After weeks of rumors linking the Cubs with Andrew Miller, Chicago has traded for another unhittable left-handed reliever out of New York. The Cubs have acquired Aroldis Chapman at the cost of right-handed pitcher Adam Warren, minor league outfielders Billy McKinney and Rashad Crawford, and minor league shortstop Gleyber Torres.
From a strictly on-field perspective, the deal invites extreme and disparate evaluations of the value of prospects versus the value of relief pitchers, and it challenges conventional wisdom on both. More broadly, though, it raises questions about how much teams will sacrifice morally to get ahead on the field, questions that no doubt will — and should — be revisited every time a player with Chapman’s history of alleged domestic violence moves from one team to another.
The big-ticket item in this deal is Torres, a 19-year-old shortstop in high-A, the no. 34 prospect in baseball according to Baseball Prospectus’s midseason update. BP senior prospect writer Chris Crawford called him a “potential 6 shortstop,” which means he has the promise of a borderline All-Star. That’s a lot to give up for two months of a rental reliever.
If you frame the trade as being about aggregate value, and if you assume that Torres will be worth 15 or 20 WAR over his first six big league seasons (a conservative estimate for an above-average shortstop) and Chapman will be worth maybe one win over the rest of this regular season, there’s no way this is a victory for Chicago. And that’s before you even get to Warren, McKinney, and Crawford.
Warren has been awful this year, but from 2013 to 2015 he was a very good middle-reliever-cum-swingman for the Yankees (122 ERA+ in 287 innings) before New York traded him — along with Brendan Ryan — to the Cubs for Starlin Castro this past offseason. Warren could take over Dellin Betances’s innings if Betances takes over Andrew Miller’s and Miller takes over Chapman’s. Or Warren could start, freeing up the Yankees to trade another pitcher.
McKinney, a 2013 first-rounder, was the other big piece the Cubs got from Oakland for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel two years ago in addition to shortstop Addison Russell. A corner outfielder who turns 22 next month, McKinney was a top-100 prospect coming into 2016, but has slugged only .322 this year in Double-A. Crawford, 22, is hitting .255/.327/.386 in high-A and did not appear on MLB Pipeline’s preseason list of the Cubs’ top 30 prospects. He’s just another guy. Both of those players are useful to the Yankees, and a nontrivial but affordable price to pay for Chicago.
The problem is that this is a very narrow view, and framing the issue this way not only dramatically overstates Torres’s value and understates Chapman’s, it entirely misses the reason Chicago would even consider a deal like this. First of all, Torres isn’t a borderline All-Star, he’s a teenager three levels from the big leagues, and his value is predicated on staying at shortstop — this isn’t Carlos Correa we’re talking about here. That’s not to say that there’s no chance he reaches that potential, only that we should think of such things in terms of probabilities rather than certainties.
Second, we’re supposed to believe that relief pitchers are fungible, that they’re failed starters whose performance varies wildly from one season to the next. Chapman isn’t that guy. He’s been one of the best relievers in baseball from the day he set foot on a big league mound. Few relievers have been as good or as consistent as Chapman since 2010 — if you can count on any relief pitcher, you can count on him.
Third, WAR measures aggregate production, devoid of context, in the regular season. That’s a valuable player evaluation tool, but it’s the wrong tool to discuss an elite relief pitcher for a team that’s all but sewed up a playoff berth already. Chapman could go follow Phish on tour for the next two months and still be almost as valuable to the Cubs as he would be if he pitched the rest of the regular season.
The draw for Chapman is that with the drawn-out postseason schedule, he could give you at least one high-leverage inning in every close game in the postseason. Four times in a seven-game series, the Cubs could throw Jake Arrieta or Jon Lester for seven innings, then Héctor Rondon and Chapman for one each. If Chapman gets tied to the closer role, that makes Rondon, with his 208 ERA+ and 11.7 K/9 ratio, the guy who pitches late when the score is tied or puts out fires in the seventh or eighth inning. A single well-timed scoreless inning in the right NLCS or World Series game would have much more impact on Chicago’s title hopes than anything Chapman could do in the regular season, and a Rondon-Chapman duo gives manager Joe Maddon the ability to reach back and call for that scoreless inning pretty much whenever he wants.
Put another way, in November 2007, the Phillies traded a package centered on Michael Bourn for a package centered on Brad Lidge. Lidge was useless for the last three years of his tenure in Philadelphia and Bourn’s Baseball-Reference WAR total in Houston was about six times better than Lidge’s with the Phillies, but the first year after the trade Lidge posted a 224 ERA+, converted all 41 save chances, then allowed one run in 9.1 playoff innings en route to seven more saves and the World Series. How many Phillies fans would undo that trade?
Torres is a high price to pay, but Chapman’s worth it — at least on the field.
He was suspended for 30 games to start the season because this past fall he allegedly choked his girlfriend and fired eight shots from his handgun in his garage. And even as he accepted MLB’s suspension, Chapman denied the domestic violence allegations, and his only apology was a bizarre-sounding hedge, so it’s not like this is some transgression from the distant past and he’s a remade man.
Of course, the problem with athletes who commit acts of violence against women is that they’re so rarely prosecuted in the legal sense that the leagues are left to mete out some pale facsimile of justice on their own, a task for which they’re ill-equipped, leading to grotesque comparisons to suspensions for drugs or unsportsmanlike play. Moreover, absent a conviction, there’s always a loophole for those who want to avoid thinking about the issue: “Hey, innocent until proven guilty, right?” We’ve just got to live in a state of limbo, use the word “allegedly” a lot, and feel a little slimy every time Chapman and numerous other athletes like him take the field.
But most of all, we the media and fans who have to momentarily interrupt our escapist pastime to grapple with issues of grave importance aren’t the ones Chapman sinned against. Our temporary awkwardness is nothing compared to the terror and betrayal that one imagines Chapman’s girlfriend experienced, or the memories that baseball fans who are victims of physical violence by their intimate partners — one in four women and one in seven men, according to the CDC — have to relive whenever it comes up.
Since his suspension is over, Chapman is free to pitch for whoever wants to trade for him. Professional baseball’s institutional amorality has been around long before Aroldis Chapman, and it has far wider-reaching consequences than where he pitches.
Since a zero-tolerance system might drive victims underground more than it might prevent acts of intimate partner violence, I don’t have a good solution to this problem, other than to say that people should stop abusing their loved ones, and that police and prosecutors should do a better job of holding the perpetrators accountable, whether they’re famous or not.
That’s also not to say that you have to relitigate this whole conversation every time Chapman takes the mound, or wear a hairshirt if you’re a Cubs fan and you find yourself enjoying it when this trade leads to a World Series title.
You can enjoy the games, but you can also easily listen to the victims of intimate partner violence when the issue comes up. If sports are supposed to be wholly escapist — and I don’t actually believe that they are — clinging to “stick to sports” excludes certain people, in this case those one in four women and one in seven men, from taking part in that escapism. This issue is as personal for many people as it is complicated and ugly, and honestly it’s more important than sports. So if showing empathy or, failing that, at least learning when to shut up, makes you feel uncomfortable, imagine how they feel.