Winter Report Card: Impressive young Cubs ace off-season
With one week left before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season while acknowledging that there's still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2015. Now up: the Chicago Cubs. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
97–65 (.599), third place in National League Central (Hot Stove Preview)
IF Starlin Castro, OF Chris Denorfia*, CF Dexter Fowler*, RHP Dan Haren^, IF Jonathan Herrera*, RHP Tommy Hunter*, CF Austin Jackson*, RHP Jason Motte, RHP Fernando Rodney, LHP James Russell, LHP Tsuyoshi Wada
OF Jason Heyward, RHP John Lackey, RHP Adam Warren, 2B/UT Ben Zobrist
(*free agent, still unsigned; ^retired)
Coming off a 97-win season and a National League Championship Series appearance, Chicago was in need of a centerfielder to replace departing free agent Dexter Fowler, a fifth starter, some bullpen depth and perhaps a bit of clarity in a crowded young infield. The Cubs not only checked off every item on their list this off-season, but they also did so with a flourish.
For centerfield, the Cubs signed the best young position player on the market: Jason Heyward, who is heading into his age-26 campaign after being worth more than six Wins Above Replacement in each of the last two seasons (according to baseball-reference.com’s WAR statistic). In early December, I calculated that Heyward could have justified a $300 million investment this winter; the Cubs got him for $184 million over eight years and may wind up paying him as little as $58 million should he trigger his opt-out after the 2018 season. Yes, there’s some concern about the impact of the move from right to center on Heyward’s value, but as an elite defender with speed and youth, he is certainly capable of making the transition smoothly. There’s also the added bonus of stealing Heyward away from the rival Cardinals.
Chicago didn't take just Heyward from St. Louis, however. The Cubs also raided the Cardinals to flesh out their rotation, signing veteran righty John Lackey to a two-year, $32 million contract. Heyward and Lackey ranked first and second on the Cardinals in bWAR last year, combining for 12.2 WAR; both are now Cubs. Lackey is heading into his age-37 season, which is risky territory for a pitcher in today’s game, but he is coming off a fantastic age-36 campaign (143 ERA+ and 3.57 FIP in 218 innings, his best showing in each of those categories since 2007) and needs only to give the Cubs one strong season to make his two-year deal pay off. Lackey also comes with a strong and lengthy postseason track record and will slot into the third spot in the rotation behind defending Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta and former teammate Jon Lester, with whom he partnered atop the rotation of the 2013 world champion Red Sox.
The Cubs were expected to go bigger when it came to a free-agent starting pitcher—they were seen as the favorites to land lefty ace David Price, whose career began under current Chicago manager Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay. But with Arrieta and Lester in the top two spots, the Cubs didn’t need to spend $200 million on a pitcher, and their decision to go with Lackey allowed them to get not only Heyward but also a different former Ray in Ben Zobrist, who signed for four years and $56 million.
Zobrist, who will be 35 in May, might have seemed like an odd fit at first, given that the Cubs had a surplus of talented young infielders and that he is primarily a second baseman. But the Zobrist signing coincided with a trade that sent frustrating shortstop-turned-second baseman Starlin Castro to the Yankees. That deal opened up the position for Zobrist, cleared salary (Castro is owed $38 million over the next four years) and brought back valuable swing righty Adam Warren, who has three team-controlled years remaining and can serve as either the team’s sixth starter or a reliable setup man, depending on need.
Zobrist is a better fit for the Cubs than Castro not just because of the sharp contrast in reliability between the two players or Zobrist’s potential as an on-field leader for a young team, but also because of his ability to switch-hit and play the outfield. Kyle Schwarber's bat is too valuable not to play everyday, but he has yet to prove himself viable as an everyday catcher or leftfielder. When Schwarber is in left, Zobrist can start at second; with Schwarber behind the plate, Maddon can move Zobrist to left and give Javier Baez some opportunities at second base. Against righties, Zobrist gives the Cubs a fifth lefthanded bat alongside Schwarber, Heyward, Anthony Rizzo and Miguel Montero. Against lefties, Maddon has the option of sitting Schwarber or Montero as Zobrist and Baez turn two of those lineup spots around to the right side. There’s some concern that Castro could pick up where he left off after his mostly successful conversion to second base in August and finally fulfill his potential with the Yankees, but the Cubs don’t lack for quality bats. Zobrist gives them certainty, reliability, flexibility and a high on-base percentage at the top of the order.
Unfinished Business: Winning the pennant
It has been 71 years since the Cubs last appeared in the World Series, and they fell four games short last year. They don't need to do anything else to their roster to open the season as favorites in the NL.
Preliminary Grade: A
What keeps this from being an A+ are the caveats that come with each of their moves: Lackey's and Zobrist’s ages and the apparent decline in the latter’s fielding; Heyward’s move to centerfield; Castro’s remaining potential; and the extremely small sample in which righty Trevor Cahill (re-signed to a one-year, $4.25 million deal after his late-season conversion into an above-average reliever) had his success. But those seem like minor points compared to the upgrades those moves represent. The Cubs' winter was nearly as impressive as their 2015 season. Now let's see what they can do in 2016.