Improving an Imperfect MLB Draft: Part 1

I’ve gone on record that my favorite day of the year is the first day of the MLB Draft. While my wife doesn’t like to hear such talk around the holidays, I stand behind it. Since 2001 (the Mark Prior draft), I’ve followed the draft and have done so passionately for over a decade. But the current system is inherently flawed and it significantly affects amateur players, major league organizations, and the game itself. For a review of how the draft operates, see the Chicago Cubs MLB Primer. While it is geared towards the Cubs 2021 draft, it covers the background of the current system. In Part 1/3, I’ll tackle one improvement that MLB should explore in future drafts.

An Incentive to Lose

Players play to win the game. Fans watch games to see their team try to win a ballgame. Unfortunately, once a team is no longer in playoff contention, the current system encourages teams to lose every game the rest of the year to improve draft position. In paraphrasing Ricky Bobby’s enigmatic character, If you ain’t [in] first, you’re [better off in] last. The system pays to tank. Not only are teams awarded higher picks, but the bonus pool system described above also provides extra overage flexibility. The Chicago Cubs are prime examples of using this tanking method. From 2012-2015, the Cubs picked 6th, 2nd, 4th, and 9th while bringing in Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Ian Happ. All four players contributed to playoff teams.

And with a more recent perspective, the draft that exists in its current form incentivizes teams to lose big. Four teams project to lose 100 or more games (Orioles, Diamondbacks, Rangers, and Pirates) and nine teams projected to lose 90 or more. From 2005-2011 there was not a single year where nine or more teams lost 90+ in a season. It’s always possible that this year is an aberration, but tanking is rampant and makes baseball unwatchable after July.

A Possible Path Forward: the Draft Lottery

The Premise: Teams try to win 

Truly remarkable, I know. But right now, can you blame organizations for hoping to lose games once they know they won’t be in playoff contention? There’s almost nothing worse for an organization consistently failing to make the playoffs while picking 14-17th in the draft. To change that, teams need to have incentives to try to win. The way to do that is to provide an opportunity to secure a higher first-round pick to teams that win. Enter the MLB Draft Lottery.

Leagues like the NBA, WNBA, and NHL use a lottery to dissuade tanking, but (in my opinion), their method is flawed. Teams that lose more have better odds of receiving a top pick. While it prevents teams from guaranteeing a top pick, it still increases the probability that they’ll receive one. So let’s change that. Run a draft lottery with reverse odds for all non-playoff teams. Non-playoff teams that win the most games have the highest odds of securing a top-four pick.

The following scenario presumes a few things. First, playoffs are expanded in the new CBA. I selected a total of 16 playoff teams to run the scenario, though I am not personally a fan of that high a number. Second, I’m not including any teams who failed to sign their first-round pick in 2021 for clarity’s sake. Three, I only evaluated the 14 teams with the worst records. I did not project who would finish in 1st/2nd in a division or how MLB would run an expanded playoffs.

Reverse Standings as of 8/21/21

  1. BAL
  2. ARZ
  3. TEX
  4. PIT
  5. MIA
  6. CHC
  7. MIN
  8. WSN
  9. KCR
  10. COL
  11. DET
  12. CLE
  13. NYM
  14. LAA

 Respective odds of winning #1 pick

  • LAA: 14%
  • NYM: 14%
  • CLE: 14%
  • DET: 12%
  • COL: 10%
  • KCR: 9%
  • WSN: 8%
  • MIN: 6%
  • CHC: 5%
  • MIA: 3%
  • PIT: 1.5%
  • TEX: 1.5%
  • ARZ: 1%
  • BAL: 1%

A team’s odds of securing a top 4 pick are in reverse order of standings of all non-playoff teams. The rest of the draft plays out in normal order. For example, if the Angels and Indians finish with 86 wins and 84 wins, respectively, missing the playoffs, they would have the best odds (14% each) of the top pick. Odds decrease with a worse record. The Orioles and D-Backs would only have a 1% each of winning the top pick. In the hypothetical, Los Angeles (Angels), Cleveland, Kansas City, and Miami all miss playoffs and receive picks 1-4 in the draft via lottery. The Orioles, D-Backs, and Pirates finish with the three worst records.

The hypothetical Top 14 in the 2022 Draft would be the following (based on records as of August 21, 2021):

  1. LAA
  2. CLE
  3. KCR
  4. MIA
  5. BAL
  6. ARZ
  7. TEX
  8. PIT
  9. CHC
  10. MIN
  11. WSN
  12. COL
  13. DET
  14. NYM

Wrap up

The incentive is there to compete. Instead of teams hoping to lose, every single game matters. Competitive games are played until the last game of the season. And fans and front offices no longer have to hope for losses in secret. However, teams that are just overmatched (like BAL and ARZ) aren’t buried, but there is a big difference between the fifth pick and the first overall pick. Now the calculation is how can teams buy more even in a losing season.

A lottery adds excitement and intrigue to the draft and it can help to improve tanking, but it is far from the only measure needed to address competitive balance and improve situations for players and teams. Future parts of this series will address bonus pools and market size of clubs.

Quick Thoughts on MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 Cubs Ranking

Brennen Davis via Clinton Cole (@cdcole55)

Note: It appears that MLB Pipeline has dropped their latest Chicago Cubs Top 30 prospect rankings. With no official announcement, it is possible that the list is in process, but as of now it appears ready to be officially released.

Publications like Baseball America have been around for decades. Others like Prospects Live are on the rise. But when it comes to prospect rankings, none are shared as widely as MLB Pipeline. As the official ranking of Major League Baseball and a free resource, Pipeline’s prospect rankings have become the de facto reference point for prospects.

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Top of the List

  • Brennen Davis: The outfielder was just ranked 14th overall as a prospect by MLB continuing his ascendancy to elite prospect.
  • Brailyn Marquez: after battling COVID and then a shoulder injury that has kept him from pitching in affiliates baseball, Marquez lands at 95th overall and second in the Cubs system. It’s hard to remember that Marquez still has upper level potential
  • Cristian Hernandez: Pipeline is betting on upside with Hernandez. He has elite upside, but he won’t make his stateside debut until next year at the earliest.
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Prospect Debuts

  • Jordan Wicks: The 2021 first round pick of the Cubs lands at 6th in the system. Per MLB, “His fastball has gained about 5 mph since high school and he now operates at 91-94 mph and reaches 97 with high spin rates and good carry up in the strike zone.”
  • James Triantos: Readers of this website know all about Triantos, who sported elite contact rates in the showcase circuit before he was drafted in the second round. Triantos was drafted as a third baseman and likely ends up at the hot corner. He ranks 11th in a deep Cubs system
  • Christian Franklin: A big upside selection in the 4th round, the Cubs believe Franklin is a “plus CF”. He has high strikeout rates, but offers incredible value at that stage in the draft. Jim Callis viewed him as a second round pick. He ranks 22.
  • Pablo Aliendo: a surprise selection in the Top 30, Aliendo gets rave reviews for his work with pitchers. He shows energy behind the plate and could be a solid future catcher. Aliendo slides in at 29th in the Cubs system.
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Other Takeaways

  • The Cubs had five shortstops ranked in the Top 30: Hernandez, Howard, Preciado, Triantos, and Made. You can’t have too many shortstops.
  • I wouldn’t put too much stock in Pipeline ranking Howard ahead of Made, who is having more success at the same level as a younger player. Many evaluators are willing to give Howard a mulligan after not playing in almost two years and jumping straight to Myrtle Beach. Made’s improvements are impressive by themselves.
  • DJ Herz (12th) and Caleb Kilian are fascinating back-to-back ranked players. They are very different pitchers, but both having big success this season. Herz, in particular, is proof the Cubs can develop pitching. Kilian may make his MLB debut in 2022.
  • There are countless ways that evaluators can rank the players in the Cubs system, but more than anything this is a very balanced list. This is a system on the rise.

“You can’t have too many outfielders?”: Alexander Canario

Alexander Canario via Todd Johnson (@CubsCentral08)

Prelude: The Chicago Cubs charted their course. While that is without their on-field captain and rough seas lie ahead at the major league level in the near term, the organization brought in a host of players that one can dream of impacting the next great Cubs team. It’s become a saying that “you can’t have too many shortstops”; it’s less common to say that about outfielders. After compiling perhaps the deepest crops of shortstop prospects in organizational history, the Cubs dramatically filled out their outfield pipeline by adding Greg Deichmann (not listed below), Kevin Alcantara, Pete Crow-Armstrong, and Alexander Canario at the deadline. I’ll examine each of these players in the series.

Part 1: Kevin Alcantara

Part 2: Alexander Canario

Part 3: Pete Crow-Armstrong

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Alexander Canario

The 21-year-old outfielder has been lighting the world on fire since he was traded to the Cubs and immediately promoted to Hi-A South Bend. In 14 games since the trade, Canario is showcasing well above-average power, but also above-average K%. He’s slashing .259/.306/.517 with 4 home runs and has a .359 wOBA. His K% sits at 29.0% with a walk rate of 6.5%. The eye test matches the stats with Canario struggling against breaking balls and demolishing mistake pitches. While that may dampen your excitement, the 21-year-old is getting his first chance of prolonged playing time post COVID and having success. Like Alcantara, Canario incorporates high-level tools, albeit more related to overwhelming power carrying the projection. He also will take patience and a lot of hard work with the Cubs hitting infrastructure, but the payoff could well be worth it.

In the write-up of the trade, I had this to say:

Canario is a huge upside prospect with a very high variance. He has impressive power that is generated from incredible bat speed. Canario represents a player that is a good test for the Cubs hitting infrastructure. He did take some time to adjust in the early going of the season (hardly an uncommon sentiment in a post COVID season) and since June 2nd, Canario has put up a .265/.340/.482 line with a 112 wRC+ and 26.6 K%/10.2 BB%.

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Mechanics: Canario holds his hands above his head and uses a very small leg kick that provides balance and weight transfer. He starts from an open stance. His head stays very stable through the point of contact. He appears to generate significant force through the zone.

His swing and scouting report is very similar to Teoscar Hernández of the Toronto Blue Jays.

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Future projection: Canario has loud power, but the K% stands as an area for improvement. It’s uncommon for hitters to consistently strikeout approximately 30% with low walk totals and immediately produce at the big-league level. He is a long way from Wrigley and there is a high degree of risk in his profile, but Canario has the potential to eventually produce above-average production. Continuing the comparison to Teoscar Hernández, his line in the minors and majors produced the following:

Teoscar Hernández via Fangraphs
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That 2014 season for Teoscar Hernández is remarkably similar to Canario (update: apparently his agent agrees; see tweet above). Hernández entered the 2015 season ranked as the #9 prospect in the Houston system by both MLB Pipeline and Baseball America. As you can also see, it has taken Hernández a few years to adjust to major league pitching. He’s currently experiencing a breakout for the Blue Jays. Hernández offers a glimpse at a possible offensive ceiling for Canario, but reaching that ceiling will require significant progress in the next few seasons. Like Alcantara, Canario is another exciting prospect, but the risk in his profile is just one of the reasons “you can’t have too many outfielders”.

“You can’t have too many outfielders?”: Kevin Alcantara

Kevin Alcantara via Rich Biesterfeld (@biest22)

The Chicago Cubs charted their course. While that is without their on-field captain and rough seas lie ahead at the major league level in the near term, the organization brought in a host of players that one can dream of impacting the next great Cubs team. It’s become a saying that “you can’t have too many shortstops”; it’s less common to say that about outfielders. After compiling perhaps the deepest crops of shortstop prospects in organizational history, the Cubs dramatically filled out their outfield pipeline by adding Greg Deichmann (not listed below), Kevin Alcantara, Pete Crow-Armstrong, and Alexander Canario at the deadline. I’ll examine each of these players in the coming days.

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Kevin Alcantara

The 19-year-old outfielder incorporates high-level tools, athleticism, and projection though he is a long way off from contributing to the major league club. As a 19-year-old will immediately add to a stellar group in the Arizona Complex League and is off to a blistering .355/.417/.645 pace through 8 games. It’s a small sample size, but the success is remarkable. In the 8 complex-league games for the Yankees prior to the trade, Alcantara hit .360/.488/.520. More than anything, Alcantara was always viewed as a high-upside prospect who needed time to realize his potential.

In the write-up of the trade, I had this to say:

“Alcantara was a big prospect in the 2018 international free agency class and appears as if he’s realizing his high potential. He is a likely corner outfielder long-term, but one who looks like he has the bat to succeed there. The 7 strikeouts in 25 at-bats (again, small sample-size alert) points to a real area of focus. Alcantara’s swing will evoke some Alfonso Soriano comparisons.”

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Mechanics: Alcantara has a pronounced leg kick driving back towards his back hip. As he gains strength, the hope is that he can cut down on the extra motion in his swing, but the tools and projection is there. His head movement near the point of contact is my only concern with the swing in its current state. And even if he doesn’t cut down on any movement, hitters like Alcantara can succeed with better balance.

Clip of Kevin Alcantara from @baseballinfocus
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Future projection: Alcantara has high level upside. He is a long way from Wrigley and there is a high degree of risk in his profile, but Alcantara has the potential to be an above-average regular with occasional all-star appearances. Continuing the comparison to Nick Castellanos, “Big Stick Nick” produced the following:

Nick Castellanos stats via Fangraphs

In my opinion, that is a possible offensive ceiling, but will require significant progress in the next few seasons. Without any ability to scout on defense, I’ll reserve judgment on that aspect of Alcantara’s game. He is an exciting prospect, but the risk in his profile is just one of the reasons “you can’t have too many outfielders”.

Evaluating the Cubs System Before an Epic Trade Deadline: an Interview with Jim Callis

Jim Callis, Senior Writer for MLB.com

[Brennen Davis] is a guy who’s got potential 20/20, 30/30 [home runs and steals in a season] upside as a center fielder.

Jim Callis on Cubs prospect Brennen Davis

A special thanks to Jim Callis, Senior Writer for MLB.com for joining

After the MLB Draft and before the most impactful trade deadline in organization history, the Chicago Cubs farm system was in flux. Talent was trickling up through the lower minors, Brennen Davis was showing off on the national stage, most of the upper level prospects were working their way back from injury, and Cubs fans were encouraged by recent talent brought in from 2021 MLB Draft. As the trade deadline storm approached, the Cubs organization was still viewed as a “bottom third” (21-30 ranked) farm system. While that ranking has been seriously adjusted since, it’s a good reminder that there were encouraging notes from prior to any significant trades. Jim Callis of MLB.com stopped by to discuss the Cubs system before the deadline.

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Brennen Davis

No player in the Cubs system has surged quite like Brennen Davis. As of this writing, Davis is off to a .267/.383/.515 start as a 21-year-old at AA. Since July 6th, he’s produced at an eye-popping .292/.414/.639 (1.053 OPS!) line with only a 24.1 K% and a 183 wRC+. Brennen Davis is a superstar and the national media is taking serious note. According to Jim Callis, “I think he’s been on top of our prospects list for a while and I think he’s one of the better outfield prospects in the game. I think the tools are pretty obvious, and the production has been there pretty much since day one. I think he was more advanced as a hitter, than the Cubs even realized when they signed him a couple of years [in 2018]”. While Davis has more development, Callis noted that ultimately the most critical part of the young outfielder’s progression is likely just getting more playing time. “[It’s] just a matter of being healthy. He had the finger injuries in ’19. Then he didn’t get to play last year, he got hit in the head in spring training so they started kind of slow, and it’s crazy, he was drafted in 2018 draft. I think, as we’re recording this, he has played 114 games in pro ball just because of the circumstances. But I still think this is a guy who’s got potential 20/20, 30/30 [home runs and steals in a season] upside as a center fielder” Callis said.

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Jordan Wicks

The Cubs brought in “the complete package” in Jordan Wicks according to Cubs VP of Scouting, Dan Kantrovitz. While it was a surprise selection to some, the national reports on Wicks back-up the premise that the Cubs landed an excellent prospect. “I thought Wicks was a great fit for the Cubs and it was kind of nice that he fell to him 21. I thought he was gonna kind of go into mid teens [in the draft]. He was the best left handed pitcher in the draft, certainly on the college side” Callis said. “Consensus was that he has the best changeup in the draft. Wicks is 6’3″, 220lbs, low 90s with good spin rates on his fastball to give it riding action. He improved his slider this year. It’s his third pitch. It’s kind of average. [He] throws strikes, competes well, and mixes his pitches well. I once got a comp to Reid Detmers, who’s a Illinois High School product who was number 10 pick in last year’s draft out of Louisville, but with the changeup rather than the curveball as his dominant pitch. I really liked him a lot. I think he can move quick and I think getting a guy like that with 21st pick which I think was a little unexpected was just great fit for the Cubs who have had trouble developing pitching”

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The Arizona Complex League

The Yu Darvish trade had a massive impact on the perceived direction of the big-league club. After winning the division during the COVID-19 season of 2020, the Cubs made the decision to sell-high on the NL Cy Young runner-up. The decision to move Darvish was already shocking, but the return brought out significant vitriol from Cubs fans. As the dust settled, Yu Darvish and Victor Caratini brought back Zach Davies and “four teenage prospects”, hardly the expected return for an ace. These trades always require a long-view to properly evaluate, but less than a year later, the younger prospects in the deal are performing at a high level. Jim Callis notes that two of the players, Reginald Preciado and Owen Caissie in particular, are making waves. “Preciado is 6’4″ and could hit for power and average from both sides of the plate. In the long run, (I haven’t seen if they’ve been playing him at third or playing at short) he’s athletic and can give you a solid defender at third. If he doesn’t stay in the dirt, he can play right field, but I think the bat is gonna profile. It’s a really high upside” Callis said. “Caissie is the same thing. He’s got some of the best power in last year’s draft. [He has a] strong arm. I think it kind of fits that classic rightfield profile. Both these guys have high ceilings, so if you’re the Cubs I think you’re really pleased they got off the to [hot] starts.” Callis said.

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The Cubs are definitely a system on the rise now, but even before the trade deadline, the 2021 minor league season provided encouraging signs. It won’t be long before players in the upper minors begin to make their Wrigley debuts. It’s a very good time to start diving into the Cubs minor league prospects.

Want to hear more insights into the 2021 Cubs draft picks? Or hear Jim’s thoughts on DJ Herz, Yohendrick Pinango, and others? The full interview is available soon

“Go West, Young Man”: Examining the Kris Bryant Trade

Kris Bryant by Rich Biesterfeld (@Biest22)

This is going to be a tough play… Bryant… The Cubs win the World Series!

Joe Buck

It seemed almost unimaginable that Chicago Cubs legend, Kris Bryant, will be wearing another uniform, but that day has finally arrived. Kris Bryant has been traded to the San Francisco Giants. The return to the trade will be covered below and while the players brought in have significant upside and projection, a historic figure in Cubs lore has left the organization.

From #2 overall pick in the 2013 draft to 2014 minor league player of the year to 2015 rookie of the year to 2016 NL MVP and World Champion, Kris Bryant has cemented his legacy in Chicago. Though a #17 flag bearing Bryant’s name will likely not be hanging from the foul poles at Wrigley in the future, Kris’s seven plus seasons in the organization have left an indelible impact on the Chicago Cubs.

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Examining the return

Alexander Canario

Canario is a huge upside prospect with a very high variance. He has impressive power that is generated from incredible bat speed. Canario represents a player that is a good test for the Cubs hitting infrastructure. He did take some time to adjust in the early going of the season (hardly an uncommon sentiment in a post COVID season) and since June 2nd, Canario has put up a .265/.340/.482 line with a 112 wRC+ and 26.6 K%/10.2 BB%. He is a good athlete with average speed. Canario has split time between center and right field in his pro career, but profiles better in right field. I believe he is a Top 20 prospect for the Cubs. Several publications rank Canario as a Top 10 prospect in the Cubs system. If you believe in his adjustments and breakout, then the Cubs landed an impact prospect.

Despite sitting in the international spending penalty box in 2016 after signing Bahamian shortstop Lucius Fox for $6 million the year before, the Giants still found a bargain by signing Canario for $60,000 out of the Dominican Republic. He won MVP honors at the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League’s all-star game during his 2017 pro debut and really broke out two years later by batting .318/.377/.623 with 16 homers in 59 games between Rookie and short-season ball.

With the best bat speed among San Francisco prospects outside of Marco Luciano, as well as his growing strength and the loft and leverage in his right-handed swing, Canario has well above-average raw power. Though he hit .291 in his first three years as a pro, he’s overly aggressive and gets too pull-happy and long with his stroke. After he posted a 30 percent strikeout rate in 2019, the Giants had him focus on strike-zone discipline and the consistency of his at-bats at their alternate site and in instructional league. 

MLB Pipeline
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Caleb Kilian

I can’t tell you how impressed I am with Caleb Kilian. After watching several games of footage, I can say that I firmly believe prognosticators are sleeping on Kilian. The righthander is a “command+” pitcher who had a 1.14 BB/9 in AA (0.42 in Hi-A!) with a 26.2 K%. Kilian’s command is primarily derived from his focus on the fastball. Kilian throws three fastballs with a four-seam, two-seam, and cut fastball (cutter) all being used often in at-bats. The four-seam operates 94-96 mph and has solid ride up in the zone. It is helped by his excellent command. Both his cutter and two-seam are solid pitches that can generate whiffs (cutter) or weak contact (two-seam). His cutter replaced a former slider that wasn’t a very successful pitch.

Mechanically, Kilian excels with smooth, repeatable delivery, which aids his command+ profile. Kilian has a long arm stroke, which is a mechanical feature that some teams have moved away from in recent years. The Cubs are not one of those clubs as multimedia producer for Marquee Sports Network, Lance Brozdowski, illustrated perfectly with Cubs prospects Ryan Jensen, Kilian, and Alexander Vizcaino.

One inconsistent note that I’ve read about Kilian is the reports on his curveball. Some evaluators note that he doesn’t have much of a breaking ball and others feel it above-average. Count me amongst the latter category. This is an above-average curveball that generates weak contact and whiffs (especially when he buries it). Kilian is having real success at the upper levels of the minors. This is an advanced arm that can still get better with an improved changeup. The Cubs have also succeeded in developing sliders amongst the pitching prospects so look for them to reincorporate a slider into his repertoire. Bold claims: I feel like this is a mid-rotation arm, the most advanced starter in the Cubs system (until Jordan Wicks debuts), and a top 10 Cubs prospect.

Caleb Kilian across multiple 2021 starts

Kilian added strength during his layoff and showed increased velocity in short stints at instructs, topping out at 98 mph after usually ranging from 90-95 with his four-seam fastball in college. After battling inconsistency with his breaking balls at Texas Tech, he has added some power to his curveball and scrapped his slider in favor of a shorter, harder cutter. He also exhibits feel for an average changeup. 

MLB Pipeline
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Wrap up

It’s impossible to match the impact Kris Bryant has brought to the Chicago Cubs organization with the players in this trade, but it was apparent that the Cubs were open to moving on from Kris for the past several seasons. No, it has nothing to do with him turning down a $200 million dollar extension offer (that was categorically denied) and no, it was not because Kris wanted to play for some other team. It all is a result of finances from a major league club that is turning the page. Kris Bryant is a part of some of the best memories in my fandom of watching the Cubs. I’ll wish him well as I watch the Cubs the rest of the season and dream of a better and brighter future. This trade brings both a high floor in Kilian and high upside (Canario). Cubs fans are hoping that the end result is two solid or better major league players.