Trading for Price would be right move for Cubs

The moment the Cubs hired Derek Johnson as their minor-league pitching coordinator in Oct. 2012, many in the industry speculated that it was their first move toward eventually landing Rays left-hander David Price.

Johnson, you see, was Price’s pitching coach at Vanderbilt. And while the Cubs wanted Johnson on his own merits, his connection to Price could not have hurt, even though the pitcher was not available at that time.

Well, now Price is available — and will remain available through the July 31 non-waiver deadline, no matter how much the Rays climb in the American League standings. Really, nothing has changed since the offseason — make the right offer, and the Rays will jump.

Hello, Theo. And you, too, Tom Ricketts.

The Cubs are deep enough in position prospects to make the right offer. And the Cubs, though they don’t always act like it, play in a large market, which means they can afford Price’s projected $20 million salary next season.

Oh, and one other thing: When Price said at the All-Star Game that Chicago "would be the coolest city to win a championship in right now," he wasn’t referring to the White Sox.

Rest assured, Cubs president Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer will investigate the market for Price, just as virtually every team will investigate the market, including division rivals such as the Yankees and Red Sox.

The hesitation for the Cubs is that they are not contenders, so their urgency is not the same as, say, the Mariners’ or Dodgers’. Those teams are more likely to pay a premium for Price, give the extra player that the Cubs would not.

Then again, the darling Cubbies haven’t won a World Series since 1908, which brings new definition to the term, "urgency," don’t you think?

Get Price, start promoting some of those young hitters in 2015, and then the Cubs actually might be onto something. Get Price, sign him long-term, and the team’s inability to lock up right-hander Jeff Samardzija will be long forgotten.

Price no doubt would be open to the idea — he backed off his "coolest city to win a championship in" comment the next day, but friends long have said that he was tickled by the idea of playing for the Cubs.

Yes, the Cubs would need to pay dearly to make it happen, ponying up prospects, then probably $180 million-plus. Teams these days are reluctant to double down in such fashion; the Cubs know that they can buy Max Scherzer or Jon Lester this offseason, and the only player they would lose is a high draft pick.

Still, to get Scherzer or Lester, the Cubs would need to outbid the Yankees and heaven knows which other clubs. Granted, there is no assurance that the Cubs could lock up Price if they acquired him. But they at least would get the rest of this season and the next to sell him on the idea.

The other alternative for the Cubs is trade young hitting for young pitching, an idea that certainly has merit. But eventually, they will need to acquire an ace to finish off their rotation, and that ace is going to cost big dollars.

Might as well make the move now, and get Price.

The White Sox certainly look like sellers, even though they trail the pseudo-contenders known as the Royals by only two games in the AL Central.

The question is, what exactly do the Sox have to offer?

Consider how some of their trade candidates measure up in Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement (fWAR).

One rival executive said that De Aza ($4.25 million) and Beckham ($4.175 million) both would be non-tender candidates entering their final year of arbitration, making their trade value minimal.

Dunn, who still will be owed about $5 million on July 31, only would fit for an AL club that was A) in need of better production at DH and B) willing to commit only one player to that spot.

Danks actually might be the most attractive possibility, even though his 4.80 FIP indicates that his 4.35 ERA might rise. The White Sox, though, probably would ask for a considerable return; Danks should only get stronger the further he is removed from his shoulder surgery in August 2012, and his $14.25 million salary in 2015 and ’16 actually is reasonable for a No. 3 starter.

Shortstop Alexei Ramirez (1.6 fWAR) also is a trade candidate, but few contenders are in need of a shortstop, and the White Sox likely could develop a more robust market for him this off-season.

Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has said that he is willing to include cash in trades to make his high-priced veterans more attractive to prospective suitors. The idea is to effectively buy prospects, but the strategy is not certain to produce major dividends; most teams are unwilling to trade their best young talent for past-their-prime veterans regardless of finances.

So, one rival executive suggests, why not take a different approach? The Phillies couldn’t get Xander Bogaerts for Cliff Lee last summer, and they might not get the equivalent of Bogaerts even for Cole Hamels, who is owed $96 million from 2015 to ’19, including a $6 million buyout on a $20 million club option in ’20.

Perhaps it would be better for the Phillies to forget about landing prospects and simply seek the financial relief of trading players such as Lee and closer Jonathan Papelbon, who is generating little interest, according to major-league sources.

The Red Sox were fortunate to get right-handers Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster in their blockbuster with the Dodgers two years ago, but their primary benefit was realizing more than a quarter-billion in savings – money they later redirected toward building the 2013 World Series champions.

The situations aren’t exactly analogous, but currency is currency, whether in cash or talent. If the Phillies can’t get the prospects they want, they could try to create payroll flexibility and buy other players instead.

“We haven’t ruled anything out,” Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said when I asked him about the concept. “It’s really not about the money. It’s never been about the money with our ownership group. We just have to find creative ways to improve our club, short-term and long-term.

“It doesn’t matter which way it happens. That’s the plan. And improvement doesn’t start or end on July 31. Everyone wants to make that the landmark date. But a lot of things happen from Aug. 1 to Sept. 1, Aug. 1 to Sept. 20, Aug. 1 to April 1. Sometimes the groundwork you do at this time helps you do some things later on, too.”

. . . There are the never-sell Yankees, whose president Randy Levine, told the New York Post last week, “There’s no quit ever in the Yankees. There will never be quit in the Yankees.”

OK, it certainly makes sense that the Yankees would not want to concede in Derek Jeter’s final season. But that doesn’t mean they should be all-out buyers, either.

The best course for the Yankees would be to use their financial advantage to swallow large contracts while giving up little talent in return. That way, they could keep their most asked-about prospects: Double-A right-hander Luis Severino, Single-A outfielder Aaron Judge, Single-A left-hander Ian Clarkin, et al.

It’s remarkable the Yankees are only three games out in the AL East after losing four-fifths of their rotation and getting minimal production from free agents such as catcher Brian McCann and designated hitter Carlos Beltran. Still, their annual all-out push comes at a cost.

Go back to last season, when people marveled that the Yankees won 85 games. That team actually had more stability in its rotation than this one – CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes all made 29 or more starts, and Ivan Nova finished with 20. But few mistook the Yankees for serious contenders.

What the team should have done then was trade second baseman Robinson Cano – it was not difficult to foresee his departure as a free agent. However, the Yankees never even consider such things. They didn’t even get a draft pick back for Cano; they forfeited it when they signed Beltran.

A waste, no?

The Tigers are showing the proper respect to closer Joe Nathan, saying they want to acquire a late-inning reliever to complement him, not replace him.

But let’s face it: They need a replacement.

Nathan, 39, had another meltdown Saturday night against the Indians. While he rallied to pitch a scoreless inning Sunday, his inconsistency is a major concern.

Just consider this comparison between Nathan’s 2013 season with the Rangers and his 2014 season with the Tigers:

Nathan also had a .228 opponents’ batting average on balls in play last season, compared to .333 this season. The vast difference indicates that he is partly the victim of a reversal in luck. But it’s not that simple – his outings at times are almost painful to watch.

The Tigers’ imbalanced lineup remains another issue – with Andy Dirks still recovering from back surgery, the team has only two left-handed hitters, catcher Alex Avila and utility man Don Kelly, and two switch-hitters, designated hitter Victor Martinez and backup infielder Andrew Romine.

One position the Tigers do not need to upgrade is shortstop, where Eugenio Suarez has made a smooth transition from Double A.

“I don’t think so – no,” general manager Dave Dombrowski said. “I can never discount anything, but we’re very happy with him.”

Suarez, who turned 23 on Friday, is batting .259 with a .752 OPS in 126 plate appearances. Manager Brad Ausmus compares him to a young Jhonny Peralta, and pitchers Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer both are impressed by how comfortable Suarez looks both offensively and defensively.

Thus, the Tigers could face an interesting decision next season once Jose Iglesias returns from stress fractures in both his shins.

Iglesias, 24, actually played second base for the Cuban National Team when Adeiny Hechavarria was at short, but his defensive skills would be wasted at second. Suarez has played 36 games at second in the minors, but the Tigers, for now, plan to keep him at short.

One of my professional heroes, Mark Whicker of the Orange County Register, made an excellent point on Twitter when he said, “I’m a little confused by those who said Angels had no prospects and then say they gave up too much for (Huston) Street.”

Well, how about it?

The Angels ranked 30th in Baseball America’s organizational talent rankings entering the season. Yet a number of rival executives were impressed that the Padres acquired four prospects of varying qualities for Street and Double-A right-hander Trevor Gott.

Street, whose contract includes a $7 million club option for 2015, is under club-friendly terms. Still, many in the industry are baffled that he gets such positive results with a sinking fastball that averages a mere 90.3 mph – and wonder if his performance will continue to exceed his stuff now that he is back in the AL.

In any case, the Padres believe they acquired two everyday position prospects: Triple-A second baseman Taylor Lindsey, an offensive player who has regressed this season, and Single-A shortstop Jose Rondon, who lacks power but could develop into an Omar Infante type.

Double-A right-hander R.J. Alvarez, a reliever, is the closest to the majors, while Single-A right-hander Elliot Morris is the furthest away. Gott, the minor leaguer who went to the Angels, projects as a middle-inning reliever in the Jason Frasor/Jesse Crain mold; the Padres expect he will pitch in the majors.

The deal should encourage the Rangers, whose primary relief asset, right-hander Joakim Soria, also has performed extremely well and is under a contract quite similar to Street’s.

Meanwhile, the Padres’ odd transition continues. The four finalists for their GM opening will be in San Diego for second interviews this week while the organization shifts under them.

* The Blue Jays continue to scour the market for offense, but they have yet to jump on a player such as Padres third baseman Chase Headley, who is batting .323 with a .785 OPS in 65 plate appearances in July.

One reason: The Jays believe that first baseman Edwin Encarnacion, designated hitter Adam Lind and third baseman Brett Lawrie all could be back in a week to 10 days. All three have been on the DL for less than a month; none figures to require a lengthy rehabilitation assignment.

* Why are teams so hot after Mariners second baseman Nick Franklin, who has spent most of the season at Triple A?

It’s simple, really: Franklin, 23, hit 12 home runs in 369 at-bats in the majors last season. Middle infielders with power are difficult to find, particularly when they are switch-hitters.

The Mariners are likely to trade Franklin before the July 31 non-waiver deadline, either in a blockbuster for David Price or a smaller deal.

* Teams naturally are calling the Athletics about left-hander Tommy Milone, who is stuck at Triple A despite producing a 3.55 ERA in 16 major-league starts this season.

Milone lost his spot in the rotation after the A’s acquired Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, but the team is reluctant to move him, knowing he might be needed due to injury or ineffectiveness. Hammel has been unimpressive in his first two starts with the club.

The Athletics continue to look for a second baseman. Milone, 27, becomes eligible for arbitration this offseason, and is under club control for three more years.

* How has Indians third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall achieved his career breakthrough this season? GM Chris Antonetti praises manager Terry Francona and his staff for emphasizing a team-first approach that effectively liberated the player.

Francona told Chisenhall: Focus on what you can control, do whatever you can to help the Indians to win on a given day, leave it all out on the field. The effect was that Chisenhall felt less pressure overall, and Francona has nothing but praise for the way he adjusted.

“He grew up,” Francona said. “You don’t see that happen in the big leagues too often. But when he leaves the batter’s box now after making an out, the game is not over. He’s a different person, really accountable now.”

* Speaking of Francona, he also had success removing John Axford from the closer’s role in favor of a four-man, late-inning tag team consisting of right-handers Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Scott Atchison and lefty Marc Rzepczynski.

Allen has emerged as the primary closer, earning 13 saves in 14 chances, but Francona loves that each reliever displays “no ego,” enabling him to mix and match liberally (and no doubt delighting sabermetricians who disdain rigid bullpen roles).

Left-handed hitters have a .361 OPS against Allen and a .452 OPS against Rzepczynski, right-handed hitters a .440 OPS against Shaw and .550 OPS against Atchison.