Why the Ben Zobrist Signing Is Perfect for the Chicago Cubs
The Chicago Cubs have added a veteran presence to a lineup that is laden with youth, signing versatile infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist to a four-year contract believed to be worth $56 million at the Winter Meetings.
Zobrist will turn 35 next year, which means this four-year deal will take him through his age-39 season. That could be a bit dicey on the back end, but he's still one of the more effective players in baseball, and an average annual salary of $14 million a season is virtually cheap in this market.
In short, he is exactly what the Cubs needed. In a lineup loaded with young sluggers with high whiff rates, Zobrist brings on-base skills, few strikeouts, and the ability to play more than one position. It's expected he will primarily play second base with the departure of Starlin Castro in a trade to the Yankees, but can fill in at either of the corner outfield spots, and at third or first base as well.
Last year was another solid Zobrist season, something we've come to expect. He batted .276/.359/.450 for an .809 OPS between Oakland and Kansas City. He hit 13 home runs, had 36 doubles, and struck out in just 11.6% of his plate appearances last year. By comparison, Chicago led all of baseball with a team strikeout percentage of 24.5%. The Cubs still had one of the best offenses in the game, thanks to their prodigious power, but having a guy in the lineup who puts the ball in play and still hits it hard without striking out a ton is just what the doctor ordered for this offense.
Not only that, Zobrist's consistency has been the hallmark of his very underrated career.
From 2009-2015, only four players had a higher fWAR than Ben Zobrist: Miguel Cabrera, McCutchen, Trout, Votto. https://t.co/HzzFFiWLXI
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) December 9, 2015
However, last year his WAR took a hit, mainly because his defensive metrics were down. Whereas in years past he was seen as a plus-defensive player with the ability to play five different positions on the diamond, he was rated as below average in 2015, in terms of Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating. That's why his fWAR was only 2.1 last year, coming off seasons with fWARs of 5.5, 5.0, 5.8, 6.3, 3.8 and 8.6.
Zobrist posted a 1.17 nERD, a numberFire metric, with the A's and Royals, which ranked 64th. That means a lineup full of Zobrists would have generated 1.17 runs above a league average player. He had a .349 wOBA and a weighted runs created (wRC+) of 123, his highest since 2012. And Chicago had to like his postseason experience, as he helped lead the Royals to a World Series victory after slashing .303/.365/.515 in 75 postseason plate appearances this year.
The Cubs have a roster that is built to win now, and Zobrist should be well worth the $14 million a season he's getting paid over the next two seasons, maybe three. He's showing no signs of slowing down at the plate, and Chicago has the young position players around him to cover for him when the decline eventually begins.
In short, Zobrist was one of the safest and most reliable players available in the free agent market this year. There is a reason everybody wanted him. And with the addition of John Lackey to a two-year deal earlier at the Winter Meetings, the Cubs have improved themselves in two key spots, without breaking the bank.