The Cubs Are a Fit for Three Young Change-of-Scenery Types: Robles, Kim, Walls

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The Cubs Are a Fit for Three Young Change-of-Scenery Types: Robles, Kim, Walls

Chicago Cubs

Although every season is supposed to be sacred, some seasons – for some teams – are a little more sacred than others. Pick whichever lane you prefer for the Chicago Cubs in 2022, but unless they go bonkers in free agency when the lockout ends, they will not enter the season in a situation where it’s World-Series-or-bust when you evaluate on paper. It’s just the reality.

But that means the Cubs aren’t losing much by taking some high-risk, high-upside gambles in 2022. Usually, those gambles take the form of high-AAV, short-term deals in free agency, but trades can deliver the same kind risk-reward balance. And that’s why Mike Axisa caught my attention with his recent look at 10 change-of-scenery trade candidates at CBS Sports. The Cubs are definitely in a we-can-be-that-change-of-scenery situation, after all.

Axisa REALLY caught my attention when the Cubs were listed among the possible suitors for three players in particular: Ha-Seong Kim, Victor Robles, and Taylor Walls. And if you’ve been paying close attention, you’ll immediately notice that not only do each of those three players fill positions of need for the Cubs, they each come with some prior rumors or connections.

Let’s start at the top.

Ha-Seong Kim

Kim, 26, was supposed to be a do-it-all infielder for the Padres last season, his first in MLB, but aside from high marks for defense, his bat simply did not translate from the KBO in year one: .202/.270/.352 (70 wRC+). His expected statistics at Statcast won’t offer any excuse (.270 wOBA vs. a .265 xWOBA), so it’s likely it was just a really bad year with the bat. Full stop. And with the Padres possibly in salary-saving mode, they might be very eager to move on from Kim, who also happens to be blocked in San Diego by shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., third baseman Manny Machado, and second baseman Jake Cronenworth. In other words, the Padres have an (so-far) unproductive hitter with no place to play him – i.e. an ideal change-of-scenery type.

So where do the Cubs come in? Well, for one, you might remember that the Cubs were among Kim’s most serious suitors when he made the jump from South Korea last winter. And although it didn’t work out for him at the plate just yet, he’s still young and has only had one season of experience in American baseball. If there were parts of his offensive game the Cubs did like at the time, it’s not difficult to imagine some additional big league experience and a different organization helping out. (Keep in mind, the nature of change-of-scenery types is that they come with warts, and are low-probability situations by definition. You aren’t giving up the farm, and that’s the point.)

Most important to this discussion, Kim was a stellar defender at second base (148.0 innings, 5 DRS), third base (165.2 innings, 4 DRS), *and* shortstop (260.0 innings, 9 DRS) last season. And the Cubs are known to be looking to improve their infield defense – which could have compounding effects with a contact-oriented pitching staff. If you can get Kim into the mix, while moving him around an infield rotation with Nick Madrigal, Nico Hoerner, and Patrick Wisdom, you might just be able to put each player in a better position to succeed at the plate while also really improving your defense on a daily basis.

AND ANOTHER THING, the Cubs have been talking about trades that can save the Padres money for a while now (a fresh rumor popped up just the other day). And although Kim isn’t particularly pricey ($6M in 2022, $7M in 2023, $2M buyout in 2024), the Padres would love to have that money available to spend on this season. If the Cubs believe in the glove, this could make a lot of sense (especially if the Cubs could get Kim and more in the deal, since they are taking the salary …).

Victor Robles

Not very long ago, Victor Robles was one of the top-ranked prospects in MLB (like consensus top-10 for multiple years). But his career has just not panned out the way the Nationals were hoping. Not offensively. Not yet, at least. The good news is that Robles, 24, is still very young and can play quality center field defense, which lowers the bar for how much he needs contribute on offense in the first place. The bad news is that his exit velocity has been in the bottom 1% of the league over the last two years and it’s not even like he’s a low-power, high-contact type either (23% strikeout rate, .203 average last season).

But, hey, you’re not a “change-of-scenery” type if everything is going well, so no surprises here.

There are some glimmers of hope. Beyond the top-shelf pedigree, quality center field defense, and remaining youth, Robles actually hit .306/.385/.576 (155 wR+) in about 100 PAs at Triple-A last season. Yes, that means the Nationals demoted him to end the year. And Cubs fans should be no stranger to the benefits of a Minor League reset, which worked to varying degrees with Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, and Ian Happ (among about a million other big leaguers) early on in their careers.

For what it’s worth, ZiPS is actually projecting Robles to take a big step forward in 2022 (86 wRC+). It’s still not where you’d want him to be, but that’s a LOT better than the 67 wRC+ he posted last season.

So outside of just being a high-upside change-of-scenery type, where do the Cubs fit in? Well on the surface, they arguably use a plus defense center fielder on the roster. Indeed, that idea just resurfaced the other day, when both Bruce Levine and Marc Topkin reignited the potential Cubs-Rays trade talks. But on top of that, the Cubs were thought to be holding out for Robles in a potential Kris Bryant trade two years ago. He was a post-hype prospect at that time then, too, but he’s further down that road now. So … good? Or are the Cubs just happy that didn’t work out?

Taylor Walls

You might not be as familiar with Taylor Walls as the other two guys on this list, as he was never really a tip-top prospect and hasn’t been explicitly connected to the Cubs sometime in the past. But, like Kim and Robles, Walls, 25, is a young player who plays a premium defensive position (shortstop) and does so at an extremely high level:

’21 DRS Leaderboard (min. 350 innings)

1. Carlos Correa: 20
2. Andrelton Simmons: 15
3. Isiah Kiner Falefa: 10
t-3: Taylor Walls: 10
5. Trevor Story: 9

Walls was one of the highest rated defensive shortstops by DRS last season, and that holds true for UZR/150 (4.1, 6th in MLB), as well. Axisa believes that Walls could be more than a super utility player if given the keys to a full-time shortstop job and that he “might have more value to the Rays as a trade chip” than a role player.

Like everyone else on the list, the offense hasn’t quite come together yet for Walls (80 wRC+), but 2021 was his just his first year in the show and he had been a solidly above average hitter at every Minor League stop before that, even if slightly older at each of his levels than you would normally associate with a top prospect:

Low-A: 137 wRC+ (21)
High-A: 123 wRC+ (22)
Double-A: 135 wRC+ (22)
Triple-A: 125 wRC+ (24)

Mulling his data and rankings, it looks like Walls was just one of those guys that was overlooked because of the missing 2020 MiLB season, and squeezed out as role player in Tampa Bay. Of course, the Rays don’t usually let guys like that go – especially when they are pre-arbitration – so obviously that’s not the whole picture. In any case, ZiPS projects an 81 wRC+ for Walls in 2022, and he won’t be a free agent until 2028.

Oh, and don’t forget: The Cubs and Rays have also been in trade rumors together this offseason. It was about a different player, but you never know how these things can evolve. Maybe it expands to include someone like Walls?

Anyone Else?

Although those three are the only players whose mentions explicitly include the Cubs, it’s hard not to look at that list and start thinking on some other buy-low candidates (that’s what happens when the Cubs have vacancies at almost every position around the diamond).

For example, Miguel Andujar was the 2018 Rookie of the Year runner-up and a one-time potential target of the Cubs (there were some Schwarber-Andujar trade rumors back in the day). Would the Cubs want to tap him to to provide a more contact-oriented counter to Patrick Wisdom at third base (Andujar has a career 16.3% strikeout rate). He’s just 26 and under control for three more seasons. Not sure about the glove or the health, though.

J.D. Davis, 28, is a little bit older, but he’s coming off another really good season at the plate (130 wRC+), despite an elevated strikeout rate (32.1%). The Mets offseason additions seem to imply a willingness to move on from Davis, who’s under control through the 2024 season. Maybe he fits the Cubs’ weaker, but still possible, short-term window? Again, questions about the defense, though.

Carter Kieboom, 24, is yet another third baseman on the list, and one who’s also been connected to the Cubs in the past (he was the other post-hype prospect target for the Cubs in the 2020 and 2021 offseason). He has been brutal offensively in the big leagues so far, but he’s taking his walks and elevating the ball a fair amount. Plus, his expected stats have been stronger than his actual numbers over the years. Again, change-of-scenery types always come with warts.

And the list goes on.

We’ll have to see if the Cubs actually/finally land one of these buy-low/post-hype/change-of-scenery types, but I’ve gotta say, this is the time to do it and these are some pretty intriguing names, within the context of these types of players.

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami