Yesterday was a big day for the Cubs. Rather, yesterday was a huge day for the Cubs. I don't need to recap the deals for you all, but I will anyway: within about an hour of each other, the Cubs signed Ben Zobrist to a four-year, $56 million deal and then traded Starlin Castro to the Yankees for Adam Warren and Brendan Ryan.
It's difficult to separate these moves given the position's of Zobrist and Castro and given that proximity of the moves to each other.
However, Castro was an asset independent of Zobrist and Zobrist's acquisition was its own move. In this piece, I'm just going to look at Zobrist.
So what exactly did the Cubs buy? And was it a good idea or not?
To put it mildly, Ben Zobrist has had an unconventional career path. He was selected in the sixth round (184th overall) by the Astros in the 2004 draft out of Dallas Baptist, and he zoomed through the Houston system on the strength of elite on-base skills: Zobrist had a .429 career minor league on-base percentage. The switch-hitter was dealt to Tampa Bay in a 2006 trade deadline deal that sent Aubrey Huff to the Astros.
Zobrist's Major League career got off to a rocky start as he posted -1.9 fWAR through his age-26 season in 2007. But the something clicked for Zobrist in 2008 as he posted 1.5 fWAR over a 62-game sample before producing one of baseball's great breakout seasons. In 2009, at age 28 and with a career fWAR of -0.4 to date, Zobrist erupted to top all of Major League Baseball with 8.6 fWAR as he provided elite value both with his glove and bat. Zobrist returned to earth with a strong 3.8 fWAR in 2010 before ripping off four straight years with at least 5 fWAR from 2011-14.
Zobrist was dealt to Oakland last winter, and he struggled mightily through his first two months with the Athletics, dragged down by a torn meniscus which eventually required late April surgery. Zobrist scuffled for about a week upon his return, but then he returned to form in June and didn't look back as the career .265/.355/.431 hitter posted a sizzling .282/.369/.461 line over the season's final four months primarily spent with the Royals. Zobrist was even better in October as his .303/.365/.515 tally paced the Royals in their pursuit of a championship.
Zobrist has long been known for his defense as he has consistently produced excellent value both at second base and in the corner outfield spots. 2015 proved to be a truly alarming aberration as his range seemingly evaporated. It remains to be seen to what extent this may have been driven by his knee injury.
Even with the defensive struggles in 2015 -- at least according to the metrics -- the player described above would normally command something in the neighborhood of $20 million per year on a deal cover six or more seasons. However, Ben Zobrist comes with one major drawback: he turns 35 in May.
The track record for baseball players heading into their late-30s is consistently poor, yet the Cubs are betting that Zobrist bucks the trend. Does this make any sense?
Quite simply, yes, it does.
Zobrist has been one of the most consistently productive offensive players in all of baseball, posting a superb walk rate between 10.3% and 15.2% in each of the past eight years and never once posting a strikeout rate above 19.0% in a full season. Zobrist's strikeout rate hasn't exceeded 15.4% in four years, and his 10.5% K% in 2015 would have led the Cubs by a significant margin.
His Steamer projection for 2016 sees him continuing on without interruption, a notable forecast from a system that would generally be expected to project a serious downturn from a 35-year-old. If Zobrist produces a .271/.352/.420 batting line from the leadoff spot while bringing his patented defensive versatility, Cubs fans will be quite pleased. Such a line would be a hair more productive than Dexter Fowler's career-year mark from 2015.
But what about that defense? The metrics that have adored Zobrist throughout his career threw him under the bus in 2015, rating him as a very poor defender at both second base and in the outfield corners, standing in stark contrast to the rest of his career.
Obviously the Cubs are hoping that the defender of old arrives in Mesa next February, rendering the 2015 defensive version of Zobrist merely a bizarre aberration.
But the reason that this deal is such a strong one is that the Cubs didn't pay for Zobrist to be an elite defender: they paid for him to be an average-or-worse defender and only paying Zobrist based on his down 2015 as opposed to his previous run of elite production. The free agent marketplace is currently paying something in the neighborhood of a $8 million per WAR, and Zobrist projects to produce approximately 3 WAR in 2015. If we take away WAR at a slightly more aggressive rate than is customarily used, we could expect Zobrist to produce something like 2.2 WAR in 2017, 1.4 WAR in 2018, and 0.6 WAR in 2019 for a total production of 7.2 WAR. 7.2 WAR would be expected to cost approximately $57.6M, so even a rapidly declining Zobrist would be expected to earn his contract.
It goes without saying that Zobrist's upside is many times greater than that admittedly gloomy projection.
Even at his advanced age, Ben Zobrist is an extremely good bet to earn his contract, and he comes with uncommonly high upside for a player in his mid-30s. The Cubs are taking an extremely well-calculated risk here, one that I'm very happy to see them take.
There is another consideration in play here, and that is the budget. I've addressed the budget in far greater detail here, but the bottom line is that the Cubs' 40-man payroll figures to come in between $130 million and perhaps as high as $145 million in 2016. With this week's transactions, the 40-man payroll for 2016 currently stands at approximately $132.8 million. While the dream of Jason Heyward, Chicago Cubs centerfielder, remains intact, such an acquisition would require some rather significant payroll gymnastics. In the simplest rumination, the Cubs could trade Travis Wood and Chris Coghlan to free up approximately $10.3 million of salary space. If the team pushed to the top end of the projected salary range, Heyward could fit in 2016. Obviously that would create issues down the road in terms of dollars, but short-term, it would be feasible.
That said, I'm not holding my breath with regard to a Heyward acquisition, even if the front office believes that he can handle center and if he is interested in doing so. He'd be an ideal fit near the top of the lineup with Zobrist, Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo, and Kris Bryant, but it's difficult to envision the Ricketts ponying up the cash for Heyward when the team is already pushing a 100-win projection and with Jake Arrieta possibly heading for a massive extension.
Regardless, the Zobrist deal sure looks like a great one to me. The Cubs are playing a currently good and formerly elite player to merely be a league-average starter for a few years. While there's risk as Zobrist moves into his mid-to-late-30s, there's also ample reward in the possibility that Zobrist rediscovers his 2009-14 form with his knee injury a thing of the past. I'm quite certain that the Cubs front office will be happy to find out the answer to that question.