When you talk about "challenge trades" you’re usually referring to a straight-up swap of players at the same position, or maybe one established veteran for another. But much of what makes Friday’s trade between the Padres and Cubs so interesting is that it’s a challenge trade of top prospects who haven’t arrived yet. But with first baseman Rizzo eventually headed to Wrigleyville while hard-throwing Andrew Cashner treks to the pitching heaven that is Petco Park, this could be one double-dare that leaves both teams winners -- up to a point.
Obviously, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and scouting and player development honcho Jason McLeod love Rizzo. They drafted him for Boston in 2007, and Hoyer and McLeod traded for him in San Diego. This reunion represents about as strong a reflection of management’s conviction that Rizzo will be something special as any one player could get from any front-office cadre. Rizzo is a 22-year-old thumper with a demonstrated track record for power after hammering 51 homers in the minors the past two years; you can see how that fuels expectations of more to come.
But for the Padres, Cashner is headed into the relief role people projected as his destiny since his days starring at TCU before getting tabbed with the 19th pick in the 2008 draft. Jim Hendry’s outfit invested a lot of time in seeing if Cashner could stick as a starter, but both the new Cubs’ crew and Padres GM Josh Byrnes are convinced his best role is in relief. There, he can chuck the changeup and get back to dealing high-90s heat to set up a sharp power slider.
It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see both Cashner and Rizzo on a National League All-Star squad in 2015. The real question isn’t why everyone could come out looking good, but why you make this deal at all if you’re the Padres. Isn’t a top offensive prospect worth more than a pitcher whose ultimate upside might be quality closer? Maybe Byrnes is much more sold on Yonder Alonso than Rizzo, a defensible choice, but is Cashner really all you want to get if you’re willing to part with one of the best power prospects in the minors?
It’s worth noting that both prospects come with wrinkles. Cashner is coming back from a season effectively lost to shoulder trouble, never a happy thing for a pitcher, but that perhaps contributes to the expectation that he’s going straight to the Pad ’pen.
The loudest warning bell on Rizzo is that he’s been accused of having a slow bat. Talking up his performance at Tucson last year (.331/.404/.652) might risk losing sight of the fact that Tucson’s Kino Stadium is one of the best places to hit in a hitter’s league. It’s impressive that he ripped the PCL as a 21-year-old, but Petco was not going to help him break through. Get too worked up over his Triple-A numbers, and you can expect to be disappointed, which his 2011 big-league cameo delivered (.523 OPS). If you’re chary over Red Sox prospects, you have cause: It wasn’t so very long ago people were gushing over Lars Anderson because he was young and people expected his power to blossom every bit as much as they do now for Rizzo.
However, perhaps what’s equally important about Rizzo is that he’s been seen as a good worker, a player with excellent value on defense as well as one who has worked hard to iron out kinks, like an early career problem against lefties. Rizzo’s due to start 2012 in Iowa, perhaps as much a matter of service-time manipulation as putting him through finishing school, with minor-league vet Bryan LaHair the likely placeholder at first base in the meantime.
As for the add-ons in this four-player trade, both teams again have cause to feel good about what they received. Zach Cates comes to the Cubs as a hard-throwing arm who struggled as a starter in the Midwest League last year. When the Pads made him a third-round pick in 2010, his fastball sat in the low 90s, but touched 96, and he’s credited with a good changeup. With 111 strikeouts in 118 innings last year for Fort Wayne, you can entertain some modest ambitions for his usefulness. In return, the Pads got one of the products of the Cubs’ aggressive scouting of the Far East, landing 20-year-old Korean speedster Kyung-Min Na. He stole 20 bases in 30 attempts last year while hitting .268/.358/.312 across four levels; if he sticks in center he’ll be worth following as he starts logging real time at more advanced levels. Neither are sure things to survive the jump to Double-A, but both are interesting in their own right.
It won’t be surprising if we see both Rizzo and Cashner starring for their new teams in the years to come, which might make this seem like a win-win deal. But at a time when it’s easier to find useful relievers than it is to land top-shelf power-hitting prospects, credit the Cubs with making the better bet on upside value.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.