What’s next? Cubs keep thinking big after Ben Zobrist/Starlin Castro deals


What’s next? Cubs keep thinking big after Ben Zobrist/Starlin Castro deals

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Cubs aren’t stopping with Ben Zobrist’s $56 million contract and the Starlin Castro trade to the New York Yankees, still seeing the potential for more big deals if the dominos fall their way again.

Getting Joe Maddon’s super-utility guy doesn’t really change how the Cubs see Jason Heyward as a great long-term piece for their outfield, and dealing Castro doesn’t necessarily eliminate any trade possibilities. 

“We’d welcome an impact move if it’s out there,” team president Theo Epstein said Tuesday night at the winter meetings. “But, really, all the moves that we have been pursuing previously are still potentially alive for us. Starlin hadn’t been in any other talks. This was the one place that potentially had a match for him.”

[RELATED - Domino effect: Cubs sign Ben Zobrist for $56 million and trade Starlin Castro to Yankees]

The Cubs can still go in several different directions as they search for someone to play center, whether it’s a defense-first outfielder who bats ninth, a platoon setup that saves resources for the trade deadline or a big fish like Heyward, who fits the franchise’s long-range business/baseball plans as a 26-year-old free agent.

Beyond the potential to weaken the St. Louis Cardinals by stealing Heyward, the Cubs also understand next winter’s free-agent class isn’t nearly as deep, so they might have to load up on talent this offseason.

“We spent a lot of time with the business side several weeks ago,” Epstein said. “There are some different levers that were in play to pull. And they did a fantastic job of giving us a little bit more flexibility than we had. And there are other ways to get creative just in the structure of your contract.”

Zobrist’s four-year deal includes a $2 million signing bonus for 2015 and breaks down annually like this through 2019: $10 million; $16 million; $16 million; $12 million.

The Cubs also got ahead of the curve last week with John Lackey’s two-year, $32 million contract, signing the veteran pitcher before the Arizona Diamondbacks guaranteed Zack Greinke $206.5 million and gave up No. 1 overall pick Dansby Swanson in the Shelby Miller deal with the Atlanta Braves.

Lackey gets a $7 million signing bonus, with $2 million paid in 2015 and $5 million earmarked for 2017, making it a $12.5-million hit for next season.

“I do think with an open mind,” Epstein said, “and with a willing partner on the business side and support of ownership, we’ve had more options open to us than maybe we imagined when the season ended.”

Adam Warren isn’t the headliner in the Castro deal, but the Cubs feel so much better about their fragile pitching situation with a talented swingman they believe will pitch even better in the National League Central.

Warren is 28 years old and under club control for three more seasons. As soon as the Castro news broke, the Cubs got calls from other teams that also see Warren as a starter. Warren appeared in 43 games and made 17 starts for the Yankees last season, going 7-7 with a 3.29 ERA across 131-plus innings.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs have locked up another low-risk, high-reward swingman in Trevor Cahill with a one-year, $4.25 million contract. Making those types of under-the-radar moves – without trading Jorge Soler or Javier Baez or mortgaging the farm system – allows the Cubs to keep thinking big.

“We can continue to listen to anything that comes our way,” Epstein said. “We still have a little bit of a potential surplus with our position-player group and we haven’t moved any of our emerging players yet in any deals.

“But we don’t have to act out of need or desperation. We can be pretty selective.”

Either way, the Cubs will check out of the Opryland on Thursday and leave Nashville, Tennessee, feeling like they’ve put together some huge pieces to their offseason puzzle.

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?


Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Luke Stuckmeyer and Tony Andracki discuss the comments Chili Davis made after being fired as Cubs hitting coach, ask if the Cubs struggles on offense were Davis' fault or the players and what Anthony Iapoce will be walking into as he tries to gets the team back on track a the plate.


Listen to the entire podcast here, or in the embedded player below: