With the bullpen-needy Cubs facing a budget crunch, acquiring even a mid-tier reliever would require removing payroll from elsewhere on their roster, per Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic (subscription required). Thus, as the Cubs look for ways to improve this offseason with little to no spending space, the club has “bandied about the idea of trading” second baseman/outfielder Ben Zobrist, Sharma writes. In jettisoning some or all of Zobrist’s $12.5MM salary, the Cubs would give themselves some room to upgrade their bullpen – a unit that has lost Jesse Chavez and Justin Wilson to free agency while gaining no one this offseason – and hopefully not experience much an offensive drop-off, Sharma notes.
“I don’t have a no-trade clause at this point, so I could be traded,” Zobrist acknowledged Saturday.
Although Zobrist realizes he’s vulnerable to a deal, it may be unrealistic for the Cubs to better their roster while subtracting him. Set to turn 38 in May, Zobrist is the Cubs’ oldest player, but he’s also one of their best. Aside from a poor 2017, Zobrist has more than delivered on the four-year, $56MM investment Chicago made in him entering 2016 – a season in which he helped lead them to a World Series title. Zobrist is now coming off a year that saw him finish second among Cubs position players in fWAR (3.6), trailing only NL MVP candidate Javier Baez, and bat an outstanding .305/.378/.440 (123 wRC+) with nearly as many unintentional walks (55) as strikeouts (60). He also posted an 86.6 percent contact rate, the game’s 15th best, making him something of an outlier for a team that ended up just 22nd in the majors in that category.
Between Zobrist’s offensive adeptness and defensive versatility (he was a plus player at second and in the corner outfield over fairly large sample sizes last year), it’s clear losing him would be a major blow for the Cubs. That’s especially true given that the Cubs’ middle infield is already down a regular, as Addison Russell will sit out the first month of 2019 because of a domestic violence suspension. To its credit, Chicago does have multiple other second base/outfield possibilities in Ian Happ and the recently signed Daniel Descalso, and those two could help fill Zobrist’s void.
If the Cubs are confident in a Zobrist-less middle infield/outfield mix which would include Baez, Russell, Happ, Descalso, Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and Albert Almora for most of the season, perhaps we’ve seen the last of him in their uniform. But for a team whose offense “broke” in 2018, when the switch-hitting Zobrist put up above-average production from both sides of the plate and logged quality numbers in each of the season’s two halves, replacing his output would be no easy task.