The Samardzija Trade Is the Latest Example of the Cubs Rebuilding More Effectively than the Astros

By signing Jason Hammel in the offseason, the Cubs ensured they had pieces to sell at the trade deadline.

The Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros are the two teams that are most clearly trying to build to win later at the expense of the present. Both squads have been successful at acquiring young and controllable talent, and both boast elite farm systems, setting them up for success if the prospects can turn into quality major league players.

Matt Bush and Tim Beckham remind us that being a high draft pick and a good prospect doesn't always work out, but there are many reasons to be excited about the futures of both of these franchises. However, the strategies of these two franchises have been vastly different, and one appears to be working much more effectively than the other.

Different Approaches

The Astros have been notoriously bad over the past three years, becoming the first team in the history of the draft to net three consecutive number one overall picks. They spent those picks on Carlos Correa, Mark Appel, and most recently, Brady Aiken, whom General Manager Jeff Luhnow was able to pair with inherited prospects George Springer, Jon Singleton, Jarred Cosart, Mike Foltynewicz, Domingo Santana and Vincent Velasquez to form an elite system.

The Astros have also been notoriously creative with their approach for the rest of the draft, as they used money saved with the Correa pick to sign Lance McCullers and Rio Ruiz, great talents with signability issues, with later picks. However, the Astros have earned similar notoriety for not having any good players on their Major League roster until this season. A team with a $102 million payroll in 2010, the Astros spent only $26 million on their 2013 Opening Day payroll. This has allowed them to stay bad and be rewarded with the number one overall pick three times, but there are negative consequences to this approach beyond the inability to put butts in the seats at Minute Maid Park.

Contrarily, the Chicago Cubs have been active in their rebuild through all facets of the game, not just the draft. They have held the sixth, second, and fourth overall picks in the most recent respective drafts, but they have also expedited the rebuild by acquiring young talent through trades, international amateur free agents subject to the July 2nd spending rules, and a key international free agent, Jorge Soler, not subject to the July 2nd spending rules.

Current Farm Systems

As the charts below show, the Cubs have acquired their prospects, especially prospects under the current regime, in a variety of ways. Meanwhile, the Astros have focused almost exclusively on the amateur draft.

Pick numbers for draftees are listed in parenthesis and an asterisk beside the name indicates that the player was acquired by a previous regime prior to the Astros' Luhnow or the Cubs' Jed Hoyer taking over.

The first chart covers the top-20 prospects in the Astros system according to

1Carlos CorreaSSA+2012 Draft (1)
2Mark AppelRHPA+2013 Draft (1)
3Jon Singleton*1BMajorsTrade with Phi 7/11
4Lance McCullersRHPA+2012 Draft (41)
5Mike Foltynewicz*RHPAAA2010 Draft (19)
6Delino DeShields*OFAA2010 Draft (8)
7Domingo Santana*OFMajorsTrade with Phi 7/11
8Vincent Velasquez*RHPA+2010 Draft (58)
9Micahel Feliz*RHPAFree Agent 6/10
10Rio Ruiz3BA+2012 Draft (129)
11Max StassiCAAATrade with Oak 2/13
12Teoscar Hernandez*OFA+International FA 2/11
13Asher WojciechowskiRHPAAATrade with Tor 7/12
14Josh HaderLHPA+Trade with Bal 7/13
15Andrew ThurmanRHPA2013 Draft (40)
16Nick Tropeano*RHPAAA2011 Draft (160)
17Nolan FontanaSSAA2012 Draft (61)
18Kyle SmithRHPAATrade with KC 7/13
19Danry VasquezOFA+Trade with Det 7/13
20Preston TuckerOFAAA2012 Draft (219)

The second chart covers the Cubs system, also according to

1Javier Baez*SSAAA2011 Draft (9)
2Kris Bryant3BAAA2013 Draft (2)
3Addison RussellSSAATrade with Oak 7/14
4Albert AlmoraOFA+2012 Draft (6)
5C.J. EdwardsRHPAATrade with Tex 7/13
6Jorge SolerOFAAInternational FA 6/12
7Arismendy Alcantara*2BAAAInernational FA 11/08
8Pierce JohnsonRHPAA2012 Draft (43)
9Billy McKinneyOFA+Trade with Oak 7/14
10Arodys VizcainoRHPAAATrade with Atl 7/12
11Jeimer Candelario*3BAInternational FA 9/10
12Dan Vogelbach*1BA+2011 Draft (68)
13Christian Villanueva3BAATrade with Tex 7/12
14Eloy JimenezOFRookieInternational FA 8/13
15Paul BlackburnRHPA2012 Draft (56)
16Kyle HendricksRHPAAATrade with Tex 7/12
17Corey BlackRHPAATrade with NYY 7/13
18Jacob HannemannOFA2013 Draft (75)
19Tyler SkulinaRHPA2013 Draft (108)
20Gleyber TorresSSRookieInternational FA 7/13

Different Results

There are two main differences between these lists. First, the system inherited by Jeff Luhnow in Houston was far superior to the original system inherited by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer in Chicago. Ed Wade has already done much of the heavy lifting for the Astros by dealing Hunter Pence, Roy Oswalt, Michael Bourn, Brad Lidge, and Carlos Lee for prospects and salary relief, so Luhnow did not have much work to do on that front.

Nevertheless, Luhnow already had a very good system with names like Springer, Singleton, Jose Altuve, Jason Castro, Cosart and even though he was not highly regarded at the time, Dallas Keuchel. Confirming the good situation Luhnow inherited, only two position players on the active 25-man roster were acquired by the Luhnow regime (Dexter Fowler will be the third when he returns from the DL).

Furthermore, eight of the players on the current Astros’ top-20 prospects list were acquired by the Wade regime, including six of the top nine. Luhnow has acquired impact talent through the draft, but that is to be expected when a team has three consecutive number one overall picks and little semblance of legitimate talent on the Major League roster.

In Chicago, the situation was completely different for Epstein and Hoyer. Only five of the current top-20 prospects in the system were acquired by the previous regime, which speaks to both the weakness of the system inherited by the current duo and the sheer volume of quality prospects acquired by the current regime. This was an organization in bad shape, with few prospects and a deteriorating Major League team, that needed substantially more work than the Astros. Luhnow needed to make good picks and wait; Epstein and Hoyer needed to revamp the entire organization.

The next difference is in the method of prospect acquisitions. The Astros approach has been focusing almost exclusively on the draft and making the most of their high picks and high bonus pools. They have done this well and acquired good players in more than just the first round, but Houston has done little else to booster the system.

A few minor trades have help solidify the back end of the top-20 list, but these are all complimentary moves and have not returned any impact talent. Granted, they did not have many pieces to trade, but the Astros also brought this conundrum upon themselves. While they were successful in turning a one year deal for Jose Veras into useful prospect Danry Vazquez, they could have done this type of deal much more frequently instead of simply deploying a roster of mostly replacement level players with little to no trade value.

The Cubs take a completely different approach. While they have not been a good team over the past few years, they were not opposed to carrying good players on their Major League roster, which eventually helped them acquire good, and in the most recent case, great talent in return.

The Samardzija Deal

After failing to reach an extension, it may have been a no-brainer for the Cubs to trade Jeff Samardzija for prospects, but the key to this deal was the inclusion of Jason Hammel. Signed to a one-year, $6 million contract in the offseason, the Cubs latest reclamation project has paid off in a big way by helping them land a top-10 prospect in Russell, and a 2013 first-round pick in McKinney.

This type of maneuver is not unusual for the Cubs. Over the past three years, the Cubs have dealt at least two pitchers at every trade deadline. In 2012, they dealt free agent signee Paul Maholm to the Braves and longtime Cub Ryan Dempster to the Rangers. In 2013, they traded free agent signee Scott Feldman to the Orioles and Matt Garza to the Rangers. And this year they dealt free agent signee Hammel to the Athletics along with Samardizja, another longtime Cub.

The return from these trades, apart from Addison Russell and Jake Arrieta, has been quantity more than quality, but the Cubs have proven three years in a row that for a rebuilding team with open rotation spots, signing a veteran player to a one year deal then trading him at the deadline can consistently bring back useful players and prospects.

In return for their three sign and trade pitchers, Maholm, Feldman, and Hammel (and not including inherited players Dempster, Garza and Samardzija), the Cubs received Arodys Vizcaino, Jaye Chapman, Jake Arrieta, Pedro Strop, and a portion of the recent package from the Athletics. That’s a lot of talent coming from pitchers signed to cheap, one-year deals that essentially no other team wanted during the offseason, and should be an example to future teams undergoing the rebuilding process.

Finally, the Cubs have taken advantage of the international market. Their biggest splash was signing Cuban defector Jorge Soler to a nine-year, $30 million dollar contract, but they have been even better with July 2nd international prospects. During last year’s signing period, the Cubs went well over their bonus pool to sign four of the top 30 prospects, including number one prospect Eloy Jimenez and number two prospect Gleyber Torres (rankings according to Baseball America). Going well over their bonus pool to sign so many good international prospects resulted in penalties in their 2014 international spending, but those penalties are mere details when compared to the value of having Jimenez and Torres in the system.

Final Thoughts

While the Astros have tanked and acquired good young players through the draft per se, the Cubs have been much more creative and successful in their pursuit of young talent. With the addition of Russell, their system moves well ahead of the Astros, even including recent Houston graduates George Springer and Jon Singleton.

Houston is still a young and exciting team that now features exciting young players on the Major League team, but they have missed many opportunities to expedite their rebuilding process. By signing very few players to Major League deals, the Astros missed opportunities to acquire free prospects by using these stopgap free agent players as trade chips. I fail to see any compelling reason preventing the Astros from signing and trading players like Maholm, Feldman, and Hammel, especially as the club lacked quality starting pitching through much of the rebuilding process.

When coupled with their success in the international market and the draft, it is clear that the Cubs are writing the instruction manuel for how to construct a successful rebuild. They have done well in the draft, especially with the selection of Kris Bryant, while excelling in trades and the international market. In the future, expect rebuilding teams to follow the Cubs formula of acquiring prospects through a variety of creative ways and not the Astros method of trading all of their Major League players, refusing to sign any good replacements, then rebuilding solely through the draft. Both methods will lead to some future success and young, talented Major League players, but the Cubs’ method has proven to be much more effective thus far.