Earlier this week, a report from Nick Cafardo finally did what many of you have been wanting to see for a while now, or at least since the Tampa Bay Rays signed Asdrubal Cabrera: the report connected the Chicago Cubs to a pursuit of super utility man Ben Zobrist in an explicit way. And it was very explicit, noting that the Cubs, Giants, Nationals, and Angels were “seriously” pursuing Zobrist.
Now you can add a Ken Rosenthal report today as a second data point connecting the Cubs and Zobrist, explicitly.
The article focuses on the Nationals, who may have lost Jayson Werth for the start of the season, and why Rosenthal believes they should be pursuing Zobrist more than they are (notably, Rosenthal says the Nats are “not actively pursuing” him right now). With a glut of impending post-2015 free agents, Rosenthal wonders, though, if the Nationals might not want to add yet another one-year guy to the pile. Instead, “clubs such as the Giants and Cubs might be willing to give more for Zobrist, knowing they would extend him a qualifying offer.” Moreover, Rosenthal says some execs question whether the Giants can build the right package to get Zobrist, as compared to the Cubs, who certainly can.
To be very clear, this is not Rosenthal writing about the Cubs actively, seriously pursuing Zobrist. Instead, he appears to assume that the Cubs are involved, which is probably fair, given Cafardo’s report and the fit.
Which, then, brings us back to where I always land when it comes to Zobrist: I’d love to see him on the Cubs, but he’s a fit for most teams – maybe a better fit for some than the Cubs – and it’ll cost quite a bit in prospects to acquire Zobrist, even though he’s under control for just one year. So let’s break it down a bit more.
Assuming the 33-year-old Zobrist can keep up his production, he might then provide the opportunity to recoup a draft pick via the qualifying offer after 2015, but you can’t quite count on that. Instead, the vast majority of the value you’d be acquiring is whatever Zobrist can provide in 2015. To a team like the Cubs, who projects to win something in the mid-80s range of games in 2015 right now, adding a Zobrist is arguably disproportionately valuable (see our previous discussion of the value of incremental wins). And the club has been stockpiling prospect assets for a reason – they can’t all play on the big league club, and, indeed, they won’t all make it there anyway. Throw in the fact that Jon Lester’s (and Miguel Montero’s and Jason Hammel’s) best years with the Cubs are coming sooner rather than later, and you’ve got a handful of compelling reasons to make a move for Zobrist, who could help the Cubs all over the field and at the plate.
On the flip side, with so much positional versatility on the roster already, you could argue that the thing that makes Zobrist so valuable will be slightly less valuable to the Cubs than other interested teams (which means they would be overpaying in trade, relative to other offers, to get him). Further, if the Cubs and other teams were acquiring him to play a specific position because of the value in his bat, then those other teams might have a more pressing need at higher-order defensive positions (2B? SS?) than the Cubs (LF?), which would, again, make Zobrist slightly less valuable to the Cubs than other interested teams.
Still, when you see that Zobrist could arguably improve the Cubs not only in left field, but also potentially center field and second base (providing more time for Arismendy Alcantara and Javier Baez to develop, too), I think I’ve started to buy the idea that he’s as valuable to the Cubs as any other team out there. It took me a few days, but I think I’m there.
So the only question, then, is whether the acquisition price is worth what Zobrist provides to the Cubs. The Rays reportedly want one top prospect and another very good piece, which, for the Cubs probably means a guy in the 6-10 range in the prospect rankings (which could be a back-end top 100 guy overall), and then another in the 11 to 20 range. That’s a really heavy price for one year of Zobrist (though his mere $7.5 million salary increases his value*).
All in all, I’d like to see the Cubs take a serious run at Zobrist, even if the price is high. You could probably look to the Jason Heyward and Justin Upton deals for guidance – Zobrist probably costs just a touch less.
Keep in mind: even if the Rays are an absolute lock to trade Zobrist before the season (and I’m not sure they are), there will be so many teams interested in picking him up. This is not a Cubs or nobody situation, and the Cubs’ desires do not operate in a vacuum. They may want Zobrist deeply, may make a compelling offer, and may still not get him.
*(Serious back-of-the-napkin: Using the newest prospect valuations from FanGraphs, a back-end top 100 guy is worth about $10 to $12 million in surplus value, and a Cubs prospect in the 11-20 range is probably worth, what, half that? So about $15 to $18 million in surplus value total? Well, Steamer projects Zobrist at just about 4 wins in 2015, which, at $6.5 million per win, is worth $26 million. Subtract his $7.5 million salary, and you get $18.5 million in surplus value. I know some don’t like these kinds of valuation methods, but it’s pretty striking how frequently they work out like this.)