Well, this was unexpected.
On Tuesday, the Chicago Cubs added free agent utility man Ben Zobrist for 4 years and $56 million. Zobrist was highly coveted by many teams for his versatility and production. Since 2009, Zobrist has consistently been among the league leaders in WAR, coming in at 3.1 for 2015. He is known as a great clubhouse guy, and has played every position on the field except catcher. With Kansas City and Oakland in 2015, Zobrist played second base more than anywhere else, and is likely to play there for the Cubs since they…
…traded pariah Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees for pitcher Adam Warren and a player to be named later (believed to be infielder Brendan Ryan). While it seemed a foregone conclusion that Castro was going to be leaving the North Side of Chicago, most pundits assumed the Cubs could get better return than a hard-throwing swingman and a mediocre backup infielder.
And this is where the fun begins. After all the moves, the Cubs still have not addressed the need for a center fielder and one more starting pitcher. Further, the addition of Zobrist seems to leave Javier Baez as the odd man out.
With the impending departure of Castro, it was assumed that Baez would slide into the second base role. Zobrist changes that. With the team as it is now, Zobrist would have to be the second baseman, relegating Baez to backup middle infield status (supplanting Jonathan Herrera and/or Tommy LaStella). It becomes likely that Baez or right fielder Jorge Soler would have to be moved (to Cleveland or Tampa?) for that pitching help. If Soler goes, Zobrist could play right field and Baez second. If it is Baez who moves on, Soler stays in right and Zobrist at second.
While Warren, recently resigned Trevor Cahill, and holdovers Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks are likely to head into Spring Training as the main combatants for the fourth and fifth rotation spots after Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, and John Lackey, it would be prudent to add one more proven MLB starter. Soler had been named prominently in the Shelby Miller rumors, but that was killed when the Diamondbacks acquired Miller in exchange for their 2015 top draft choice, outfielder Ender Inciarte and a highly regarded pitching prospect.
I would think the Cubs’ focus would now shift to Cleveland and Tampa. The Indians seem to have excess pitching and a need for a corner OF. Someone like a Daniel Salazar or Carlos Carrasco look to be moveable entities. However, the Indians reportedly demanded AJ Pollock from Arizona in Salazar talks. Based on that, neither Soler nor Baez alone would get that deal done. Carrasco would also merit a similar package. For the Cubs to get this done, the pot would need to be sweetened, and I am not sure that Theo Epstein would be that quick to add one of his prized prospects such as Willson Contreras, Duane Underwood, or Billy McKinney in such a deal.
Then there is Joe Maddon’s former employer. The Rays reportedly covet Baez. While there is essentially no chance that Chris Archer could be pried away, Matt Moore or a rehabbing Alex Cobb surely could be. A further stretch would be trying for Jake Odorizzi. If the Cubs would be willing to ride Hammel for half a season (which seems to be all he is good for lately), taking a risk on Cobb makes a ton of sense. Cobb should be good to go right around the AllStar break, and I don’t think Baez is too steep a price to pay for that kind of pitching talent. Cobb would not command a very high salary (he is arbitration eligible), being that he is coming of Tommy John surgery, and would be perfect for Wrigley Field with the ground balls he induces. A move with the Rays seems too logical. The only potential stumbling block I could see would be a reluctance on Tampa’s part to deal with the Cubs after the Joe Maddon situation last year.
This still leaves the team without a center fielder, however. I truly believe there are five viable options:
- Re-sign Austin Jackson. Virtually nothing has been mentioned on this topic, and this surprises me. This is a guy who will only be 29 come Opening Day, has a career 22.2 WAR (in only 6 seasons), and has World Series experience (2012 with the Tigers). He seemed to enjoy his time as a Cub down the stretch, and would probably be the cheapest option for the Cubs.
- Re-sign Dexter Fowler. The Cubs extended Fowler the $15.8 million Qualifying Offer, which he promptly rejected. He had a very good year for the Cubs in 2015, establishing career highs in HR, walks, runs scored, games, and plate appearances. He solidified the center field spot for the Cubs and the team would warmly welcome him back. The problem is, at what price?
- Trade for Carlos Gomez. The Astros acquired Gomez for their pennant push. They obviously fell short in their goal, and Gomez never really seemed to fit in. As Houston continues to improve, a player like Gomez, who has a reputation as being “difficult”. He was a luxury the Brewers couldn’t afford to keep around, and may be a distraction in the Astros’ clubhouse. While he won’t be given away for free, I do believe a reasonable package could get it done.
- Pursue someone like Gerardo Parra in Free Agency. Ok, not someone like him. Just him. The left-hander quietly does his job. With Zobrist likely to bat leadoff, Parra could be buried lower in the order where he could be “sneaky good” (.730 lifetime OPS). His defense could be the best the Cubs have seen out there (2 Gold Gloves) in a long time. The unofficial team budget could easily fit a moderately priced Parra.
- Heyward. Then there is the elephant in the room. The domino MLB is waiting to see fall before the rest of the big moves happen hasn’t even budged. Hayward is a right fielder. A three time Gold Glove winning one. A damned good one, but a right fielder nonetheless. Sure, he has played SOME center field (only 3.3% of his games), and has played it well. But he also is the best defensive right fielder in the National League. Changing is not that simple. He would need extensive work in CF to learn the angles, which are markedly different than in LF or RF. Plus, Wrigley Field is a very tricky outfield to navigate defensively. A Cubs CF would be required to cover a LOT of ground. If anyone can make the transition, Heyward can. He is only 26 years old (unheard of for a free agent), and is rumored to be seeking a deal from 8-10 years at around $25 million per year. Guess what? He will get that. But will it be from the Cubs?
If a Baez or Soler is moved for a pitcher, a spot has opened up, and I believe that the Cubs will make a very serious offer for Heyward’s services. If not, I think Jackson is the likely choice.
The Cubs are not done dealing yet (they’d better not be!). Theo Epstein is quite aware of the holes remaining, and is sure to be on the phones to fix them, even as we speak.