It still feels weird talking about the Cubs as a team trying to acquire the last few pieces for a championship run, rather than as one that needs to rebuild from the ground up, but that’s where we are: with the reigning Cy Young winner and some of the best young hitters in the game, Chicago doesn’t need to make a huge splash (and can’t afford to get in on the top free-agent pitchers). And there’s no more complementary player in baseball than Ben Zobrist, who the Cubs acquired last night.
Theo Epstein has fully completed his turnover of the club: Starlin Castro was the last remaining player on the roster that was here when Epstein took over following the 2011 season, and now he’s gone. The only evidence that Jim Hendry was ever here is Javier Baez, drafted in 2011.
Castro was shipped to the Yankees in exchange for pitcher Adam Warren and infielder Brendan Ryan. Right around the same time, the Cubs finalized the deal with Zobrist.
“It was an opportunity to essentially trade Starlin for Ben Zobrist and Adam Warren,” said Epstein. “We couldn’t have made this free agent signing without this trade and would not have made this trade without the free agent signing.”
The money works out well for the Cubs. The Yankees will assume the $38 million owed to Castro over the next four years, clearing space for the Cubs to offer Zobrist four years and $56 million deal.
The loss of Castro may end up stinging—once a prized prospect, he has occasionally struggled and caused controversy, but he is a three-time All-Star and is still just 25 years old. He came on late in 2015, coinciding with a fulltime switch from shortstop to second base, and that’s where the Yankees will start him.
Warren may help. A 28-year-old righty with good numbers, especially for the AL, he can contribute as a long reliever or a back-of-the-rotation starter. The Cubs, whose weak spot remains their starting pitching, could do a lot worse—and have.
But this is all about Zobrist, a reliably solid switch hitter with a bit of pop and good durability. He takes walks, he hits doubles, he gets on base and he scores: despite his declining speed, it wouldn’t be crazy to project Zobrist as the Cubs’ leadoff hitter next year. (Acquired at the trade deadline, he was the Royals No. 2 hitter down the stretch and throughout the playoffs.)
But Zobrist’s real value is in the flexibility he gives you to compose a lineup around him. Last season, he played second, third, left, and right. In his career he’s started at every position but pitcher and catcher. Joe Maddon, who had Zobrist for so many years in Tampa, raves about the options Zobrist provides a club.
“I thought there should have been a super-U player on the All-Star team,” Maddon said. “It’s an absolute position, just like second base or left field is. A real, legitimate SU guy is a position, and it permits you to do so many different things with your lineup daily and so many different things to get progress daily.”
Zobrist, 34, also provides the young Cubs with some veteran leadership and playoff experience. He’s the type of player you acquire when you think you’re ready to win now, and there’s no reason Chicago shouldn’t be going head-to-head with the Mets for NL supremacy for years to come.
Yes, there’s still the matter of the rotation behind Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester, but this is a rough year for the pitching market. David Price and Zack Greinke got a lot of money and got it quickly, and the trade market is grim: Atlanta reportedly wanted Kris Bryant as part of a deal for Shelby Miller, something the Cubs understandably laughed off. (Miller ended up bringing a huge return, including the 2015 first overall draft pick.) They’re forced to settle for building up rotation depth with the acquisitions of Warren and John Lackey, signed for two years and $32M.
But the Cubs still have the assets to get pitching at the trade deadline if needed, and perhaps go for broke next winter after one more year of seasoning. Things aren’t merely looking up in Chicago: the Cubs look ready.