As it is now 2017, we wanted to take one last look at what 2016 meant to the now World Series Champion Chicago Cubs. We’re doing a multi-part series recapping the Cubs offseason, regular season, and postseason.
2015-2016 Offseason Grade: A
The Cubs were one of the most active teams in the 2015-2016 offseason knowing that after a 96 win season, they needed to add a few more pieces to be truly a championship level team. I was actually surprised by how much they spent, but as you know it worked out well. Here are the moves they made chronologically:
Signed John Lackey 2 year, 36 Million Dollar deal (December 4th)
Traded Starlin Castro for Adam Warren and Brendan Ryan (December 9th)
Signed: Ben Zobrist 4 year, 56 Million Dollar Deal (December 9th)
Signed: Jason Heyward 8 year, 184 Million Dollar Deal (December 11th)
Traded: Chris Coghlan for Aaron Brooks (February 25th)
Signed: Dexter Fowler 1 year, 8 million (February 26th )
After a 96 win season, you typically don’t see a team go out and spend 266 million dollars in December, but the Cubs front office was aggressive and made a bunch of Smart moves. What impressed me was their foresight to sign guys who may have not been at a position of need like Ben Zobrist, and make a trade that enabled them to improve their team and make Zobrist’s contract even more manageable.
John Lackey Signing: A
2016 Stats: 11-8, 3.35 ERA, 3.81 FIP, WAR 3.1 (Fangraphs) 2.5 (ESPN), 2015 WAR: 3.6 (Fangraphs) 5.6 (ESPN) 20 quality starts and two 5 innings 1 run in September to conserve his pitch count
When you put your team in position to win 22/29 games or 75% of the time, you’ve pitched a damn good season. Especially when you’re the 4th starter and also bring a winning attitude to the clubhouse. People were upset the Cubs didn’t go out and get David Price but Lackey brought a lot of value while still giving the team long-term flexibility. According to 538, in 2015 the cost of an additional war was 7.7 million dollars, so if you average out the ESPN and Fangraphs estimation of Lackey’s WAR you get 2.8, which multiplied by 7.7 is 21 million, so the cubs essentially received 3 million dollars of embedded value, along with his added locker room presence. The Cubs had the best pitching staff in the MLB statistically in 2016, and John Lackey played a huge role in their dominance, great signing Theo and Jed.
Ben Zobrist Signing: A
.272 BA .386 OBP .446 SLG .831 OPS 4.0 WAR Fangraphs 3.8 WAR (ESPN) 18 HR’s 76 RBI
34 Year old World Series MVP 96 BB’s 82 K
Ben Zobrist was exactly what the doctor ordered for the cubs. Like John Lackey, Zobrist had a great year on paper, but that doesn’t even tell the whole story. His ability to play both second base and the outfield allowed younger players like Javy Baez develop and become postseason contributors, and it allowed other players to stay fresh in order to play well over a 162 game regular season grind, and prepare for a 17 game postseason. He also helped fill some glaring weaknesses that the 2015 Cubs faced as they were too reliant on the long-ball and struck out too often, his contact hitting allowed him to have a strikeout to walk ratio of less than 1 while still being a patient hitter.
This signing was met with mixed feelings in December of 2015, as it meant that the cubs were going to part ways with Starlin Castro, the guy who was our franchise player from 2010-2014, a 3-time all-star, and led the MLB in hits at age 21. Trading him was tough for a lot of Cubs fans because it seemed like he deserved a World Series ring as much as anybody because he carried the team when there was no one else around him. Starlin had 991 hits at the young age of 25, and he was the glimmer of hope Cubs fans needed in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 when the team couldn’t win more than 73 games. And, while he was often criticized for his defense and aggressive approach at the plate, he even bounced back from getting benched in July of last season and was forced to pick up a new position at second base after Russell had taken his starting job at shortstop. During this transition, Starlin conducted himself with class and was able to fight his way back to get a starting job at a new position, and led the majors in batting average in the last month of the season with .369 BA. He played solid in the postseason, contributing in their series win against the cardinals with a homer batting .286 and had an OPS of .833 in the NLDS. It seemed like Castro was going to head into the 2016 season with positive momentum as the Cubs full-time second baseman, and was going to have a bounce back a year. But, the front office was able to maneuver trading him to the Yankees for Adam Warren, and the cubs essentially traded Starlin Castro for Adam Warren and essentially cut in half the amount of money they were paying Zobrist by getting Castro’s contract off the books.
I remember even saying my heart says I’m upset about trading Castro and signing Zobrist but my mind trusts the front office and knows this is the right decision. Boy was the front office right, and it shows why in Baseball, like almost any other profession you need to be analytical and not nostalgic. That being said Cubs fans weren’t wrong to be skeptical. His regular season numbers in 2015 weren’t that much better than Castro’s, he was 9 years older than, and he went from a 5.5 WAR season in 2014 to a 2.0 WAR season in 2015 showing a potential decline in talent. However he was banged up in 2015, he was a better defender, and Castro benefitted by being managed by Joe Maddon who put Starlin in the position to succeed in August and September by often playing him when there were favorable matchups such as a left-handed pitcher, or taking him out with a defensive replacement late in games and he wouldn’t have to face a dominating closer like Aroldis Chapman. And Zobrist was a key contributor to the Kansas City Royals World Series run, hitting .303 in the entire postseason, and was one of Joe Maddon’s favorite players in Tampa Bay.
Using the same formula to evaluate the value of Zobrist’s contract, Ben’s average WAR was 3.9 which multiplied by 7.7 equals 30.03 million dollars, so the cubs essentially received 16 million in value from signing Zobrist. And that doesn’t even include his off-paper value OR his World Series MVP. If Zo is worth 3.5 more WAR for the rest of his contract, he will have exceeded the value of his contract, and you could already argue that bringing a World Series to Chicago and being the Most Valuable Player has made his contract well worth it. One of the reasons why Zobrist’s contract looks so great in hindsight is because he also didn’t negotiate very hard to sign with the Cub’s and took less money compared to places like New York and Washington because of the fit in the locker room and the proximity to his family.
Overall, this signing separates the good front offices from the great front offices, as the Cubs made aggressive moves with the foresight of knowing that versatility is important and value to the fans is meaningless to the actual product on the field. I’m not a baseball historian like Peter Gammons or something, but I feel like it’s not that common to see teams go out and get players that didn’t necessarily fit a team need, but the cubs were proactive in making moves to get their guy.
Starlin Castro Trade: B+
When you look at the Starlin Castro trade in a vacuum, you might scratch your head as the cubs traded away a 1000 hit player for a guy who ended up throwing 5.91 in 35 appearances for the Cubs and even got sent down to triple A for a while, before ultimately getting thrown in to the Aroldis Chapman trade. However, as mentioned in the Zobrist Recap, this trade was a lot more than trading Castro for Warren as it freed up the second base position and allowed the cubs to get the player they had coveted and tried to trade for. Castro’s numbers in New York this year were solid, he hit .270 had 21 homers, but his OBP was only .300 compared to Zobrist’s .386 number. In total, he was worth about 1.3 WAR according to ESPN and 1.1 WAR according to Fangraphs. So, it is fair to say that the Yankees got the better end of the deal, however, the cubs needed to move Castro in a short time frame in order to sign Zobrist ahead of other teams. This short window took away the Cubs’ bargaining power as they couldn’t push the Yankees for more or walk away because a deal needed to get done. Also, while Adam Warren’s production in Chicago was lackluster, the Cubs took a calculated risk on a 28-year-old pitcher who had 3 straight years of an ERA below 3.30 and had the potential to be a starter. To me, hitting and missing on players isn’t as finite as it is made out to be, and the Cubs took the same approach they had when trading for guys like Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, and Mike Montgomery. Sometimes they work out, sometimes they don’t and I believe the way you are successful is by taking as many chances as you get. There are times where the process is more important than the result, and the front office’s logic was sound when they made the move. Warren didn’t become the next starter for the Cubs, but they were able to package him to get Aroldis Chapman and essentially trading Starlin Castro, Gleyber Torres, Billy McKinney and Rashad Crawford for Ben Zobrist and half of a season of Aroldis Chapman is a big win for me.