The Chicago Pit Bulls may be on the brink of an amazing opportunity to get a head start in a rebuild, judging by a glance at their 2018 roster and seemingly dismal season.
The storied franchise, one of the original 1989 clubs, which won the first Bull Cup Championship in 1991, has struggled to find success lately, despite producing two Hall of Fame players and making 11 playoff appearances since 1995.
This season began with much promise for the Pit Bulls, with solid, quality starters Greg Whittingdon, Masato Watanabe and Mario Morales in the rotation, and a young, up and coming outfielder Mike Strang joining veterans like Jordan Garcia and Sean Phifer in the lineup.
But things quickly turned sour after the opening series against the Toronto Nomads in May ended in a four-game sweep by Toronto. Chicago finally found their first win in the third game of the following series at home to Boston, but by the end of May they had a record of 5-12 and were off to a bad start.
Now, just days before the trade deadline, the Pit Bulls are stung with the worst record in baseball this year, at 17-44, and are on track to set a record for most losses and least wins. Other than against left-handed pitchers, whom they’ve managed a 9-9 record against, the team has been terrible this year.
But, alas, there is hope. Five players will become free agents at the end of this season, and with the trade deadline looming, now is a perfect opportunity to move them out and acquire some younger talent that could bring baseball’s 7th best minor league system up to maybe 3rd or 4th best.
Top of the list is two-time all-star Oscar Barajas, their right fielder since 2010. He’s having an off-year, batting only .139 with a pair of home runs, way down from a career .280 and his average 11 home runs a season. But he is fundamentally a solid player, who could be miscast in his current 8th position in the batting order. He tends to do well as protection for a clean-up hitter as he has considerable power.
Barajas’s walk year is not what he wanted, but he still has some value to a team that could use a solid, well-rounded hitter who can attack pitchers from both sides of the plate. His better fielding days are probably behind him, but a team in contention for a wildcard could do worse than him as a DH.
Then there is Jordan Garcia, a 34-year-old two-time Bull Cup champion and playoff MVP. Garcia honed his skills with the Montreal Metros, where he won his rings, but in his latter career has bounced around the leagues a bit. A talented leader, he hit .263 last season for Chicago and is a career .277 hitter. Garcia regularly produced a dozen or more home runs a season through his career in most years, and is regarded as a solid fielder at first base. His time is up this season, and could fetch Chicago at least a prospect or two while there is time for Garcia to make an impact in another lineup looking for a depth first baseman with a bat.
The highest valued player may be third baseman Joe Burch, who is just 33 and still has miles left in the tank, plus he has seemed unaffected by the affliction of poor offense that the rest of Chicago seems to be suffering from. Burch’s slash line, .287/.343/.340 suggests meaningful hits, though few have been for extra bases. But more than his bat, Burch is a capable defender around the entire infield, and has three Platinum Gloves to prove it. A Chicago rebuild could be sparked off a Burch trade right now.
The Norfolk Sharks, Ohio Oxen, Minneapolis Ravens, and Miami Storm are just four contending teams that could use a Burch at either 1st or 3rd base and see immediate improvement.
Even Bernardo Gonzalez, their fifth veteran in a walk year from the roster, has some value in eating up innings out of the bullpen, especially against right handed bats.
The ship has sailed on Ming Ou, who was injured this week and will be out of action at least five weeks with a strained oblique. He is unlikely to be in a state to return and help any team this season.
With five players leaving, and with virtually no chance Chicago will hitch a contract to any of them given the team’s rebuild state, there is now an opportunity to cash in on teams looking for short-term rentals and who are willing to offer up moderate prospects for the chance to solidify their own rosters going into the pennant races shortly.
If they play their cards right, the Pit Bulls could walk away from just under $30 million in remaining salary for 2018, pick up a few decent minor league pieces to salt their organization with, possibly improving from 7th best up a few notches, and they will still finish in last and grab the top draft pick for 2019.
Missing out on trading these pieces now would saddle the Pit Bulls with their full salaries, and allow the team to gain nothing after these players walk away at the end of the year. They will still get their first overall pick, and gain some compensation picks for the loss of four of the five players (Jordan Garcia being the only walk player not compensation eligible as he has spent the entire season so far on the AAA-level Milwaukee Pugs roster).
Next year, the team will need players to build around a core of David Herbst, Jon Guillot, Phifer, and Strang. They should be moving now to assure there are some solid players who will there in 2019 and beyond to help them out.