Sahadev Sharma announced today that the Chicago Cubs are trading starting pitcher Yu Darvish and catcher Victor Caratini to the San Diego Padres in exchange for starting pitcher Zach Davies, 17 year old shortstop prospect Reginald Preciado (Padres #11 prospect), 18 year old outfield prospect Owen Caissie (Padres #13 prospect), 18 year old outfield prospect Ismael Mena (Padres #15 prospect), and 20 year old shortstop prospect Yeison Santana (Padres #16 prospect). There is no official word yet on whether the Cubs are retaining any of Darvish’s $59M guaranteed over the remaining three years of his contract.
After trading last night for 2018 American League Cy Young winner Blake Snell from the Tampa Bay Rays, the Padres came out swinging again today and aggressively went after Darvish, who finished second in National League Cy Young voting in 2020, and Caratini, who has served as his personal catcher with the Cubs. The Padres have emerged as the most aggressive team by far in this offseason with the additions of Snell and Darvish as well as the signing of top Korean shortstop Ha-seong Kim after he was posted by the KBO’s Kiwoom Heroes.
San Diego already had one of baseball’s best position player cores in 2020 with a 115 team wRC+ that was the 5th highest in the Major Leagues and which boosted the team to the second highest position player fWAR total in baseball. The pitching staff was also very good, worth 8.1 fWAR that was the 5th highest team total in baseball. Even with the graduation of several of their top prospects, though, the Padres still had one of baseball’s best farm systems, and it makes plenty of sense to deal from their prospect depth in order to acquire two excellent starting pitchers in return, as well as to sign a young, high-upside player with international success to a low-money contract.
In addition, the team had been seeking depth at the catcher position after trading for Austin Nola at the 2020 trade deadline, and Caratini supplements them well there as a solid switch-hitting backup catcher who provides positive value with his framing ability and has an excellent rapport with Darvish.
The Padres now enter 2021 with a projected rotation of Darvish, Snell, Dinelson Lamet, Chris Paddack, and Adrian Morejon, with top prospect McKenzie Gore to be called up soon and 2020 trade deadline acquisition Mike Clevinger to rejoin the rotation in 2022 once he rehabs from Tommy John surgery. With two huge upgrades to the starting rotation and relatively small losses to the position player core at the Major League level, the Padres appear to be one of the most dangerous teams in baseball headed into 2021, though they will still have to overcome the reigning World Series Champion Los Angeles Dodgers in their own division.
For the Cubs, this trade marks what has become increasingly clear, especially with the departure of Theo Epstein: the team doesn’t expect to seriously contend in 2021. Darvish is one of the best players in baseball and, assuming his continued health and performance (which is a relatively fair assumption), he would have been more than worth the three years and roughly $60M left on his contract. In addition, the Cubs have given up one of MLB’s better backup catchers in Caratini, as he provided some depth to the Cubs lineup and was a better defensive catcher than Willson Contreras (that may not be the case moving forward, but it was during their time together in Chicago – Contreras was better in 2020 but that was a small sample and Contreras got more regular playing time behind the plate). The team has now made two significant subtractions from the 2020 team with only Davies to show for it in the short term, and the losses of both Darvish and Caratini will undoubtedly be felt in 2021.
As far as the return itself goes for the Cubs, rumors about the trade before it was finalized suggested that the Cubs were seeking quantity over quality of minor league prospects in the return, and now that the trade is finalized it is underwhelming that none of the Padres’ top 10 prospects were included in the deal. This is certainly compounded by the contrast in the return for Darvish with the return for Snell, who commanded the Padres’ #3, #8 and #14 prospects, including Luis Patino who has already reached the Major League level, as well as Francisco Mejia, who was formerly a very highly rated catching prospect. Indeed, the four prospects that the Cubs got in return for Darvish and Caratini are much further from being big league ready, with only Santana having any professional baseball experience. In that regard, the Cubs took a considerable gamble on their ability to develop these four prospects. The bottom line for all four prospects involved is that they are highly projectable but far from guaranteed to make the Major Leagues, and none of them currently has an ETA to make the Major Leagues sooner than 2023.
Davies, on the other hand, is a solid pitcher to have, even if his inclusion in the trade is somewhat strange when juxtaposed with the four prospects accompanying him to the Cubs organization. The Cubs clearly saw a need to fill the Major League rotation in the short term with the departure of Darvish, so they capitalized on the ability to acquire Davies, a solid pitcher who has less of a spot in the Padres rotation with the additions of Snell and Darvish. Davies is considerably younger than Darvish at just 27 years old, and seems to be far less volatile as a starting pitcher. Aside from a 2018 season that was hampered by injury, Davies has been consistently good, coming out last season with the highest strikeout rate of his career to support a career-low 2.73 ERA in 69 and a third innings pitched. Still, Davies has just one year of team control remaining on his contract, indicating that the Cubs may also be interested in signing him to a contract extension under the assumption that he will be a mainstay in the rotation for the foreseeable future. Davies is a cheaper, younger and more reliable starting pitcher than Darvish, but is also now one of three soft-throwing right handed starters in the Cubs rotation (Kyle Hendricks, Alec Mills), which draws the homogeneity of the rotation into question. If the development of the other four prospects is underwhelming, Davies hardly carries the value of this trade alone.
Ultimately the Padres now have added two of baseball’s best starting pitchers, and the Cubs have capitalized on Darvish when his value was highest to get a prospect return in hopes of building up the team for the years beyond 2021-22. The Cubs farm system had several high-end pieces prior to this trade but lacked depth, which the newly acquired prospects now provide on the position player side. The Padres, meanwhile, now appear to be one of baseball’s best teams with three high-caliber additions in 24 hours as they will ring in the new year with high hopes for the season to come.