Cubs sign Zobrist, trade Castro

130107_gq_trout_aWell as is generally the case, where there is smoke, there’s fire. And on Tuesday, there was a lot of smoke rising up above the city of Nashville where the MLB Winter Meetings are taking place. Lots of rumors began popping up involving the Cubs in multiple capacities, and sure enough they made the headlines by the end of the day.

The Cubs had been linked to Jason Heyward throughout most of Tuesday, and they still are (we’ll get to that later), but Tuesday evening the focus shifted to Ben Zobrist. Zobrist, one of the game’s best, if not the best, utility men was reportedly nearing a final decision as to where he would ultimately sign. Recent reports all indicated that the Mets were the heavy front-runners, however the Cubs made a late push and signed Zobrist to a four year deal worth $56 million. It is worth noting that of all players Cubs manager Joe Maddon has ever managed at the big league level, no player has played more games for him than Ben Zobrist. Also add in the fact that Zobrist was born in Illinois and still has family in the area, and you begin to understand why he chose the Cubs (aside from the obvious reason of them being a contending team).

What Zobrist brings to the Cubs is versatility. He wants to play second base, and he will, but the fact that he can literally play any other position outside of catcher and pitcher gives Joe Maddon extreme flexibility with his lineup decisions. He is also great at getting on base, with a career .355 on base percentage, and bats from both sides of the plate. If the Cubs don’t end up signing an obvious leadoff hitter, you might want to pencil Zobrist into that spot in the lineup.

Aside from his physical abilities, Zobrist is a winner and a leader. He has played in two World Series now, having won one last year with the Royals, and is generally looked up to by younger teammates. The Cubs, a team with relatively little postseason experience in the field, will definitely benefit from having Zobrist in the lineup come crunch time next season.

So while signing Zobrist was a big move, it may not have even been the biggest news to come from the Cubs on Tuesday. Shortly after agreeing to a deal with Zobrist, the Cubs dealt Starlin Castro to the Yankees in exchange for 28 year old pitcher Adam Warren and veteran infielder Brendan Ryan. The Yankees will take on the remainder of Castro’s contract.

Warren, the main piece coming back to the Cubs in the trade, started 17 games for the Yankees last year and posted a 7-7 record with a solid 3.29 earned run average. He figures to be a number 5-6 starter and/or long reliever. This now gives the Cubs four pitchers who can pitch in relief and make spot starts when needed. Their bullpen depth, which was problematic at times last year, is quickly turning into a strength of the team.

Getting back to Castro, his departure was one that we were all somewhat anticipating for quite some time now. Despite getting off to a horrendous start in 2015, he became a completely new player once being moved to second base, which is where the Yankees plan to start him. While his bat and clubhouse presence will be missed, it was a move the Cubs had to make for two reasons. One, they needed to open up the second base position in order to sign Zobrist. Two, they needed to dump some salary to sign Zobrist. As Theo Epstein said Tuesday night, consider the Cubs’ transactions as a “Castro for Warren and Zobrist trade.”

Looking ahead now, the Cubs are still heavily linked to Jason Heyward as well as Denard Span and, if all else fails, Gerrardo Parra. All three are either center fielders or are capable of playing the position. If the Cubs could have it their way, the belief is they would sign Heyward today.

The Cubs had also shown interest in dealing for Shelby Miller, but the Braves reportedly had too high of an asking price. Tuesday night, the Braves and Diamondbacks agreed to a trade that sent Miller to Arizona, and Dansby Swanson (number one draft pick in 2015 MLB draft) and Ender Inciarte (among a couple other prospects) to Atlanta. Given what Atlanta got in return for Miller, it is clear now why no deal was made with the Cubs. The Braves got an almost unbelievable return in that trade. It’s likely their asking price was for something much more significant than Jorge Soler.

While the Cubs are definitely in the hunt for an outfielder, rumors of their pursuit of a good, young starter have died down a bit. It is unclear if the acquisition of Warren put a halt to that or not, so those rumors could potentially pick up again at some point.

A lot more could happen today and as we approach the weekend, and it should be fun.

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With Price and Zimmermann Gone, Cubs can Zero in on Other Targets

130107_gq_trout_aThe Cubs entered this offseason with the main goals of adding depth to their starting rotation and bullpen, as well as signing a center fielder. Many believed that David Price was the Cubs’ number one target, but he signed a record-breaking deal with Boston yesterday that the Cubs simply could not (nor should they have) matched. Another supposed target of the Cubs, Jordan Zimmermann, signed with the Tigers over the weekend. So now two starting pitchers that the Cubs were believed to have had serious interest in are gone. Where do they go from here with regards to adding pitching, and what free agent outfielders may they heavily pursue?

Let’s start with the pitching.

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are not going to hand out a $150 million contract to a starting pitcher. Not with Lester already making more than that and Jake Arrieta set to earn a major pay raise in the next year. What the Cubs are likely looking for is a pitcher who will accept a two to three year deal worth anywhere from twenty to fifty or sixty million. John Lackey’s name has come up quite frequently in Cubs rumors, and honestly it makes some sense.

Lackey is 37 years old, but he is coming off of a great season in St. Louis where he went 13-10 with a 2.77 earned run average. While age is a bit of a concern with him, he doesn’t seem to be showing many signs of slowing down. At least not yet, which is why signing him to a two-year contract worth somewhere around twenty million makes sense for both sides.

In addition to John Lackey, Jeff Samardzija’s name has begun popping up as a potential target of the Cubs. When the Cubs dealt him to Oakland two years ago at the trade deadline, Epstein and Hoyer did not rule out the possibility of re-signing the big righty when he became a free agent. Well, that time has come, and it appears the Cubs’ brass may be sticking true to their word. Samardzija had a pretty rough season in 2015 with the White Sox, going 11-13 with a career worst 4.96 ERA. Despite having some of the best “stuff” in the game, he lacks control of his fastball with regularity. When this happens, he becomes extremely hittable.

One other possible starting pitcher that could potentially end up on the north side is Shelby Miller. This could only happen via a trade. Rumors have been swirling of a possible Jorge Soler/Javier Baez for Shelby Miller trade. I would assume there would be more pieces to that puzzle if it actually happened. And if it did happen, it would be a great pickup by the Cubs.

The Cubs have an overload of middle infielders with elite talent, and if they could trade one of Baez or Castro and get Shelby Miller in return, it would be a huge move. Miller, who is just 25 years of age, was brought up by the Cardinals and pitched with them from 2012-2014 before ending up in Atlanta. His career numbers are pretty good, and also a bit misleading. Have a look:

2013: 15-9, 3.06 ERA

2014: 10-9, 3.74 ERA

2015: 6-17, 3.02 ERA

Notice that he had a career best earned run average this year, but also had the fewest wins and most losses of his short career. Despite pitching extremely well in 2015, he had no run support in Atlanta. Miller averages about 94mph on his fastball, with a good two seamer. He also throws a curve, changeup, and cutter. He threw more cutters in 2015 than in any other year of his career, and it worked out pretty well for him.

Alright, so that’s the breakdown of the Cubs’ top pitching targets that I think they could realistically end up with. And if they do land any of those three, it will be two of them at most.

Now to the outfielders.

Let’s not mess around here, and get straight to the point. With Zimmermann and Price off the market, the two guys that the Cubs were most likely to spend big on, they now have some extra cash to throw at a center fielder. Enter Jason Heyward, the most sought-after outfielder on the market.

130107_gq_trout_aAfter playing his first five seasons in Atlanta, Heyward was traded to St. Louis in a deal that included none other than Shelby Miller going the other way. In his six seasons in the league, Heyward has averaged about a .270 batting average, 19 home runs, and roughly 70 runs batted in. Not eye-popping stats, but still good ones. This past season was one of his best, as he hit .293 with 13 dingers, 60 RBI, and a career best 6.54 WAR (wins above replacement), which was good for fifteenth in all of baseball. He also won his third career Gold Glove in just his sixth season.

Heyward will get a lot of money from whichever team signs him. The specific amount remains to be seen. The biggest question that the Cubs have regarding signing Heyward is his ability to be a full-time center fielder. Odds are that Dexter Fowler will not return to Chicago, meaning Heyward, who played a handful of games in center while in St. Louis, would take over that position. If the Cubs believe Heyward can handle that permanent role, they will aggressively pursue him, and rightfully so.

Another option that the Cubs have is Denard Span, who has New York Mets v Washington Nationalspatrolled center field for the Nationals over the last three seasons. Span, who is 31 years old, has a career batting average of .287 and a .352 on-base percentage. Both of those numbers are very ideal for a leadoff hitter, which is where he’d bat if in the Cubs’ lineup. He is also an above average defensive player, with a career .991 fielding percentage.

So after all of that, here’s how I would like to see things unfold over the next month:

  • First, I think a Castro/Baez for Shelby Miller trade would be huge for the Cubs. What the Braves will likely want, however, is Jorge Soler, which I would still be in favor of. Miller is young and has a very good arm. Put him to work with Chris Bosio (a pitcher guru), and he could become a star.
  • Second, the Cubs would be smart to sign John Lackey to a two-year deal worth roughly twenty million, as I previously discussed. Given Lackey’s age, this is a good deal for both the club and the player. Imagine a starting rotation of Arrieta, Lester, Miller, Lackey, and Hendricks… Not bad.
  • Jason Heyward. The Cubs need to sign him ASAP, meaning whenever they can. He would be a great addition to the lineup without question.
  • If the Cubs fail in getting Miller or Lackey, then I’d be okay with them turning their focus to Samardzija.
  • Like with Samardzija, Denard Span should be the Cubs top outfield target if they miss on Heyward.

This is likely going to be a fun December for Cubs fans as the front office has made it clear that they’ll be looking to upgrade their starting rotation and add a replacement for Dexter Fowler. In terms of the bullpen, there are a lot of candidates out there and speculating as to who the Cubs may pursue is a crapshoot at this point.

Stay tuned.