At the outset of the 2018 season, I took a look at the contract Jon Lester signed with the Cubs just before the 2015 season and compared to his production since then (as he entered the second-half of his six-year deal). The goal was to see if the contact was worth it for the Cubs in a general sense (it was) and again on a more granular, dollar/WAR level (it was).
Basically, no matter which way you sliced it, Jon Lester was the right move for the Cubs before this season even started … and he was an All-Star this year, so … you get the picture.
But Lester isn’t the only big-time free agent the Cubs have signed during this competitive stretch of baseball. Back before the 2016 season, the Chicago Cubs signed super utility-man and Joe-Maddon favorite Ben Zobrist to a four-year/$56M deal with full no-trade protection in the first three seasons and a limited no-trade clause in 2019.
Although the deal was exciting – Zobrist was coming off a 3.0 WAR season with the World Series champion Royals – there were plenty of obvious concerns. The most obvious of which, of course, was his age – at the time, Zobrist was already 35-years-old. But for another, Zobrist’s 3.0 WAR in 2015 was actually the lowest total he had posted since 2008. The chance that he was already in a sharp decline was real.
Still, the Cubs wanted a veteran presence in the lineup, someone who could play all over, add some patience and experience at the plate, and, perhaps most of all, hit for contact. So … was it worth it?
Well, if we assume that the value of one win above replacement is worth about $8.0M like we did for Lester, Ben Zobrist provided $32M worth of value in his *first season alone (!). Yep. Back in 2016, Ben Zobrist continued to be excellent, slashing .272/.386/.446 (123 wRC+) with a walk rate higher than his strikeout rate and more home runs than he had hit since 2012. Combined with a defensive bounce back (at least, according to the advanced defensive metrics) that added up to 4.0 WAR by the end of the season.
If you combine the 3.0 WAR he’s gained since then (0.3 WAR last season and 2.7 WAR already this year), Zobrist has been worth *exactly* $56M (7 WAR x $8.0M/WAR) in his first 2.5 seasons. In other words, he could retire right now and the Cubs front office would’ve been wholly justified in the contract they gave him two and a half years ago.
And, again, that’s *including* the very poor/limited production during the 2017 season thanks to a lingering wrist issue. And obviously, Zobrist still has more value to add this season. According to ZiPS, Zobrist should add another 0.8 WAR ($6.4M) before the end of the season, and, if you’re asking me, I’ll take the over on that. As we explored yesterday, Zobrist has been on fire lately and is currently in the middle of his best offensive season since 2012. It’s entirely possible that he can add 1.0-2.0 more WAR before the end of the season, increasing his value by another $8-10M.
Put differently: From an entirely statistic/dollar-for-dollar perspective, everything Ben Zobrist adds from this point forward is all excess value to the Cubs. But that’s only half the story, right? Right.
Not unlike Lester, who’s signing helped usher in a new era for Chicago both in terms of performance on the field and the ability to draw other big-time free agents, Ben Zobrist adds a lot more (unquantifiable) value than that.
For one, he’s covered five different positions since joining the Cubs (right field, left field, second base, first base, and shortstop). I’d also argue that he’s a clear leader and role model in a clubhouse that has been STACKED with young players since his arrival. That can help make things easier on players in an off-field, mental-strength and preparation sense, but also in a “watch how I do it at the plate” sense, too. Zobrist has long had one of the most professional, polished approaches at the plate in baseball and every single young Cubs hitter has gotten a front-row look at how that can make someone a quality player well into their 30s. That’s invaluable.
And of course there’s the whole … World Series MVP thing, wherein Zobrist delivered perhaps the most crucial hit in the history of the Cubs organization.
That alone might’ve been worth the $56M.
So you see, whether we’re talking about just the World Series, his off-field contributions, his leadership in the clubhouse, or a stats-to-dollars calculation, Ben Zobrist has FAR exceeded the contract given to him by the front office … and he still has a year and a half to go.