Trade Retrospective: Orioles trade Jake Arrieta to the Cubs for Scott Feldman

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In a further indictment of the Orioles’ ability to develop pitchers, the Cubs took Jake Arrieta and turned a lousy starter into a Cy Young award winner.

For the fourth straight offseason, BtBS is looking back on some of the biggest trades from years past. Check out all the entries here. This series was first started in 2016 by Spencer Bingol, who has been part of the Red Sox Baseball Operations department for the past two years. Congratulations to Spencer on the team’s recent World Series championship!

A few weeks before the 2013 trade deadline, the Cubs traded Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger to the Orioles in exchange for Pedro Strop and Jake Arrieta. The Cubs also got international spending pool money in the deal because the Orioles never use that money anyway. What looked like an unremarkable trade at the time became quite impactful a few years later, as Arrieta developed into one of the best pitchers in the National League.

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In this trade retrospective series, trades will be evaluated based on what was known at the time. That is the only fair, logical way to evaluate trades and strip luck out of the equation: process over results. Having said that, we will still take a look at how the trade worked out for both parties.

The Deal

The Cubs were tanking in 2013, but the Orioles certainly were not. At the time of the trade, they were 3.5 games out of first place, and currently held a Wild Card slot. Believe it or not, their starting rotation needed help. They did not have the assets to make a big acquisition in the trade market, but they needed to do something.

Outside of a very good 2009 season, Scott Feldman had a tough career. The Cubs took a chance on him in 2013 for a cheap $6 million deal, because even though they were not trying, they still needed to field a team. If the Cubs were hoping to turn him into trade bait, it worked. Feldman was having a solid season with a 4.15 RA9, though that came with a .255 BABIP. One thing that had not changed for him was his poor strikeout rates, which was below 18 percent at the time of the trade, but he made up for it with a stellar 60 percent groundball rate.

Feldman looked like an ideal fit for the Orioles. A groundball pitcher in front of an excellent infield defense that included J.J. Hardy and Manny Machado seemed like a great combination.

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As for Steve Clevenger, he was a backup catcher who was more or less a throw-in in the trade. I am sure he was happy about getting traded to his home state of Maryland. Pedro Strop was a throw-in as well. He was a hard-throwing reliever who had no idea where the ball was going. He was having a brutal season at the time of the trade, with a 7.66 RA9 over 29 appearances.

Jake Arrieta was not working out in Baltimore. He had pitched 358 innings over a three-year period and was roughly replacement level with a 5.73 RA9 over that span. Like with Feldman, he had trouble striking batters out, but unlike Feldman he struggled with his control with a career 10.1 BB%. At the time of the trade his walk rate was over 15 percent, albeit in only five starts.

Feldman was clearly not going to be a part of the Cubs’ future, so trading him for a project in Arrieta made sense. The team would not have traded for a pitcher struggling so much if they did not believe they could fix him. Boy, did they ever fix him.

The Results

The Orioles sadly finished outside of a playoff spot in 2013. They got more of the same from Feldman, who had a 4.47 RA9 the rest of the way and likely added a win to the team. It might not seem like much, but the trade worked out about as well as could be expected.

Feldman left in free agency and signed a three-year, $30 million deal with the Astros. He was a solid back of the rotation starter over the first two years of the deal, but he had to be moved to the bullpen in 2016 before getting traded to the Blue Jays at the trade deadline. He signed with the Reds for the 2017 season but struggled with a 5.01 RA9. He opted for season-ending knee surgery in July of that year, and has not played since. Whether he is still looking for work or retired is unknown.

Clevenger played sparingly for the Orioles through 2015, and then he joined the Mariners. Near the end of the 2016 season, Clevenger made some racially insensitive tweets that got him suspended for the rest of the season. On top of not being able to hit, he had become PR kryptonite, so he had to settle for playing in an independent league for the 2017 season. It does not appear that he played pro ball anywhere in 2018.

We all know what happened with Jake Arrieta. He saw a drastic improvement as soon as he arrived in Chicago. He finished 2013 with a 3.83 RA9 over nine starts, though his peripherals still remained poor. The 2014 season is when he really made large strides in his improvement. His RA9 dropped to 2.64, and he struck out 27 percent of batters faced while walking just 6.7 percent of them. He had a 5.4 WAR season when he had never cracked 1 WAR prior to that.

The Cubs were able to improve Arrieta’s command, thanks to mechanical tweaks in his delivery as detailed here by Harry Pavlidis of Baseball Prospectus. Arrieta was also able to master a unique pitch of his that is sort of a slider/cutter hybrid. Pavlidis discussed a bit in the article I just linked to, but Eno Sarris went into more depth at FanGraphs.

These things put together made Arrieta one of the best pitchers in baseball during the 2015 season. He had an outstanding 2.04 RA9 while improving his walk rate even further compared to the year before. He finished the season with 8.3 WAR and the NL Cy Young award.

Arrieta regressed quite a bit the following season, and he struggled with consistency through his final game with the Cubs in 2017. Last year he signed a three-year, $75 million deal with the Phillies plus a $20 million team option.

I had concerns about his first year in Philadelphia because of his diminishing peripherals, but he did well. His 4.85 RA9 does not look good on the surface, though the Phillies’ terrible defense factored into that. His DRA was a bit better at 4.08, which was almost identical to his 2017 season. He finished the season with 3 WAR per Baseball Reference, which makes hims a solid mid-rotation starter. Whether the soon to be 33-year-old can keep this up with sub-par strikeout rates is another question.

Because of all the attention that Arrieta was earning, Pedro Strop flew under the radar a little bit. The thing is he made great improvements, too. He still struggled with his control, but he was striking out nearly a third of hitters faced through 2016.

Strop really has been remarkable since the Cubs acquired him, as he has been one of the most consistently effective relievers in baseball since that acquisition. He has a career 2.91 RA9 over 361 appearances with the Cubs, and he just had his best season with them by turning in a 2.26 RA9. His strikeout rates are mediocre right now, but picking up his $6.2 million option for 2019 was a no-brainer.

I thought Kyle Hendricks trade looked great, and even though he is still going, just look at that table! The Cubs deserve a tremendous amount of credit for identifying project pitchers whom they could acquire for cheap, and then nailing the execution on their development. This was elite work by the front office and player development.

To be fair, the Orioles got what was reasonable to expect. Moreover, they paid in players that looked like they were in danger of being out of baseball in a year or two. I frequently say that one can’t assume that a player would have developed the same in a different organization, but I think it is safe to conclude that Arrieta and Strop would not have improved much had they stayed in Baltimore. The Orioles have had a brutal track record for a long time when it comes to pitcher development.

You can’t build a World Series championship team without some luck, but the Cubs certainly reaped the success of some excellent decision making on their way to their 2016 championship, and this trade is an example of that. As for the Orioles, hopefully they will finally overhaul their pitcher development system.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.

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