How Gleyber Torres and Big-Ticket Closers Explain the Cubs’ Desire to Spend in Building a Winner

I’ve already written about the Cubs’ plans this offseason, enough so that Kenley Jasnsen has been used in at least two featured images. Then you’ve got the spate of Aroldis Chapman posts that came in the wake of the blockbuster trade near the end of July. Both are dominant closers, but how and why the Cubs pursued one as a rental while now (probably) letting both go elsewhere as big-ticket purchases represents the way the team views the risk involved in a huge investment in a closer.

Popular logic says that you buy things that appreciate while you rent or lease those that depreciate. And that, by and large, is the mentality Theo Epstein and Co. have adopted in building a World Series champion. There are some obvious exceptions to the rule, players like Jon Lester and Ben Zobrist who will be paid handsomely for post-prime production. But given the economics of baseball and the immediate dividends both players have provided, the diminishing returns have already been well worth it.

In acquiring an elite closer near the deadline this past season, the Cubs traded some long-term assets for what they hoped would be an immediate return. They successfully rode Chapman hard and put him up wet, walking away with a big trophy and no financial obligation to the fireballing lefty. Ah, but the residual cost is still there in the form of what might have been.

And what might have been is 19-year-old Gleyber Torres (he turns 20 on December 13), who was just named the youngest MVP in the Arizona Fall League’s 25 seasons. The shortstop led the AFL with a .403 batting average and .513 OBP, while coming in second with a .645 slugging percentage.

Seeing that, you might be tempted to steal Hermione Granger’s Time-Turner — or, depending on your particular cinematic proclivities, Doc Brown’s DeLorean or Dr. Strange’s Eye of Agamotto — to flip the calendar back a few months and keep Torres in the Cubs system. Then again, would you really want to give back the Commissioner’s Trophy in return for a high-A prospect?

There’s been a lot of talk about whether the Cubs would have won the World Series without Aroldis Chapman, so I figured I should throw my hat into the ring on the subject. In short, no, they would not have. While it’s entirely possible they still could have, we can’t go back and observe an alternate timeline to find out what the outcome would have been. Predictive models are nice and all, but reality is all we’ve got to go off of.

And in this reality, the Cubs won the World Series with Chapman on the roster and Torres as a part of the Yankees farm system. Because of that, we must view the trade as a necessary evil (or whatever euphemism you choose to assign). That means you can be both happy the Cubs won and upset that they had to give up a potential monster prospect to do it. Those aren’t mutually exclusive feelings.

What I’m driving toward in this whole thing is what I have observed of the manner in which the Cubs front office views and manages risk. We already know that they place more value in bats than arms, at least when it comes to prospects. If that seems to run contrary the idea of flipping Torres and more for Chapman, consider that we’re also talking about birds in the bush versus those in the hand.

I know I’ve turned this into a one-for-one swap, and that’s because it pretty much was. While Cubs actually gave up three players in addition to Torres, none of them held significant value to the organization moving forward. Harsh? Maybe, but there’s no doubt Adam Warren, Billy McKinney, and Rashad Crawford were little more than sweeteners for the key component, a player who should end up getting much more than a cup of coffee by the time he’s done.

Basically, the Cubs believed that the risk of Chapman blowing up or breaking down in the last three months of the season was lower than that of banking on Torres panning out into the super-stud he could well be and then finding room for him to impact the club in a big way. Or perhaps you prefer to look at it in terms of the reward of a World Series in 2016 being greater than what Torres would add in 2018 and beyond.

Nothing in life is guaranteed, and that goes at least double for professional sports. All manner of physical, emotional, and mental ailments have prevented scores of players from reaching their potential.

I don’t imagine there were any signs of that with Torres, any red flags that made the Cubs believe he’d be more susceptible than any other young player to having the bottom fall out. On the contrary, everything I’ve ever heard is that his makeup fits what this regime has always looked for. But in the go-big-or-go-home position the Cubs had put themselves in, the kid was expendable in the pursuit of what turned out to be the achievement of a goal nearly 90 years his senior.

Okay, so how does this relate back to this offseason and not pursuing a big-money closer? Acquisition cost in baseball comes in two forms: prospects and money. The Cubs have proven to be amenable to parting with either, though they’re understandably reluctant to give away both at once. Having turned down a qualifying offer, Jansen would cost a pick in addition to what will be one of the largest contracts ever handed to a relief pitcher. That’s not great, but it’s only part of the issue.

Think of it this way: I was okay upgrading my Hertz rental from a Chevy Cruze to an Infiniti Q50 for the two-plus-hour drive from Atlanta to northern Georgia, much of which would be through the exhilarating S-curves of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but I would not be cool with trading in my paid-off Dodge Charger for a more costly daily driver. Do you see what I’m getting at? It’s easier to justify the very steep cost for a short-term investment when the goal is somewhat immediate.

Because I’m such a wildly successful blogger who’s just rolling in tons of cash from my various revenue streams, I could easily afford the monthly payments on a luxury automobile. But is that the best choice when I’ve got a mortgage, kids who need to be fed on occasion, and various other expenses looming in the future? Oh, and did I mention this car doesn’t come with any sort of warranty whatsoever? That’s the real key in this whole thing.

No bet is 100 percent certain, though we’ve see the Cubs execs hit an extraordinarily high level over the last five years. While there has been some luck involved there, most of the success has come from careful evaluation and the mitigation of risk. There’s no doubt a closer of Kenley Jansen‘s caliber makes the Cubs better, it’s just a question of whether the reward is worth the cost attached and the inherent risk of health and production. You and I can debate the answer, but it’s not really our views on it that matter in the end.

It’s a delicate balance, trying to determine what and how much to spend in order to get the desired results. Given the wealth of talent they’ve already got in-house and the redundant pieces they still have in the organization, I believe the Cubs will continue to operate with the mentality of an elite distance runner who chooses to draft off of the pack before pulling away down the stretch with that final kick. No need to go balls-out from the gun and burn up resources that might be better allocated at other times in different places.

I apologize if some of this feels like we’re hiking back over the more-traveled path in the yellow wood, but I wanted to clarify a few thoughts and maybe even talk myself into what I’ve been saying all along. What do you think, though: would you rather have Torres back if it meant having to go through the end of the season without Chapman? And would you rather commit $80-90 million for four years of Jansen or roll with Carl Edwards Jr. and Hector Rondon and add at the deadline if need be?

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