NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The dominos started falling for the Cubs on Tuesday night, signing Ben Zobrist to a four-year, $56 million deal, flipping Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees and keeping options open for another major move at the winter meetings.
The Cubs did all this in concert at the Opryland, landing the super-utility guy who’s been one of Joe Maddon’s all-time favorite players and trading a three-time All-Star shortstop for pitcher Adam Warren and a player to be named later (reportedly infielder Brendan Ryan).
The Cubs tried to acquire Zobrist twice within the last year – but couldn’t make a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays or Oakland A’s – and needed to get creative to pull off this deal.
The Yankees were the only team willing to pay the price for Castro – who’s guaranteed $38 million across the next four seasons – and still give up a useful piece in return.
In Zobrist, the Cubs get a switch-hitting leadoff guy (.355 career on-base percentage) who can set the table for Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant and set an example for Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell. Zobrist can take over at second base and still give Maddon options all over the infield and outfield.
In Warren, the Cubs get a 28-year-old right-hander they believe will benefit from getting out of the American League East and stick as a starter at a time when the price for pitching is skyrocketing. Warren went 7-7 with a 3.29 ERA in 43 games (17 starts) for the Yankees this year and remains under club control for three more seasons.
In reshaping a 97-win team that got swept out of the National League Championship Series by the New York Mets – a contender that had made Zobrist a primary target in free agency – the Cubs wanted to change their offensive profile, improve the overall defense and add even more veteran leadership to the clubhouse.
The Zobrist connections are obvious, from geography to personal history to future possibilities. He grew up in downstate Illinois, attended Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais and keeps a home in the Nashville area. He earned two All-Star selections and developed into one of the game’s most valuable and versatile players on Maddon’s Tampa Bay teams.
“It permits you to do so many different things with your lineup daily,” Maddon said. “When you have a (super-utility) guy, part of that is the selfless attitude of the player. Not everybody is suited to that for two reasons: They’re not comfortable moving around or their ego doesn’t permit them.
“Zo, from Day 1, he’s always been accepting of that. He’s all about winning.”
Zobrist thrived after a midseason trade to the Kansas City Royals, hitting .303 with an .880 OPS in 16 playoff games and helping another maturing, homegrown core win a World Series title.
“Look at what Zobrist did in the postseason,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “This move wasn’t based on the postseason. Our evaluation wasn’t based on the postseason. But facing the best pitching in the world, in the most competitive environment, he worked really good at-bats, put the ball in play when it needed to be put in play, drove the ball when it needed to be driven and found his way on base a lot.
“Those kind of winning, competitive at-bats are what we’re looking for (and) it sets a great example for the young hitters that we have. We haven’t had that really polished, veteran hitter who can go out, day in, day out, and set a great example of grinding every pitch and working an at-bat. (If) you’re hitting behind him in the lineup, you’ll see how he attacks an at-bat. You can’t help but get better.”
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The Cubs still needed to trade Castro, who didn’t whine or complain when Russell took over at shortstop in August, reinventing himself as a second baseman and coming close to 1,000 hits before his 26th birthday.
The Yankees believe Castro can handle The Bronx and might raise his game while playing in pinstripes, part of the franchise’s overall youth movement while waiting for the Alex Rodriguez/Mark Teixeira/CC Sabathia megadeals to expire.
Zobrist – who will be 35 in May – gets a no-trade clause for the first three years of the deal and a $2 million signing bonus. The rest of the contract breaks down like this annually through 2019: $10 million; $16 million; $16 million; $12 million.
“We expressed our interest and asked him to be patient,” Epstein said. “We couldn’t act right away, but we had a lot of interest and if the right corresponding move came our way, we could get involved quickly. As it turned out, we (got) one phone call just in time to help it pick back up."