The Winter Meetings are a period unlike any other in the world of sports. Baseball executives, major media members, and managers come together to typically dissect the list of available free agents, as well as negotiate trade talks with other clubs to bolster their respective organizations. It was this time last year Cubs fans following the anxiety filled Jon Lester sweepstakes were frantically refreshing their social media outlets, hoping the left-hander would land on the North side.
Fast forward one year. The Cubs are 24 wins better, fell four games short of winning a pennant, and have a roster makeup primed for sustainable success in the immediate future thanks to decisions made around this time each year by President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer. The duo added to their impressive array of offseason moves by signing utility player Ben Zobrist to a four year deal worth $56 million. Before fans could ponder over the possible log jam in the infield, Starlin Castro was traded to the New York Yankees for Right-handed pitcher Adam Warren, and a player to be named later, which turned out to be infielder Brendan Ryan.
Before diving into the value of Zobrist, we must first acknowledge the trade of a home grown Cub who’s been a centerpiece in the organization since his debut in May of 2010. Starlin Castro has been subject to heavy criticism throughout his time in Chicago for his occasional lapses in attention, his nonchalant demeanor on the field, and errors that seemed to occur all too often, as well as several negative offseason instances. From turning his back to the hitter at shortstop as the pitch was thrown, to starting his home run trot on what ended up being a single off the wall, Castro’s actions and patterns of inconsistency brought about a growing number of critiques.
Despite it all, Starlin Castro was the ultimate professional. He would always take accountability in post game media sessions, of which was always available to answer questions. Castro struggled with inconsistencies in 2013, in parts of 2014, and in 2015 where he would eventually be benched. Again, Castro handled that difficult situation as an ultimate professional and was credited by management for handling such adversity.
Starlin Castro was a three time all-star with the Cubs totaling 991 hits in 891 games. A swing first, take pitches later kind of approach influenced a heavy number of strike outs as opposed to walks, which negatively impacted his on base percentage — something Epstein wants to improve starting next season (Cubs struck out more than any other team last year with 1,518, ahead of Houston by 126). However, despite spurts in which he struggled, Castro managed to own a .280 average in four out of his six years as a Cub with two being at a clip of .300 or better. He showed glimpses of power, hitting double digit home runs in five seasons, while accumulating 181 doubles to this point of his Major League career.
In the end, the speculation around Castro’s future as a Cub that essentially began in 2013 ultimately resulted in a deal for a young arm and a veteran backup infielder. This deal makes a ton of sense (as a lot of Cubs moves do nowadays) for several reasons. First, with the signing of Zobrist, second base is now locked. Despite the utility player’s ability to play any position, Zobrist made it clear he wanted to play second base and the Cubs happily obliged. Plus, the Cubs feel they can make a run at several other positions of need, including center field and possibly another pitcher. To do that, the Cubs needed to free up payroll after adding Zobrist’s $56 mil to have any potential deals come to fruition. The Yankees turned out to be a perfect match with their need for a second baseman and ability to pick up Castro’s remaining $38 million over three years. In the end, the Cubs are paying Zobrist almost the same amount as they would have Castro, only over one more season, as ESPN’s Jesse Rogers so kindly reinforces this idea:
Money w Castro/Zobrist is pretty much a wash for all practical purposes. Zobrist one more yr
— Jesse Rogers (@ESPNChiCubs) December 9, 2015
Not only does the deal free up cap space for a potential big-name free agent signing like Jason Heyward, the Cubs were able to gain a young arm in Adam Warren (28) that many experts surrounding the game are high on. The 6’1”, 225 pound right-handed pitcher appeared in 43 games (17 starts) last season for the Yankees and finished with a 3.29 ERA and 104 strikeouts in 131.1 innings. Warren is expected to compete for a spot in the rotation, but a more likely scenario is he works out of the bullpen where he’s had success throughout his career. Overall, its a win for both teams.
Now onto the acquisition of Ben Zobrist, a move Cubs fans should be very excited about. The switch-hitting super utility man is versatile, which is an aspect of the game Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon loves to play around with. Zobrist makes his money as a high contact hitter who walks as often as he strikes out. Last year his slugging percentage had been at its highest in three seasons at the age of 34. Zobrist is a career .265 hitter with an OPS of .786 in 10 Major League seasons. Early reports this offseason stated the Cubs wanted hitters who could put the ball in play in key moments. Bang, boom, bam, Ben Zobrist.
Despite Zobrist’s lowest WAR season since 2008, he still projects to be worth around his career average of 3.5 in 2016. His Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA better represents a player’s offensive value than average, RBI or OPS) of .349 last season was considered above average among major leaguers and projects to be consistent with his career .344 wOBA over the next several years.
The Cubs see Zobrist as the filler at the top of their lineup, and a reliable one at that. His high contact rate, OBP and wRC+ suggests the production he is so valued for will continue, making the Cubs and their fans happy campers.