I’ll admit, this was a tough one to swallow at first. Starlin Castro will always have a soft spot in my heart. Despite being only 25 years old, he was the longest tenured Cub, the first of the youth movement to break into the big leagues. Little did I know that he would depart before what could be the most historic season in Cubs history.
I will never forget the 3-run homer he clobbered in his first at bat in Cincinnati as Len Kasper and Bob Brenley mused over whether Castro would be able to hit a breaking ball. Who among us didn’t crack up when he mimicked Kris Bryant’s throwing motion during a routine grounder to third? And what was more exciting and entertaining than watching the whole club rock out to his walk-up song during the playoffs? My heart genuinely wishes he could’ve been part of this team’s final act, when they finally seal the deal.
But let’s be honest. There were struggles.
Castro illustrates the folly of falling in love with your own players and the belief that every prospect will pan out. Yes, he certainly finished the 2015 season strong, but over the last 3 years Castro was a combined 2.3 WAR player, including needing that blistering September to even finish with a positive WAR in 2015. It’s easy to forget that many (including myself) were about ready to ship Castro off for a bag of peanuts at the last trade deadline.
Enter Ben Zobrist. Joe Maddon’s all time favorite player from the 9 seasons they spent together in Tampa (which, come on, has to mean A LOT). For comparison, his WAR was over 2 for last season alone. His trademarks—versatility, high on-base, low strikeout rate—align perfectly with the internal goals Theo and Jed set heading into the offseason. And, maybe most importantly, he just won the World Series with the Royals. He is a proven winner, and that kind of championship pedigree in a clubhouse full of young players and lofty expectations feels invaluable. His contract (4 years/$56 million) is beyond palatable, and ultimately I’ve come to believe that the combination of the Zobrist signing and the Castro trade is yet another true stroke of genius by the superfriends in the front office.
I’ll argue it all comes down to pitching. To those who criticize Zobrist’s contract—is it really worse than spending $200 million+ on David Price or Zach Greinke? Than spending $100 million+ on Jordan Zimmerman? Than giving up a cost-controlled young outfielder AND a top 100 pitching prospect AND the first overall pick in the draft for SHELBY BLEEPING MILLER?? The market for adequate starting pitching has become absolutely outrageous, and with Theo having already shown an unwillingness to commit major assets to the riskiest players, the Cubs have turned to a very unique strategy to circumvent these costs, one we should all be on board with.
Think of this offseason's pre-Heyward moves as a 2-for-1 trade: Starlin Castro for Ben Zobrist and Adam Warren. I’ve already discussed why I believe, at least in the short term (and the Cubs are definitely in win now mode), Zobrist is a significant upgrade over Castro. Now Warren isn’t David Price, but based on peripheral statistics and sabermetric projections he could be Shelby Miller or Jordan Zimmerman. His upside is that good. Instead of shelling out bigtime money or bigtime prospects for pitching, Theo and Jed are hoarding interesting arms. We should be looking at Jon Lester as an outlier, not the standard. The Cubs’ bullpen is now almost exclusively converted starters (who, of course, will all have a shot at winning the 5th spot in the rotation)—Warren, Hammel, Cahill, Richard, Wood…even Justin Grimm was a starter when he came over from the Rangers. The thought process: gather enough Warrens and Cahills for cheap, some of them are bound to be productive. The front office doesn’t expect Warren to be the next Jake Arrieta reclamation project, but they do expect that stockpiling enough intriguing arms at a reasonable price will create a formidable back end of the rotation/bullpen.
And the real kicker? Signing that big pitcher contract would have certainly taken the team out of the running for someone like Jason Heyward. But sign Zobrist, Cahill, and trade for Warren? The Cubs now still have that financial flexibility. My intense love for Jason Heyward is a whole different article, but the point is the Cubs aren’t done, there are more dominoes yet to fall, and it’s because of discipline and creativity with which the front office has built this roster. I’m excited to see how it all plays out, but the Cubs are without a doubt a better team today than they were last season when they won 97 games and went to the NLCS, and that should keep fans in St. Louis and Pittsburgh and New York up at night.