Cubs Sign Ben Zobrist, Initiate Next Phase of Offseason

The reliever period of the offseason is over. We can now move on. Most of the league, it seemed, was waiting on Ben Zobrist’s decision before kicking their offseason into high-gear. Zobrist has made his decision. He’ll be going to the Cubs, on a four-year deal worth $56 million dollars. With Zobrist out of the way, you’ll soon begin hearing Yoenis Cespedes rumors, and Justin Upton rumors, and Alex Gordon rumors. Zobrist was the domino that needed to fall to set the rest of the offseason into action. That much is true for the Cubs, too.

With Zobrist in the fold, the Cubs held an obvious surplus of talent. Too many players for too few positions. The Starlin Castro rumors and the Javier Baez rumors had persisted for so long, and it was clear the Cubs had something else lined up when they agreed to terms with Zobrist. Within the hour, Castro had been shipped to the Yankees for righty Adam Warren and veteran utility man Brendan Ryan.

Castro is simply the fallout from the Zobrist move. Castro’s owed $37 million over the next four seasons, and no longer had a position in Chicago. That’s pricey for a backup. Something had to give. The Yankees needed a second baseman, and the money isn’t much a factor to them, and so they were willing to part with a 28-year-old swingman with eye-popping projections and a utility man on the last legs of his career. Castro should be fine as the starting second baseman in New York, and it’s easy to forget he’s still just 25 years old. Between Castro, Dustin Ackley and Rob Refsnyder, the Yankees shouldn’t need to worry about second base. But the Yankees aren’t the interesting part of the action, here. The Cubs are.

We knew the Cubs were going to have an active offseason. We had no idea how that might manifest itself. We still don’t. But we’re starting to see a clearer picture. First, we heard about the possibility of David Price, and then we saw the reality of John Lackey. Lackey is a fine pitcher who was a great pitcher just last year, and he came $170 million cheaper. Chicago wasn’t comfortable going as high as Boston on Price, and they were perfectly comfortable with Lackey as a fallback plan. The rotation, now, appears to be set.

The rotation was set, and the bullpen didn’t need much in the way of fixing in the first place, especially after bringing Trevor Cahill back into the mix. All the attention, then, could be turned to the position player unit.

The specific details of the Zobrist contract: $56 million over four years, with a $2 million signing bonus included. Over the first three seasons, Zobrist owns a full no-trade clause. By year, the salaries break down like this:

  • 2016: $10 million
  • 2017: $16 million
  • 2018: $16 million
  • 2019: $12 million

Our contract crowdsourcing project had Zobrist pegged for three years, $42 million, and Dave Cameron had estimated four years and $76 millions. By all accounts, the deal Zobrist actually signed seems entirely reasonable, and reasonable in free agency equates to a bargain. It seems Zobrist may have taken less money for location reasons. He’s also coming from the World Series champions to perhaps the World Series favorites, where he gets to reunite with his longtime former manager Joe Maddon.

By now, we know the deal about Ben Zobrist. He’s versatile, and so managers love to have him. He walks as often as he strikes out, he makes a ton of contact, and last year, he hit for more power than he had in three seasons. The defensive numbers didn’t look as shiny last year as they had in years past, but he also dealt with the aftermath of early-season knee surgery, and so maybe the defense can be expected to rebound. Either way, Zobrist is solid at the plate, and consistent as they come. At the beginning of the offseason, Theo Epstein expressed a desire for “situational contact hitters.” They got their guy. Zobrist is a solid player, who for a while was quietly one of the game’s best, and for what he’s being paid, it wouldn’t take much for this to look like a bargain in the end.

Plus, by shipping Castro off to New York, the Cubs cleared $7 million from the books in 2016, and so by adding Zobrist, they effectively only added $5 million to this year’s payroll. Lackey will make $16 million, and Cahill will earn $4 million. After Zobrist, Lackey and Cahill, the Cubs have still only added something like $25 million in 2016 salary. Remember that, in Price, the Cubs were set to take on plenty more. The structure of Zobrist’s contract seems to indicate they’re still willing to take on more. And the construction of their roster seems to indicate they’re still willing to trade more.

All throughout the day, Javier Baez-to-Tampa Bay rumors lingered, and while having two guys who can play anywhere might sound like Joe Maddon’s dream, it stands to reason that Baez is still available for the right price. The right price could still come from Tampa Bay, who could help the Cubs assemble a super-bullpen of their own by adding someone like Jake McGee or Brad Boxgerger, perhaps alongside a starting pitcher. Jorge Soler for Shelby Miller sounded like a strong possibility at points over the last 24 hours, and while that deal will no longer be happening, it’s clear that the Cubs are far from done making moves. They won’t be done until they land a center fielder. They might not be done until they land Jason Heyward.

Although most of the attention had been paid to the hole in the Cubs outfield, it ought to have been clear that the team’s starting second baseman wouldn’t be Castro or Baez. Instead, it will be Ben Zobrist, and that’s an improvement over either. Just two years ago, Zobrist was worth nearly six WAR, and for the price at which the Cubs landed him, they won’t need nearly that much for the deal to look fine. Moving Starlin Castro helped shave money off the books for 2016 and beyond, and the return of Adam Warren makes this far more than a salary dump. It’s hard not to like what the Cubs have done, already. It’s fascinating to wonder what the Cubs might do next.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Cubbies
6 years ago

Winning a ring without Starlin Castro won’t be the same.

Glad to have Ben Zobrist on board though!

Curse of the Bambino
6 years ago
Reply to  Cubbies

You are not winning a ring with or without Starlin Castro.

Richie
6 years ago

Golly! Cub fans are, uhh, somewhat ‘sensitive’, no?

John DiFool
6 years ago
Reply to  Richie

Plus it’s “Curse of the Billy Goat.” Please keep them straight (esp. since one of them has been thoroughly consigned to oblivion).

theguz
6 years ago
Reply to  Cubbies

Brendan Ryan’s OPS, 2015: .608.

Castro’s OPS on Sept. 7, 2015: .607.

Snap out of it.