The Cubs understood Gleyber Torres could become a star in New York and part of the next Yankee dynasty. But team president Theo Epstein sensed the opportunity and framed the blockbuster Aroldis Chapman trade this way: “If not now, when?”
Torres’ ETA in The Bronx is unclear, but the dynamic shortstop is definitely on a fast track after becoming the youngest MVP in Arizona Fall League history. The Cubs made an offer the Yankees couldn’t refuse, the same way the Cleveland Indians felt a sense of urgency to get game-changing reliever Andrew Miller.
After running the franchise’s first trade-deadline sale in a generation, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman “watched every out” of an epic World Series that went all the way to a 10th inning in Game 7.
“I wanted Cleveland and Chicago to be rewarded, in my mind, for stepping up,” Cashman said. “They stepped up to get those guys. We’re hopeful that we’ll get what we want out of the deal down the line. It’s good to see that those guys got what they bargained for on the front end.”
At the age of 19, Torres led the AFL in batting average (.403) and on-base percentage (.513) while finishing second in slugging percentage (.645). Within the 15 years the AFL has handed out an MVP award, the winners have included can’t-miss prospects who never made it big, as well as future Colorado Rockies star Nolan Arenado (2011) and National League MVP Kris Bryant (2013).
The Cubs didn’t have an obvious infield spot for Torres with Bryant, All-Star shortstop Addison Russell and playoff hero Javier Baez all under club control through the 2021 season. Instead of racing to the bottom for a better draft pick, the Yankees tried to keep a competitive product on the field and wanted to bring back Adam Warren, the swingman who struggled to find a role in Chicago after being swapped for Starlin Castro.
The Castro/Warren trade executed during last year’s winter meetings also allowed the Cubs to sign World Series MVP Ben Zobrist. The sense of freedom Epstein has felt since leaving the Boston Red Sox includes dealing with Cashman, another blunt executive who had been part of the Evil Empire at the heights of The Rivalry.
“He’s a straight shooter,” Cashman said. “He knows what he wants. He cuts to the chase. I have a saying: ‘Just land the plane.’ And he lands the plane.”
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The Cubs didn’t completely gut their farm system, either, by throwing in two minor-league outfielders (Billy McKinney and Rashad Crawford). Ian Happ – the switch-hitter drafted with the ninth overall pick in 2015 – homered twice during Saturday’s championship game and helped lead the Mesa Solar Sox to an AFL title. The Cubs also hung onto outfielder Eloy Jimenez ($2.8 million bonus), the other big-time international prospect they added during the summer of 2013, when Torres signed out of Venezuela for $1.7 million.
The Cubs also didn’t give up Baez or Kyle Schwarber, the two players the Yankees viewed as a starting point for Miller, who can still impact two more pennant races in Cleveland (at the reasonable cost of $18 million through 2018).
The Indians paid the price, giving up a four-player package headlined by outfielder Clint Frazier (the fifth overall pick in the 2013 draft) and left-hander Justus Sheffield (the No. 31 pick in the 2014 draft) to get what turned out to be the American League Championship Series MVP. And without Chapman, it’s hard to see the Cubs riding in that championship parade down Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue.
“They’re high-end performers,” Cashman said. “They really did a great job for both of their teams. That’s why they got to the World Series. I just wish we had as many great players to surround those guys with as the Indians and the Cubs had. That’s what we were aspiring to get to.”
After a clumsy rollout where Chapman appeared to be disinterested and unprepared for explaining his 30-game suspension under Major League Baseball’s domestic-violence policy, the superstar closer began to fit into an easygoing clubhouse and made a strong overall impression on manager Joe Maddon.
If Chapman answered some of the personality questions, the Cubs still projected a rental pitcher because of looming financial commitments, potential holes in their rotation, a creative philosophy toward bullpen construction and what might ultimately require close to a nine-figure investment for a top-of-the-market closer.
Chapman appeared in 13 playoff games, notching two wins and four saves, working around three blown saves, including what could have been a disastrous Game 7 if he hadn’t bounced back to hold the Indians scoreless in the ninth inning before the rain delay at Progressive Field. Maddon clearly had trust issues with his bullpen, asking Chapman to throw 97 pitches combined as the Cubs came back from a 3-1 deficit to win the World Series.
That’s why Epstein gave up one of the game’s best prospects and didn’t really look back. But Cashman dismissed the idea that another big-market team’s successful teardown might have made it easier to sell a new Yankee Way to the Steinbrenner family, the New York media and a fan base accustomed to winning at all costs.
“We weren’t pointing at the Cubs,” Cashman said. “It just wasn’t an easy sell for our ownership. And I’m glad that they made the decision to allow me to do what we did.”