What the Cubs’ Scott Effross trade says about their direction at the deadline

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The Cubs signaled they were open for business months ago. Willson Contreras and Ian Happ already took their mental snapshots of Wrigley Field, hugging each other tightly in the dugout last week after the final home game before the trade deadline. David Robertson, Chris Martin and Mychal Givens looked like obvious candidates to be traded from the moment they signed their one-year contracts with the Cubs after Major League Baseball’s 99-day lockout ended in March. Without an August waiver period for trades, left-handed pitchers Drew Smyly and Wade Miley represent inexpensive insurance policies for the stretch run, as long as the contingency plan can be worked out with Miley building back up from a strained left shoulder.

With so many possibilities out there and several players on edge, waiting for Tuesday’s 5 p.m. CT deadline in St. Louis to pass, unassuming sidearm reliever Scott Effross did not appear to be a telling symbol of the team’s direction. Yet Effross will surprisingly not be in the visiting bullpen on Tuesday night at Busch Stadium, nor will he be a ninth-inning option for David Ross once the Cubs manager sorts out his bullpen after Robertson gets traded to a playoff contender.

In trading Effross to the Yankees for Hayden Wesneski on Monday, the Cubs chose a potential starter over a trusted reliever, betting on the aging curve of a 24-year-old prospect and trusting the process of their roster churn, which is not currently attached to a firm competitive timeline. With 61 games remaining this season, there are no truly high-leverage innings available on a 41-60 team.

Effross is still a true success story for the Cubs, transforming himself from a non-prospect into a legitimate late-inning reliever by converting to side-arming in 2019 and really taking to it. The righty earned promotions to Triple-A Iowa and Chicago last season and experienced immediate success, and then built off that by improving his slider and using his pitches slightly differently this season. It led to a 28.1 percent strikeout rate, a 6.2 percent walk rate and a 45.6 percent groundball rate, culminating in a 2.66 ERA in 44 innings this year.

Effross has been thrown into a variety of situations, coming in with men on base early in a game, picking up the first save of his career last week, and even delivering a spot start on short notice. He handled all those moments with aplomb, exhibiting a gracious demeanor off the field and carrying himself with great confidence on the mound. It’s fair to wonder if the Cubs will miss those intangibles as the clubhouse turns over once again.

Most importantly, Effross has a remarkable ability to use all four of his pitches, allowing him to attack all quadrants of the zone. He gets both a lot of looking strikes when he throws pitches in the zone and a significant amount of chase, maddening the opposition as he continually keeps them guessing. Even when they make contact, he has a remarkable ability to miss barrels — that 3.4 percent barrel rate is in the 95th percentile in the game — leading to some of the best expected stats in baseball according to the Statcast data.

For Cubs fans, the question is: Why move on from a homegrown reliever who has been so effective, has five more seasons of club control left and isn’t even arbitration-eligible for another two years?

There are a few reasons why: The Cubs have shown they can develop relief pitchers now, which means they have confidence they can replace Effross through their farm system. Effross is also 28 years old. He played with Kyle Schwarber at Indiana. Being drafted out of college in the 15th round in 2015 and eventually converting into a sidearmer meant he took a longer-than-traditional developmental path. The Cubs have younger arms they hope to put in the bullpen as they try to build a competitive team for next season.

Of course, the Cubs have to be right about all of this. The return matters, as Wesneski is a starting pitcher who has seen his stuff tick up slightly since being selected in the sixth round of the 2016 draft out of Sam Houston State. After years of underperformance in their player development operation — and criticisms that echoed the big-picture analysis of the Cubs — the Yankees have recently had tremendous success with pitchers after revamping that department. Wesneski seems to have four average or above pitches, with his slider and two-seam fastball being the prime offerings.

Cubs assistant pitching coach Daniel Moskos, who spent the 2021 season as a Double-A pitching coach for the Yankees, previously worked with Wesneski at that level and had a role in that organizational turnaround. Moskos’ insights and relationship surely had some impact on this decision. It wouldn’t be a complete surprise to see Wesneski reach the big leagues this season as he will need to be added to the 40-man roster this winter in order to be protected from the Rule 5 draft.

Amid their gradual downward spiral since winning the 2016 World Series, the Cubs have been trying to catch up to the Yankees and Dodgers and start rebuilding a similar machine across the scouting, player development, R&D and high performance departments. It was notable that the Cubs acquired utility player Zach McKinstry, 27, from the Dodgers in last weekend’s Martin trade instead of a lottery ticket from the lowest levels of the minor leagues. The Cubs added McKinstry to their active roster and will give the left-handed hitter the extended opportunity that didn’t materialize with so many All-Stars and MVP winners working at Dodger Stadium.

“I felt almost like a caged animal there, just hanging out on the bench,” McKinstry said.

The Cubs have to get creative or else this rebuild that is already testing fans’ patience will drag even longer. One free agent the Cubs likely would have targeted this offseason is already off the board as All-Star pitcher Joe Musgrove has agreed to a five-year, $100 million contract extension with the Padres. The Cubs should also be rooting for the Giants to trade Carlos Rodón at the deadline, so that the All-Star pitcher can’t be tagged with a qualifying offer and draft-pick compensation when he opts out of his contract. Like Contreras said, Monday is going to feel like a long off day in St. Louis.

“It’s just part of the business,” Smyly said. “I’ve been traded at the deadline before. I’ve been traded (two other times), once by the Cubs already. So we all as players just look forward to going to play in between the lines and there’s nothing else we can really do about it. But we all realize that the Cubs will do what they think will make the best team going forward.”

(Photo: Kyle Ross / USA Today)