CHICAGO — If the Chicago White Sox are willing to trade for Baltimore Orioles star Manny Machado and then take the next few months trying to persuade him to sign an extension, why can’t their crosstown rivals do the same?
As anyone in baseball knows, the Chicago Cubs have a lot to offer a free-agent-to-be like Machado, beginning with playing in front of sellout crowds at historic — and now renovated — Wrigley Field. And then there’s the idea of winning.
The White Sox are beginning to emerge from a rebuild, while the Cubs have appeared in three straight postseasons. There’s a reason they finished as finalists for Shohei Ohtani and were one of the four teams Giancarlo Stanton would approve a trade to before being dealt to the Yankees: Cubs baseball sells itself.
If Machado plays for the Cubs in 2018, he might very well want to stay in Chicago.
But even if Machado doesn’t sign on long term, the Cubs can still come out of a deal just fine. One year of Machado in the middle of a strong lineup featuring the right-handed-hitting Machado and Kris Bryant around the left-handed Anthony Rizzo would be worth the price of admission every night in every ballpark. The Cubs’ lineup would again be October-worthy, making the deal worth it for that reason alone.
First thing’s first, though. The Cubs have to snag him.
How to get Machado
Machado has expressed a desire to play shortstop, so the Cubs should offer Addison Russell as the centerpiece of the deal. Four years of Russell in exchange for one year of Machado might not sound like a great deal for Chicago, but in a year when the Cubs have question marks on the mound, they could perhaps bash their way to a title. Russell, plus a minor league arm or two, should get a deal done for the All-Star.
Part of the thinking revolves around the Cubs’ 23-year-old current starting shortstop. Dealing Russell now might be selling him at his peak value. There’s no questioning Russell’s ability, but he lost much of a season to off-field issues in 2017 and the injuries that are starting to pile up. He’s had previous leg problems going back to before he was acquired from Oakland, and just last year he had a terrible case of plantar fasciitis, as well as a sore shoulder on more than one occasion. It could be the right time to deal him — especially for a player of Machado’s caliber.
You might wonder why Baltimore would acquire him knowing these things. It’s simple. They have less leverage and are in the less than advantageous trading position. The Cubs can keep Russell and still win. Machado is likely to leave Baltimore no matter what. The Orioles might simply need to take the chance that Russell will be an elite player for them and at a decent price.
The Orioles also could be the perfect match because they don’t seem likely to do a full rebuild, which means getting a cost-controlled, established major league player for a pending free agent isn’t as tough of a sell to the fan base as trading the face of their franchise for a group of prospects years away from taking the field at Camden Yards.
Plus, according to reports, the Orioles don’t want Machado flipped back to the AL East — specifically the Yankees — midseason, making a deal to a contender more attractive than sending him to a rebuilder that would shop him in July if he’s unwilling to sign a long-term deal.
If Machado leaves after 2018
If Machado signs a long-term deal with the Cubs, this would unquestionably be a brilliant trade. But even if he hits free agency, it doesn’t destroy them.
They could take that money — as well as the money they save on Russell, who would be entering his second arbitration year — and hit the free-agent market in a big way.
The key in this scenario is Javier Baez. If Machado leaves, Baez slides over to short while Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist — in his final year as a Cub — can take on the second-base duties. Yes, the Cubs would take a hit on defense but, remember, they can strengthen another area of the team in a much larger way through free agency next offseason. That could mean Bryce Harper or a No. 1 or 2 starter.
Russell is on the same contract timeline as Bryant, so if the worst-case scenario is earning flexibility because Machado went elsewhere and Russell was traded, it’s not so bad. And don’t forget that one year of Machado. If the Cubs win the World Series again, with him a fixture at shortstop, then nothing that comes after really matters. The deal will have paid off.
With St. Louis gaining ground this winter and Milwaukee lying in the weeds, the Cubs can make a bold move and create a dynamic middle of the order, if even for one season. It’s worth the risk.