MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Smart trade proves to be win-win for Cubs, Astros

Fowler-for-Valbuena swap in winter filled needs for both teams

Smart trade proves to be win-win for Cubs, Astros

There were bigger trades last winter, maybe even dozens of them. There were trades with much bigger implications, like the one that sent American League MVP candidate Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays.

But was there a better trade than the one that the Astros and Cubs executed on Jan. 19?

The deal sent center fielder Dexter Fowler to Chicago for infielder Luis Valbuena and right-hander Dan Straily.

While Straily did make a few starts for the Astros this season, and could still contribute in the future, let's forget for the moment he was in the deal. Just consider what Fowler has meant to the Cubs and what Valbuena has meant to the Astros.

Both had become surplus pieces for their old teams and were perfect fits for the teams that landed them. This is exactly what general managers talk about when they say they hope a trade helps both teams, even though few actually do.

This one's worth examining as the Cubs prepare to play the Pirates in the National League Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser and the Astros work frantically to validate their remarkable season by landing a spot in the AL Wild Card Game.

How They Got There: Cubs

Maybe the Cubs are still a playoff team without Fowler (there was a huge gap between them and the other Wild Card contenders), but it's worth noting how well he's done as the leadoff man and center fielder. His. 2.1 WAR is fourth among the team's position players, behind only MVP candidate Anthony Rizzo, likely Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant and rookie shortstop Addison Russell.

There's probably no way that the Astros are still fighting for a Wild Card spot without the upgrade they made when Valbuena took over at third base, and he's remained valuable since moving over to first base in an infield that has Jed Lowrie at third and Carlos Correa at shortstop. His. 1.8 WAR is sixth among the team's position players, behind Jose Altuve, Correa, George Springer, Colby Rasmus and Jake Marisnick.

A year ago, with Rick Renteria as the manager, the Cubs tried seven center fielders, with Arismendy Alcantara getting the most starts there. Likewise, they used seven leadoff hitters, with Emilio Bonifacio getting the most at-bats.

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This worked about as well as you'd think. The leadoff spot was 13th in the NL with a .303 on-base percentage and 14th with 85 runs scored; the center fielders managed a combined .610 OPS, which ranked 14th. So Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and their staff had no problem identifying these two areas of need.

Where they hit the jackpot was finding one man who could fill both needs.

Fowler, who was thrilled to join the Cubs after playing against Triple-A Iowa while on a rehab assignment last year, has 17 home runs, a .343 on-base percentage and ranks third in the NL with 102 runs scored. He's been solid defensively and avoided injuries, playing a career-high 154 games.

Cubs hitting coach John Mallee, who spent two years with the Astros before joining the Cubs last winter, encouraged Epstein and Hoyer to acquire Fowler, saying his disciplined approach "can cause pitchers to get out of their comfort zone.'' The Cubs have seen that since the All-Star break, with Fowler's .384 on-base percentage fueling an offense that is average 4.8 runs per game, second only to the Mets in the NL.

Valbuena, whom the Cubs claimed off waivers from the Blue Jays in the first week of the 2012 season, thrived in the three painful seasons of Epstein's rebuilding program. He was a consummate professional with a good approach at the plate, and it always seemed surprising he didn't hit for a higher average (.227 career). He was as productive as any long-term Cubs hitter except Rizzo.

With Bryant, Russell and Javier Baez in the wings, Valbuena became expendable. Astros GM Jeff Luhnow was willing to move Fowler because he wanted to open center field for the 24-year-old Marisnick, whom he had acquired for right-hander Jarred Cosart.

As a bonus for the Astros, the difference in salary between Fowler ($9.5 million) and Valbuena ($4.2 million) would essentially cover one of the two relievers he'd signed, Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek.

Valbuena's 24th home run

Along with Lowrie, Valbuena helped set a different tone for the young Houston lineup during an extremely productive Spring Training. You could see good things starting to happen if you watched the Astros play in Florida, and Valbuena has done his part to get them to the doorstep of postseason play.

Valbuena, who delivered 53 extra-base hits for the Cubs last year, is hitting only .219 but has set career highs with 24 homers and 54 RBIs. Along with Rasmus, rookie Preston Tucker and the switch-hitting Marwin Gonzalez and Lowrie, the left-handed-hitting Valbuena balances the Astros' lineup against right-handers. He's been a great fit for the Astros, just like Fowler with the Cubs.

Credit Luhnow and Epstein for putting together a trade that could serve as a template for teams trying to improve this winter.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.