Typically, I probably wouldn’t raise my eyebrows at seeming speculation about a Cubs player if it came out of nowhere, with no past connection and no real weight behind it. But when it comes from a writer with local connections and a past connection to the player at issue, and when that player has already been discussed as a possible trade candidate, yes, my eyebrows do rise slightly.
So it is with Tampa Bay Rays beat writer Marc Topkin, who today writes: “If the Rays did want to add another proven bat, Ben Zobrist could be an intriguing, and quite popular, option in trade from the Cubs.”
Topkin does not expand, but it’s not as if this line is mixed in with a ton of other speculative transaction possibilities for the Rays. Rather, it sticks out like a sore thumb – like maybe it was something Topkin had heard about, but didn’t have a whole lot of other insight beyond that.
Throw in the fact that the Cubs could plausibly consider moving Zobrist – and the subject has come up – and this is probably something to note.
The Rays certainly have the kind of young pitching that could interest the Cubs – guys like Jalen Beeks or Anthony Banda or Yonny Chirinos or Hunter Wood – and a boatload of quality prospects. If the Cubs were looking to move Zobrist (and salary) for young pieces, sure, there’s a fit there. And like I said before, sure, I can imagine scenarios where the Cubs cash in on Zobrist’s great 2018 season, fill the void with Daniel Descalso and David Bote, and wind up better off for having dealt Zobrist.
As uncomfortable as it is to consider about a World Series MVP, you do have to think about what might come next for Zobrist:
Zobrist, who turns 38 in May, is coming off a huge bounce-back year, in which he hit .305/.378/.440 with a 123 wRC+. He was managed very well, given plenty of rest, and despite that, wound up worth 3.6 WAR thanks to his bat and still-quality defense.
If you’re concerned about regression going forward, you could point to the .331 BABIP, which was the highest single season of Zobrist’s career. Of course, the flip side of that is that he also made the best quality of contact (hard/soft) of his career in 2018. So the BABIP was not entirely unearned. Steamer projects Zobrist for a steep fall next year, nevertheless, with his BABIP returning to career norms (just under .300), and thus a .268/.351/.406 line (107 wRC+). Also, thanks to his age, his defense is projected to fall way off, yielding a mere 1.3 WAR.
Factor in a rough 2017 season thanks to injury issues, and you do wonder at what point Zobrist will finally really fall off in productivity. Time eventually claims us all.
Would Zobrist, approaching 38 and making $12.5 million this year, have a ton of trade value, though? And if not, are you really better off dumping him just to save $7 or $8 million that you might use on another depth reliever (having already signed Brad Brach and a bunch of minor league deal types)?
To me, the only reason to even consider trading Zobrist at this point is if you are actually getting great value for him. That means a worthy prospect infusion, or a controllable young arm capable of pitching (with impact) out of the bullpen right away, but maybe with starter upside. Again, the Rays certainly have the pieces to offer that.
(I suppose it is a required mention: no, I do not get the sense that dealing Zobrist’s $12.5 million salary would be the difference between a Bryce Harper pursuit and not. So I’m not really touching that.)
Ultimately, I don’t think the Cubs are any worse off just hanging onto Zobrist, and a bat that could still be plenty productive in a variety of positions for the Cubs in 2019. It’s not like they left us feeling 100% confident in the offense after the second half last year.