Cubs make splash signing Ben Zobrist; deal Starlin Castro to Yankees
NASHVILLE—The Cubs enlivened a slow day at the winter meetings with a pair of moves that reconfigured their middle infield, added depth to their pitching staff and reunited manager Joe Maddon with perhaps his best player from his time in Tampa Bay. First, they landed switch-hitting free agent Ben Zobrist via a four-year, $56 million deal, then traded former All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro to the Yankees for swingman Adam Warren and utilityman Brendan Ryan. In the short term, the addition of Zobrist should improve the team's offense, but the return on Castro is likely less than the team would have gotten with a better-timed deal.
The 34-year-old Zobrist (35 on May 26) split the 2015 season between Oakland and Kansas City after spending the previous nine seasons with the Rays, a stint that coincided with Maddon's tenure. Zobrist overcame a slow start and a month lost to surgery to repair a torn medial meniscus in his left knee to hit a combined .276/.359/.450 with 13 homers and a 120 OPS+. Traded from the Rays to the Athletics in a five-player deal on Jan. 10, he was then dealt to the Royals on July 28. He was a perfect fit in Kansas City, where he filled in for the injured Alex Gordon in leftfield and then took over for the struggling (and then injured) Omar Infante at second base. He was particularly pesky in the playoffs, hitting a combined .303/.365/.515 with eight doubles (tying a postseason record) and two homers, batting second and playing second base in every game.
Zobrist emerged as a valuable player in Tampa Bay thanks to both his versatility and a club-friendly contract signed in April 2010; originally a four-year, $18 million deal, it included a pair of club options worth a combined $14.5 million for 2014 and '15. He helped the Rays to three playoff berths and a pennant, earned All-Star honors in 2009 and '13, and generally split his time primarily between second base and rightfield but dabbled at every position besides pitcher and catcher if and when the Rays had a need. From 2009 (his first full, healthy season in Tampa Bay) through '14, he hit a combined .270/.364/.437 for a 123 OPS+ and averaged 6.2 Wins Above Replacement per year; his 37.5 WAR over that stretch ranked behind only Robinson Cano (40.8) and Miguel Cabrera (38.5) among all position players. Thanks to particularly strong defense, he led the league in both 2009 and '11 with seasons of 8.6 and 8.7 WAR, respectively.
Those days are likely behind him, and if there's a concern, it's that Zobrist's defensive numbers plummeted in 2015. Via Defensive Runs Saved, he went from six runs above average in 2014 to 12 runs below average in '15, though the fact that he split his time between two positions for two teams means that none of the sample sizes were larger than 35 games. In other words, it may have been a fluke, though his age and recent knee woes suggest that a return to the 5–6 WAR level that he occupied from 2012 to '14 isn't likely.
Barring other moves by the Cubs, Zobrist will likely be their lineup's oldest player, and one of only two older than 30 (Miguel Montero being the other). He's roughly nine years older than Castro, who began the year as the team's starting shortstop but switched positions with rookie Addison Russell in August. Given that Castro hit just .265/.296/.375 and that the team also appears likely to lose Dexter Fowler (.250/.346/.411) to free agency, Zobrist's arrival helps to provide a nice boost in on-base percentage.
Zobrist drew heavy interest from the Mets, Giants, Nationals and Dodgers, though his preference for second base appears to have ruled out San Francisco, which has Joe Panik in place. Earlier on Tuesday, Zobrist was rumored to have been offered a four-year, $80 million deal from an unspecified team, but that was quickly shot down. He was said to be the top free-agent target of the Mets, whose assistant general manager, John Ricco, put forth the belief that Zobrist's final decision likely wasn't about money but proximity to his Nashville home and his relationship with Maddon. Via the New York Post's Ken Davidoff, Zobrist will receive a $2 million signing bonus and then salaries of $10 million in 2016, $16 million apiece in '17 and '18 and $12 million in '19, and he'll have a full no-trade clause for the first three of those years, with a limited no-trade in the last one that allows him to block deals to eight teams.
As for Castro, though he doesn't turn 26 until March 24, he has struggled at the plate in two of the last three seasons while playing himself off of shortstop. For that three-year span (2013–15), he hit a combined .265/.305/.383 for an 89 OPS+ with averages of 11 homers and five steals a year; including his below-average defense (-15 DRS), he's averaged just 0.8 WAR in that span. By comparison, he emerged as one of the game's bright young stars in his first three seasons, hitting a combined .297/.336/.425 for a 109 OPS+ with averages of nine homers, 19 steals and 2.7 WAR per year. While he earned All-Star honors in 2011, '12 and '14, his on-field lapses have led to benchings, and he's had off-field issues as well. In 2012, he was accused of sexual assault, but prosecutors declined to charge him due to insufficient evidence. Additionally, he was questioned by police in connection with a 2014 shooting at a Dominican Republic nightclub but was cleared of any involvement.
All of which marks Castro as a player who could benefit with a change of scenery, and while the bright lights of New York may not be the ideal move, the Yankees' failure to stabilize second base since losing Cano to free agency following the 2013 season sets a low bar that he should easily surpass. In 2015, the team received a .223/.279/.403 offensive showing and -12 DRS from Stephen Drew and five other players. Drew's free agency left deadline acquisition Dustin Ackley and rookie Rob Refsnyder as the likely candidates to take over the position, but neither was a sure bet to improve even that sorry production. Within the small sample of games he played after switching positions, Castro showed enough to suggest that he could handle second base defensively, so already he represents at least a modest upgrade, and alongside soon-to-be-26-year-old shortstop Didi Gregorius, who was acquired last winter, he gives the Yankees an injection of youth in the middle infield.
The Cubs signed Castro to a seven-year, $60 million extension in August 2012, covering the '13–'19 seasons with a club option for '20. He has $37 million remaining on that deal, via salaries of $7 million in 2016, then $9 million, $10 million and $11 million, with a $16 million option and $1 million buyout for '20, his age-30 season. That cost certainty through his prime years once made him one of the game's most valuable trade commodities, but his struggles in recent years lowered that value even as the Cubs built up a logjam of young, high-upside infielders including Russell, Javier Baez and 2015 NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant.
Once upon a time, the Cubs could dream that from that surplus, Castro would fetch a key rotation piece in return, with names like the Padres' Tyson Ross and the Mets' Zack Wheeler or Jacob deGrom occasionally circulating. Warren probably wasn't what they originally had in mind, which is hardly to say that he's without value. The 28-year-old righty first emerged as a solid setup man for the Yankees in 2013, throwing a combined 155 2/3 innings with a 3.18 ERA and 8.1 strikeouts per nine that year and the next. He split 2015 between the rotation and the bullpen: As a starter, he turned in a 3.66 ERA, 3.92 FIP and 6.3 strikeouts per nine in 96 innings over 17 turns, 14 of which came from April to June, with three more in September as the Yankees' rotation was hit by injuries. As a reliever, he delivered a 2.29 ERA, 3.02 FIP and 9.4 strikeouts per nine in 35 1/3 innings. That resumé means he could be a viable back-of-the-rotation starter or setup man, and at a low price, too, given that he's in his first year of arbitration eligibility.
As for Ryan, he's just window-dressing in this deal, a 33-year-old utilityman—Zobrist, by comparison is considered a super-utilityman for his additional ability to play the outfield, though even calling him that is like calling Citizen Kane a movie about a sled—who hit just .229/.275/.333 in 104 plate appearances in 2015. Back and neck problems have limited Ryan to just 96 games over the last two seasons, eroding his defense to around average and thus his total contribution to sub-replacement level. His $1 million salary for 2016 suggests he'll be back on the waiver wire soon, as the Cubs can likely put his roster spot to better use.
In all, the upgrade from Castro to Zobrist should serve as a short-term improvement for a team that emerged from its rebuilding program and returned to the postseason for the first time since 2008, and the trade of Castro for Warren should bolster the staff in at one end or the other. It's not as flashy as some of the previous Castro trades the rumored Baez-for-Shelby Miller swap would have been, but then it's unfair to judge an actual deal against ones whose resemblance to reality may never be known.