With July 2nd marking the start of the international signing period, the Cubs have had a busy day, making a trio of trades involving the exchange of players for bonus pool money — a concept that's otherwise largely foreign to the sport, and new for this year. Two of those deals sent major league pitchers to contenders, with Carlos Marmol going to the Dodgers and Scott Feldman to the Orioles, while buying Chicago more room to make a splash in the international market.
Given his his $9.8 million salary and his status as a former All-Star, the deal involving Marmol is the highest-profile one. The 30-year-old righty began the year as the Cubs closer, but lost it for the umpteenth time with yet another bout of wildness. After putting up a 5.86 ERA while walking 6.8 per nine in 27 2/3 innings, he was designated for assignment last week.
The Dodgers are willing to take the chance that Marmol can recover some semblance of the form that allowed him to strike out a record 16.0 batters per nine in 2010, a mark that was topped by current Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen just a year later. Los Angeles' bullpen has the league's second-highest ERA (4.39) and rate of allowing inherited runners to score (35 percent), with closer Brandon League — whom general manager Ned Colletti re-signed to a three-year, $22.5 million deal last October — faltering to the point of being replaced by Jansen, and once-reliable setup man Ronald Belisario buckling under the strain of overuse. Jansen is tied for fourth in the league in appearances at 41, while Belisario and lefty Paco Rodriguez are tied for eighth at 40; nearly all of the other players in the top 10 are situational relievers, whereas Belisario and Jansen are not, underscoring L.A.'s need for fresh arms.
That said, Marmol won't be of immediate help. He'll head to the minors for a few outings so he can make some adjustments to his mechanics in a lower-stakes environment. As Dodgers blogger Chad Moriyama pointed out using PITCHf/x data, Marmol's release point has been all over the map, varying by "9-10 inches on his horizontal release points and 14-15 inches on his vertical release points," which goes a long way toward explaining his erratic control and astronomical walk rate (6.1 per nine career).
Heading to Chicago in exchange for Marmol is recently DFA'd righty reliever Matt Guerrier, who is in the final year of a three-year, $12 million deal that looked terrible when it was signed and even worse now. Without the ability to miss bats on a consistent basis — a problem that also summarizes League's performance — Guerrier never profiled as a late-inning option, and after putting up a 4.07 ERA with 6.8 strikeouts per nine in 70 appearances in 2011, he was limited to 16 appearances last year by elbow inflammation. In 34 appearances this year, he was rocked for a 4.80 ERA while striking out just 6.3 per nine, a lousy return for the $4.75 million he's making; all told, he's been −0.3 wins below replacement level as a Dodger. Upon news of his designation for assignment, manager Don Mattingly told reporters, "I've got to have some guys that can make a mistake and still miss a bat."
In addition to the possibility of that happening with Marmol — some of whose mistakes, admittedly, have traveled beyond outfield walls and into the stratosphere — the Dodgers will receive about $2 million to offset the remaining difference in the two relievers' salaries, plus another $209,700 in bonus pool money with which they can sign international free agents according to the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement. Though the money from each team's pool can be allocated as that team sees fit when it comes to signing players, it is tradeable — up to a maximum of 50 percent of a team's total allocation — only in slot increments, whose value can be seen here; each team has four slots, with the slot values tiered in reverse order of last year's record. The $209,700 figure represents the Cubs' fourth slot, the second-highest of all fourth slot values (the Astros have the highest) and thus the 92nd highest value overall. For the Dodgers, adding that represents an increase in pool money of nearly 10 percent above the $2.11 million they were allowed. Even if Marmol never throws a pitch for them, they've gained the opportunity to pick up an extra lottery ticket or two.
The Cubs were willing to trade that bonus money because they received $380,100 worth of it from the Orioles in a deal that sent Feldman and backup catcher Steve Clevinger to Baltimore in exchange for righties Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop, plus another $784,700 worth of slot money from the Astros in exchange for minor league second baseman Ronald Torreyes, a 20-year-old holding his own at Double-A. That leaves them a net pool increase of $963,100, increasing their total pool money to $5.52 million. The additional pool money can help them sign outfielder Eloy Jimenez, a 16-year-old Dominican whom Baseball America ranked number one among this year's crop of international free agents.
Beyond that, what the Cubs get is a pair of cost-controlled pitchers who can be of use during their rebuilding stages, though they're both more project than finished product. Arrieta is a 27-year-old former fifth-round draft pick who ranked as high as 67th on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list. He's been unable to translate that promise into a solid major league career, putting up a 5.46 ERA in 358 innings over the past four seasons, including a 7.23 mark in 23 2/3 innings this year. Though he's shown the ability to miss bats on occasion (7.0 per nine, with a high of 8.6 last year), homers (1.2 per nine) and walks (4.0 per nine) have been ongoing problems, and lefties have clobbered him at a .281/.367/.489 clip. His future may be in the bullpen, where he can shorten his repertoire and gain an additional click or two on a fastball that already averages around 94 mph.
As for Strop, he's a 28-year-old reliever who broke out with Baltimore last year, with a 2.44 ERA in 70 appearances, but he's been hit for a 7.25 mark in 22 1/3 this year while missing time due to a lower back strain. Though his fastball averages 96 mph, his control is iffy; last year he had 7.9 strikeouts per nine while walking 5.0, while this year the marks are 9.7 and 6.0, hardly a winning combo. If he pulls it together, he's a potential closer. If not, he's a live arm somebody else will inevitably take a shot on.
For the Orioles, Feldman will slot into the rotation alongside Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez and Jason Hammel. At least for the moment, the 30-year-old righty will replace either Zach Britton or T.J. McFarland, though with Wei-Yin Chen currently on a rehab assignment and Kevin Gausman waiting in the wings, there's bound to be some fluidity among the starting five going forward.
Though he stands an imposing 6-foot-7, Feldman isn't a power pitcher, relying on a low-90s sinker and cutter to generate groundballs. Signed to a one-year, $6 million deal this past winter, he made 15 starts for Chicago and put up a 3.46 ERA in 91 innings, with a 60 percent quality start rate and a respectable 2.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio offsetting a modest K rate of 6.6 per nine. Prior to 2013, Feldman spent parts of eight seasons with the Rangers, where he bounced back and forth between the bullpen — where he began his major league career under current Orioles manager Buck Showalter in 2005-2006 — and the rotation. He won 17 games, albeit with a 4.08 ERA in 2009, but was subsequently hampered by knee troubles that culminated in microfracture surgery in November 2010. His half season with the Cubs is his best stretch since 2009; he owns a career 4.66 ERA and a 96 ERA+.
As for Clevinger, he's a 27-year-old catcher who has a career .199/.262/.275 line in 229 plate appearances at the big league level, with most of that experience coming last year. He's minor league depth in case starter Matt Wieters or backup Taylor Teagarden gets hurt. In short, the trades of Marmol and Feldman could help the contending efforts of the Dodgers and Orioles, and while trading them frees up a bit of room on Chicago's payroll, it does far more for the Cubs by expanding their bonus pool and furthering their international signing efforts. With the signing season only just beginning, and the trade deadline less than a month away, it will be interesting to see how many other teams use this route instead of the more traditional veterans-for-prospects swaps.