This MLB offseason has already featured plenty of action, and with still more than a week to go until the new year. We’ve seen David Price sign a record-setting deal with the Red Sox, Jerry Dipoto has already managed to replace more than half of his projected 25-man roster, and the Yankees haven’t signed a single player to a major league contract. It might seem like a strange offseason to some fans. Maybe it sounds odd that the Dodgers and their jaw-dropping $230.3 million payroll (just a bit outside of the $189M luxury tax threshold) have been outbid, and lost Zack Greinke (their own ace) to their division-rival Diamondbacks, who had the lowest payroll in the league last year. Or possibly it just feels unnatural that USAToday, Fangraphs, and NBCSports all agree that the Cubs are World Series bound. It’s going to take years before we will fully know the consequences of this year’s offseason, but just going off of initial reactions, there seems to be a team that has the distinct look of an “offseason winner”.
After building a talented core through the draft and international market, the Cubs finally established themselves as a contender in 2015, as evidenced by their 97-win season, and appearance in the NLCS. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein utilized the team’s playoff momentum to execute a very tactical offseason plan, signing three big-name free agents, two of which directly weaken the historically-rivaled St. Louis Cardinals (100 wins in 2015).
Following the Cubs’ playoff elimination, Theo Epstein addressed the media regarding his offseason plans. He explicitly stated that he would “like to add at least one quality starting pitcher this winter.” Epstein then went on to say, “I think we could generally improve our outfield defense.” To accommodate the team’s needs the Cubs agreed to sign veteran starting pitcher John Lackey (2.77 ERA -7th best in the NL) to a two-year, $32 million deal, and then they inked Jason Heyward to the largest contract in franchise history (8-years/ $184 million). To top things off, they shipped their projected starting second-basemen, Starlin Castro, to the Yankees in a move that brought a strong bullpen piece in Adam Warren to the club. This move cleared a spot for the very versatile (played 2B, LF, RF, 1B, and 3B last season), and very valuable Ben Zobrist.
Zobrist is slated to start at second base next season, and can be relied upon to play left or right field if the defensive play of youngsters Jorge Soler (RF) or Kyle Schwarber (LF) comes into question. To put Zobrist’s value into perspective for anyone that isn’t already a stat rat, I’ll use Wins Above Replacement (WAR). WAR is a statistic used by the sabermetrics community that combines a player’s hitting, fielding, and baserunning production to quantify the value of a given player. Since 2009, Ben Zobrist ranks fifth highest in WAR with 37.2, placing him behind only Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, Mike Trout, and Andrew McCutchen.
The addition of Zobrist’s versatile glove is just a compliment to the necessary signings of Lackey and Heyward. Lackey directly addresses the need for a quality starting pitcher, and Jason Heyward isn’t just a “solid” defender. Since breaking into the league in 2010, Heyward has the most Defensive Runs Saved – 122 – and highest Ultimate Zone Rating – 96.2 – of any outfielder, and by a very wide margin. It’s very likely that those numbers mean absolutely nothing to you, and if that’s the case, just watch this highlight reel:
Many of those highlights were from his time in Atlanta, here’s what he did last year:
As great as the signing is, there is some level of risk in the Cubs bringing on Jason Heyward. The big “what if” in all of this is if Heyward, a career right fielder, can hold down center field. His defense as a right fielder is undoubtedly excellent, but there is at least a chance that Heyward’s glove won’t be as valuable when shifted to center. His offensive numbers are solid, but nothing eye-popping for a corner outfielder, so the majority of Heyward’s value comes from his defense. With that being said, if the J-Hey Kid can maintain his superstar level of defense this signing will be great for the Cubs, even if he decides to use one of his opt out clauses.
The Cubs can call their offseason successful simply because they acquired a starting pitcher, outfielder, and solidified the bullpen. As I’ve suggested earlier, what makes this such a successful offseason for the Cubbies is that two of their top three signings (Lackey and Heyward) were plucked right from the Cardinals’ roster. After Heyward’s signing was announced, it was reported that he turned down a better offer from the Cardinals, one that was said to be near $200 million. Heck, they didn’t just weaken the Cardinals, Ben Zobrist was said to be the Mets “No. 1 target”. Those are the same Mets that swept the Cubs in the NLCS a couple months ago, have since lost their second basemen (Daniel Murphy – 7 HR during the postseason) to free agency, and aren’t poised to resign Yoenis Cespedes (17 HR in 57 games with New York). In addition to solidifying areas of weakness, the Cubs have managed to ruin the offseasons of (potentially) their two strongest opponents looking forward. There are no guarantees in life, especially when it comes to baseball, but the Cubs have the look of a team that has won the 2015-2016 offseason.