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End of 2020 NL Central Transaction Update

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Two clubs trade marquee players

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Chicago White Sox Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier in the month, I ran a series on each of the other clubs and the transactions they made after the end of the 2020 season. In this article, I will give you an update on the moves the clubs have made since that series.

BREWERS

12/20: Claimed UT Tim Lopes on outright assignment waivers from the Seattle Mariners. 40-man at 37.

Lopes has basically been with the Mariners organization his entire career. Drafted by that club in the 6th round of the 2012 draft out of high school, he was flipped to the Blue Jays on September 30th, 2016 as the player to be named later in an August trade for Pat Venditte. After two seasons, the Mariners brought him back on a minor league deal for 2019 after he was declared an automatic Rule 55 minor league free agent. For all practical purposes, Lopes was a 2nd baseman and 3rd baseman who slapped some singles. In 2019, the Mariners decided to play the Tommy Edman game with him. After a misleading .302/.362/.472 line over 420 PA with AAA Tacoma in the Pacific Coast League—which translated to a 99 DRC+—the Mariners purchased his contract in late July and started him in the outfield for about 30 games, mostly in left. In 2020, he started more than half the club’s games at either outfield or DH.

In 279 career PA in MLB, the 26-year old Lopes hasn’t hit at all. He’s got no power, and he’s right handed, so he doesn’t make a good platoon partner for anyone the Brewers currently have that projects to make the opening day roster. He’s either a super-utility bench option or AAA depth. He has all 3 minor league options left, and just over 1 year of MLB service time.

CUBS

12/17: Signed RHP Jonathan Holder to a 1-year, $750,000 non-guaranteed MLB contract. 40-man at 36.

Holder has spent his entire career in the Yankees organization since he was drafted in the 6th round of the 2014 draft. In 2016, he rocketed through the system from High-A all the way to the majors after striking out 101 batters to only 7 walks over 65.1 IP across 3 minor league levels. He’s been a serviceable reliever for the Yankees with a multi-pitch arsenal. His home run rate spiked severely in 2019, and he spent some time in AAA to work on it, but injured his shoulder when he came back and was lost from early August until the rest of that season. Last season, both his strikeout and walk rates were abysmal, but the Cubs are hoping that was just an aberration. Non-tendered by the Yankees, he’s making the same salary that he agreed upon for 2020 to avoid arbitration as a Super Two. He’s also got 1 minor league option left.

12/22: Claimed OF Phillip Ervin on outright assignment waivers from the Seattle Mariners. 40-man at 37.

Ervin was the 1st round draft choice of the Reds in 2013, but he has never lived up to that status. He’s a classic outfield tweener—fast, but without a glove good enough to start regularly in center and a bat not good enough for an outfield corner. The Mariners claimed him on waivers last September after the Reds designated him for assignment and started him for 13 games in right field.

Although Ervin’s profile doesn’t scream “sexy,” this was a nice pickup by the Cubs. Ervin doesn’t hit righties well at all, but even after struggling last season, he still has a career .459 SLG against left-handed pitching, he runs the bases well, has a good throwing arm, and can stand at all 3 outfield positions. While the Reds had several other outfield choices, the Cubs currently don’t, as Ervin makes just the 3rd outfielder on the Cubs’ 40-man roster. He could be part of a platoon situation in left field, with Bryant moving to 3rd base against left-handed pitching. And the price will be right, as Ervin is still not eligible for arbitration. He’s out of minor league options, though, so he will not be able to ride the Chicago/Iowa shuttle.

12/29: Traded RHP Yu Darvish, C Victor Caratini and $3 million in cash to the San Diego Padres for RHP Zach Davies, minor league IFs Reginald Preciado and Yeison Santana and minor league OFs Owen Caissie and Ismael Mena. 40-man at 36.

This is the move that has had Cubs fans up in arms. Darvish was one of the best pitchers in the game in 2020, and the Cubs’ most valuable player. He was the runner-up for the Cy Young, and an argument could be constructed that he should have won it. Darvish has 3 years remaining on the 6-year deal he signed with the Cubs as a free agent in 2018. That deal originally would have paid him $59 million over those final 3 years, but because he finished 2nd in the 2020 Cy Young vote, he triggered a salary escalator that will give him an extra $3 million total. There have been conflicting reports over exactly what cash consideration the Cubs gave the Padres in this deal, but the latest official word I came across is that the Cubs are paying the Padres $3 million to offset that salary escalator, and the money will be paid in 6 installments of $500,000 each from April through September of 2021.

Davies is basically Kyle Hendricks light. His sinker tops out at about 88 mph, he relies heavily on a good changeup that he throws almost as much as the sinker, and he’s a control artist that pitches to contact and keeps the ball in the yard. In 12 starts last year, he had both the best strikeout rate (22.8%) and K-BB% (15.9%) of his career. Originally a 26th round draft choice by the Orioles in 2011, Davies, who will turn 28 in February, is on his final arbitration year, and is due a raise from the $5.25 million he made in 2020. It will be interesting to see how his stuff plays in a hitters park, as opposed to Petco. With this acquisition, none of the Cubs’ top 3 starters, projected at this moment to be Hendricks, Davies and Alec Mills, throws as hard as 90 miles per hour.

Out of all the prospects the Cubs got back in the deal, only the 20-year old Santana has official professional statistics, having played in the Dominican Summer League in 2018 and the Rookie Arizona League in 2019. He’s a shortstop prospect of the bat-first variety, and torched the Arizona League to the tune of a .346/.429/.494 slash line as an 18-year old. He’s shown excellent patience at the plate so far, with a career .416 OBP and 15.3% walk rate, albeit in only 365 career trips to the plate. He’s the one to keep an eye on in 2020 because, having been signed as a 16-year old for future service out of the Dominican Republic, he must be added to the 40-man roster next November to protect him from the December 2021 Rule 5 draft.

While the other 3 prospects don’t have any official minor league stats, it’s not like no one has ever seen them play. Preciado and Mena have played at fall instructs for the past 2 seasons. Caissie, who was the Padres’ 2nd round draft choice in 2020, was part of the Canadian U18 Junior National team, spent time at the Padres’ ATS in 2020 and in the most recent round of instructs. The 17-year old Preciado, also a shortstop, is the best prospect of the haul, and slots somewhere in the top 5 of the Cubs’ position player prospects right now.

Caratini was thrown in this deal largely because he turned out to be Darvish’s personal catcher for the last 2 years and has caught Darvish more than any other catcher in Darvish’s career in terms of innings. Over 279 PA in 2019, Caratini experienced a power spike and hit much better than the average catcher, but in 2018 and 2020 he was much worse. Last season, the Cubs carried 3 catchers because Caratini spent a lot of time in the DH spot. Miguel Amaya is the only catcher on the Cubs’ 40-man roster other than Willson Contreras and he’s not ready, so you can expect the Cubs to grab another backup catcher from the IBBC union hall. The Padres and Cubs are swapping arbitration cases, with the Padres unable to discuss Caratini’s subpar 2020 and the Davies barred from arguing his superior 2020. Caratini is a positive defender, but not as good as Austin Nola, so his job will be to keep Darvish happy and be the backup.

At the end of the day, the Cubs will save about $12 million in 2021 salary and another $37 million over 2022-2023, all the while obtaining a 2nd round pick from 2020 and 3 of the Padres’ best Latin-American position player prospects. The rotation is definitely taking a hit by substituting Darvish for Davies. But one also has to remember that Darvish is 34-years old and basically lost 2 out of the last 6 years to injury, with one Tommy John surgery under his belt, and who knows if he would have been effective at the tail end of this deal. It’s possible that the Cubs could have gotten better prospects, or at least prospects that were closer to major-league ready, but they didn’t want to pay any more of Darvish’s salary. Even by doing what they did, their position-player prospect line is stocked. The only trouble is that most of it is 4 or 5 years away. Even so, this move does not make the Cubs non-competitive, as once you get past the top 2 starters, the clubs in the Central aren’t completely secure, and no one is running away with this division.

REDS

12/23: Signed RHP Edgar Garcia to a 1-year split $600,000 MLB contract. Claimed C Deivy Grullon on outright assignment waivers from the Boston Red Sox. 40-man at 34.

Garcia was originally signed by the Phillies as a 17-year old undrafted free agent out of the Dominican Republic in May of 2014. The club purchased his contract after the 2018 season to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. He made his major league debut in 2019, riding the AAA shuttle all season. In AAA, he had a 4.75 to 1 KK/B ratio. In the majors, he walked 26 and gave up 11 homers in 39 IP. Needing 40-man roster space for 3B Alec Bohm last season, the Phillies DFAd Garcia in mid-August, then flipped him to the Rays for a player to be named later. The Rays had him on the major league roster for 11 days, and over 4 games and 3.1 IP, he allowed 4 walks and 2 homers to just 1 strikeout. He also lost at least a tick of velocity on all of his pitches. Garcia is still only 24 years old. The Rays non-tendered him despite the fact that he has 1 minor league option remaining and less than 1 year of MLB service time. If he can recapture something from his AA and AAA seasons in 2018 and 2019, he can help the Reds in 2021.

Grullon is another Dominican former organizational soldier from the Phillies. After signing with that club as a 17-year old undrafted free agent in June of 2013, he was a September callup in 2019, his 7th professional season. Optioned to start 2020, the Phillies DFAd Grullon on August 31st, and he was then claimed by the Red Sox on outright assignment waivers. He hasn’t spent enough time in the majors to discuss, just 5 total games, 13 trips to the plate and 3 starts at catcher, with only 24 total innings behind the dish. He didn’t hit much at all in the minors until 2018, when he discovered a power stroke and hit 21 homers in both that year in AA and in 2019 in AAA. Reading, the AA affiliate for the Phillies, is an extreme hitters’ park and it seems like everyone torched AAA pitching in 2019 with the juiced ball. As for defense, he’s always been known for an elite throwing arm, but the advanced catching metrics from Baseball Prospectus don’t like his defensive seasons in either AA or AAA at all, especially when it comes to framing. Tyler Stephenson, who is also on the 40-man, is the better catching prospect, and if he wins the backup job, Grullon, who also has two minor league options left, will likely be the AAA catcher.

PIRATES

12/24: Traded 1B Josh Bell to the Washington Nationals for RHP Wil Crowe and minor league RHP Eddy Yean. 40-man roster full.

You can hardly blame the Pirates for this trade. Bell has been in the organization since he was drafted in the 2nd round out of high school for a $5 million signing bonus. A switch-hitter with a good eye, he finally busted out in 2019 with 37 homers and a 137 wRC+. Before then, he had not done anything eye-popping offensively when compared to other first basemen. Last season, his offensive numbers went into the tank in every way. His walk rate went down, his strikeout rate rose and his power disappeared. He’s always been bad on defense. With that said, when you consider his on-base ability and his power potential, he was probably the only position player the Pirates could trade and still get something decent in return. He was going into his 2nd arbitration year and made $4.8 million last season. By the time the Pirates might be good, Bell will be a free agent, and thus it didn’t make a whole lot of sense for the Pirates to continue paying him. With Ke’Bryan Hayes set to take over at third base, Bell’s departure gives Colin Moran a lock on the first base job, where’s he’s better suited defensively.

Going into the 2020 season, Crowe, who was drafted in the 2nd round by the Nationals in 2017, was that club’s #4 prospect on the lists of both Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus. The 2019 season was a mixed bag for Crowe. He started in AA and performed very well over 16 starts, but struggled mightily with his peripherals over 10 starts upon his promotion to AAA. The Nationals purchased his contract in late August of last season and used him to start the 2nd game of 3 different doubleheaders. In the 3 starts, he pitched just 8.1 innings, gave up 5 homers and walked 8 to only 8 strikeouts. He’s never pitched out of the bullpen before, but his lack of a consistent off-speed pitch might force him into that role before his career is over. He will get a chance to make Pittsburgh’s rotation, but if he doesn’t, he’s got 2 minor league options left.

Yean signed for future service with the Nationals as a 16-year old undrafted free agent out of the Dominican Republic in July of 2017. He will turn 20 years old in June and only has 20 professional starts under his belt, only two of which were stateside in Short-Season ball. His peripherals have been a mixed bag, but he’s only allowed 4 homers in 90 IP. The Pirates need to assign Yean to a full-season club posthaste, as he’s eligible for the Rule 5 draft next December.