable pieces.

But it makes extra sense for the Cardinals to want to trade with the Cubs because if such a trade improves the Cubs, what difference does it make?

Any move which improved the chances of the Cubs winning the NL Central, the NL pennant, the World Series, etc. before 2017 hurt the chances of the Cardinals, as it hurt the chances of any team competing for such crowns with the Cubs. But if the odds of the Cardinals winning such things are essentially zero, and are at least low enough that they are unqualified sellers rather than buyers at the end of July, the Cubs’ chances do not impact the odds of the Cardinals. Most Cardinals fans would prefer the Milwaukee Brewers win the NL Central over the Cubs for rivalry purposes, but neither team winning nor collapsing provides any tangible benefit to the Cardinals.

But to acquire Lance Lynn would require the Cubs, or any other team, to trade prospects. The acquisition of future potential assets improves the playoff odds, even if incrementally, in, say, 2020, but these moves also marginally hurt the team acquiring Lynn. Lance Lynn will hit free agency following this season; he could just as easily sign with the Cubs for 2018 without a mid-2017 trade as he could sign elsewhere following a run with the Cubs this year. It’s an extreme long shot for several reasons, but the Cardinals could trade Lynn and then re-sign him in the off-season. The point is that if the Cardinals trade Lance Lynn, they are trading two months of his use where his production, even if it bounces back to his career norm, would be mostly irrelevant for a team that is far removed from playoff contention.

At the end of the day, if the Cardinals are going to trade Lance Lynn, they should consider all offers on the table and take the one which most improves their chances at organizational success. Conventional wisdom has suggested that if the Cubs and, say, the Astros offered identical packages for Lynn, the Cardinals should take the Astros offer because a team wouldn’t want to help a division rival. But the 2017 Cardinals and 2017 Cubs may not be division rivals soon, if the Cardinals keep struggling, as the two teams would have completely distinct agendas. But the 2020 Cardinals and 2020 Cubs will be division rivals, and getting a leg up in such a race is a nice added bonus to a conventional “selling off an expiring contract for spare parts” trade.