The Cubs’ signing of Craig Kimbrel last month may have crossed one item off their trade deadline to-do list, but the NL Central division leaders aren’t necessarily sitting back. Manager Joe Maddon spoke openly over the weekend about the manner in which the team is missing the “consistent” and “professional” at-bats brought to the table by Ben Zobrist (link via Tom Musnick of the Chicago Sun-Times), and Bruce Levine of CBS Chicago/670 The Score reports that the Cubs are in the market for a veteran hitter to whom they can entrust leadoff duties.
Levine understandably pegs Kansas City’s Whit Merrifield as the ideal fit for the Cubs’ need but adds that the Royals have placed an enormous price on the 30-year-old, who signed an eminently affordable four-year, $16.25MM extension this past winter. The Kansas City front office would seek as many as three controllable, big-league-ready players in any trade involving Merrifield, per Levine. It stands to reason that virtually any contending team in baseball would want to get its hand on Merrifield, who is hitting .309/.361/.500 and vying for a second consecutive season in which he paces the league in hits. However, that type of ask would be a significant impediment for interested parties, even with forthcoming salaries of $5MM (2020), $6.75MM (2021), $2.75MM (2022), a $6.75MM club option (2023) and a luxury tax hit of just $4.0625MM.
Chicago has already been tied to Arizona’s David Peralta, but there’s no guarantee that the Diamondbacks will even make him available due to the fact that he’s controlled through 2020. Beyond that, as ESPN’s Buster Olney briefly touched upon yesterday (subscription required), Peralta’s injury history — five absences in the past three and a half seasons, including two in 2019 — could create some hesitancy for a team eyeing stability. While Olney writes that the Cubs are “open-minded” about possibilities to upgrade their lineup, he also more broadly examines the fact that this year’s altered baseball and corresponding home run surge is making it difficult for teams to evaluate players.
That reality becomes all the more apparent when looking through some of the bats available to the Cubs and other clubs on this summer’s trade market. Sifting through our recent list of the market’s top trade candidates, names like Freddy Galvis, Eric Sogard and Kole Calhoun all stand out as hitters who could be moved amid career-best power performances. None of that bunch would be the “consistent” bat the Cubs are reported to be seeking, however, and the Cubs (like other teams) are surely wondering about the sustainability of their respective power surges.
Meanwhile, both Dee Gordon and Jonathan Villar are available, but both Gordon is enduring a poor season at the plate while Villar’s year-to-year performance is full of peaks and valleys. Corey Dickerson could be moved, but the Bucs would probably prefer not to trade him to a division rival. Perhaps Detroit’s Nicholas Castellanos would more aptly fit the “professional” hitter mold sought by the Cubs, but generally speaking, this year’s market isn’t exactly flooded with solid veteran bats — particularly not at positions the Cubs could easily accommodate.
Levine also lists a left-handed reliever as an item on the Cubs’ wishlist, though that’s been known to be the case for quite some time. Beyond his speculation on San Francisco’s Will Smith and Tony Watson, the market bears a few possibilities. The Royals’ Jake Diekman would certainly be a fit, as would the even more-affordable (financially speaking) Roenis Elias in Seattle, whose trade candidacy was recently explored here at MLBTR. Were the D-backs to end up as sellers and make Andrew Chafin available, he’d surely hold interest as well.
Payroll has been an ongoing issue for the Cubs, but any of Diekman ($2.75MM), Elias ($910K) or Chafin ($1.95MM) come with a more affordable rate than Smith ($4.25MM and the highest prospect price tag) or Watson ($10.5MM in 2019 if he reaches all of his incentives, which seems likely). Notably, the Cubs’ current luxury tax payments put them within about $4MM of the top penalty bracket. Crossing that threshold would mean paying a 75 percent tax on every additional dollar spent and also dropping their top pick in next year’s draft by 10 spots. The possible return of Zobrist could add some additional salary to the books, but the lack of certainty surrounding his status makes it difficult to forecast just how much salary he’d add onto the books.