Of all the ill-considered, overmatched executives tasked with rescuing the Chicago Cubs from the vicissitudes inflicted by inept owners, bad luck, goat curses, called shots, and Don Zimmer, perhaps the most obvious fish out of water was William H. Walker, not a baseball man, but a seafood wholesaler who was put in charge of the team in 1933. Contrary to legend, it is not true that he once asked Branch Rickey to swap Dizzy Dean and Pepper Martin for Jolly Cholly Grimm and a ton of Bismarck herring at cost; nevertheless, he floundered (sorry) in the role.
Walker's most notable deal, consummated when the trade deadline was earlier, on June 15, was the June 11, 1934 trade that sent rookie first baseman Dolph Camilli to the Philadelphia Phillies for more-experienced first sacker Don Hurst. Camilli was just a slugger, but the kind good enough to win MVP awards, which he subsequently did in 1941. Hurst, as every baseball man but Walker knew, was a .300 hitter by virtue of playing in a bathtub of a ballpark, the Baker Bowl. In his career he hit .334 there and .267 everywhere else. He hit .199 for the Cubs and was out of the majors practically before Camilli's train had arrived in Philadelphia.
As the Cubs look to add more talent to what already looks like a historically great team, this sort of thing looms larger than it should. The protagonists are dead and gone, but for a team with 108 years of painful history since its last World Series win, the past isn't nearly past enough.
The Cubs were involved in the most successful deadline trade of all time, but from the wrong direction. On their way to completing their sixteenth losing season in the 19 since their last pennant, on June 15, 1964, the Cubs sent 25-year-old outfielder Lou Brock and two other players to St. Louis for 28-year-old righty starting pitcher Ernie Broglio. We're used to rebuilding teams trading veterans for prospects; somehow the Cubs got that all backwards—they had a .500 record, were just 5.5 games behind the league leaders, and had momentarily confused themselves with contenders in need of a stretch boost. The Cardinals, 28-31, in eighth place in a 10-team league, thought they were the rebuilding team.
Brock, who had been just an okay player with the Cubs, exploded in the best of ways in St. Louis, hitting .348/.387/.527 the rest of the way. The Cardinals had the top record in baseball after the deal, ended up in the World Series, and won the whole thing. Brock made 3,000 hits in the majors, set the record for career stolen bases, and went to the Hall of Fame. Broglio went 7-19 with a 5.40 ERA with the Cubs.
That is all prologue now. Whatever happens over the remaining months of this season, the Cubs essential, er, Cubsness won't be what gets them this year. Take as a sign that the Cubs are very far past these days the struggles of New York Yankees second baseman Starlin Castro, whom the Cubs dealt away during the offseason. Since his fool me once, shame on you/fool me twice and I'm a pervert .305/.345/.488 April, Castro has hit .226/.255/.381 in 39 games, and his season line looks very much like the ones he has posted in three of the last four years. He's also signed through 2019 at prices rising to about $12 million and will require an additional $1 million parting gift. For generations, the Cubs have been trading for this guy. This time, they got out at the right moment.
This is relevant because the Cubs are said to be scouting the sputtering Yankees for bullpen help. With a paucity of late-inning leads to protect, New York's bullpen trio of Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Dellin Betances spend too many nights all dressed up with no place to go. The Carlos Beltran renaissance aside, the Yankees' lineup is old and lackluster. Jacoby Ellsbury has shown signs of life after a lost year, but has had a whiff of sunk cost about him from the moment he signed. Beltran is a free agent at the end of the season, as is, a year too late, Mark Teixeira. Alex Rodriguez will linger on for another season at the bargain price of $21 million.
The starting rotation is thin, dependent on the continuing health of Masahiro Tanaka and the age-and-decrepitude-defying miracle that is the CC Sabathia reunion tour. One of the most heartwarming stories of the season, Sabathia is flourishing in his recovery from alcoholism and embracing life in the slow fastball lane, adding a new pitch and a new look. This is great, but he's also 35 years old and has a physique unlike any in baseball history; there just haven't been many 6'6", 300-pound pitchers in baseball history and his best comp, Harvey "Jumbo" Megatherium isn't much help. It's to be hoped that Sabathia goes on and on like Bartolo Colon, because you don't get too many comebacks that are this combination of inspiring, unlikely, and fun. But we, and more importantly the Yankees, just don't know how and when it all will end. In a sense, they'll be unlucky if Sabathia's 2017 option vests. Anyway, he's their second-best starting pitcher, so …
The farm system seems unlikely to bail out the major league club any time soon—that's the Yankee way—and the upcoming free agent class is thin to the point of transparency. (Not that that will stop them from signing someone—that's the Yankee way, too.) Chapman will almost certainly be a part of it at season's end. But, for now, he represents a chance for the Yankees to import help for the future, or even the current season, by what is for them a largely untested means. Chapman's status as a rental would seem to limit the possible return on dealing him, but he's been so hard to hit in his career that he's one of the few relievers who could be a true difference-maker for a contending team.
Not that the Yankees are especially likely to bite on this chance to restock. There is a longstanding organizational preference for thinking they're in it even when they're not; to be fair, they've mostly been in it going back to the mid-1990s. This means that, the odd Rickey Henderson 1989 deacquisition aside, the Yanks have rarely been deadline sellers. Seven games out in late July three years ago, they reacquired Alfonso Soriano; he played extremely well for them, though not well enough to push them into the playoffs, and then became an $18 million poison pill they had to swallow the next year, when he was actively rowing them away from the postseason. That season they traded for Brandon McCarthy and Chase Headley, both of whom were strong contributors, but again, these were veteran pickups. The Yankees don't do white-flag trades.
In both 2013 and 2014 they hit the non-waiver trading deadline with a winning record. They could do so again this year and hope that some, pardon the expression, McCarthyesque acquisitions could help them compete in an AL East in which both current frontrunners have obvious weaknesses. They're only three back in pursuit of a play-in Wild Card spot, too, and the teams in front of them don't exactly resemble the 1927 Yankees.
The Cubs, however, actually do resemble the 1927 Yankees. Putting aside one anachronistic tie, the Murderer's Row Yanks were just one game better than the Cubs' current pace at this point of the season. If you prefer the postwar period, only a baker's dozen of teams have been better to this point than the Cubs. If you refine it to the last 30 years, we're down to four. It would be convenient if those four teams all had a shutdown closer, but one had Mariano Rivera and the other Mitch Williams, which is a bit like that episode of the original "Star Trek" where this guy had an antimatter twin and if they touched the universe would die.
So there is more than one way to go about this winning thing, but if the Cubs do fall down anywhere on the pitching side, it's in the defrocked starter section of their bullpen: Trevor Cahill and Travis Wood both have strong, nigh-identical ERAs of 2.28 and 2.25, respectively, but their record, along with that of the recently slump-bound Adam Warren (11 runs in 15.1 innings, including four home runs, going back to May 1) mask some underlying problems: too many walks or home runs, not enough strikeouts, or all of the above. That's the telltale unshielded exhaust port on this ursine Death Star, particularly given the Cubs' near certainty of going to the playoffs. October baseball means competing against the best teams and the best teams tend to have the best offenses. The best offenses make bad things happen when they put the ball in play, which means that the best way to combat them is someone like Aroldis Chapman, who forcibly keeps the ball at home plate.
The incentives for the Cubs are dictated by their playoff possibilities. For the Yankees, they're different. They need to survive the regular season. The closer's role is such a light lift for qualified pitchers—qualified by stuff or intestinal fortitude or whatever magic one attributes to closers other than "they pitch in the ninth inning"—that a team can trade down in the ninth and still convert saves at close to an optimal rate. Jonathan Papelbon, who looks like such a disaster this year? He's at 89 percent. Since 2012, Chapman's percentage is 91. If the Yankees jettisoned Chapman, they'd be trading all the way down to Andrew Miller, who was an elite closer as recently last year, and has been an elite eighth-inning guy ever since. Hell, the Yankees could trade both Miller and Chapman, hope Betances can close, and then aim to compete with the position players they bring in trade. If you can't raise the bridge, lower the river.
If the Yankees bring in veterans rather than prospects it's no matter; players under 39 are officially Baby Bombers in their cosmology, anyway. The Cubs, meanwhile, have that bully championship they won during the Theodore Roosevelt years to put behind them. The teams fit as trade partners because each has such specific work to do. The only question is who gets what and when.