Amid the chatter about the Chicago Cubs this offseason, a recent topic has involved cutting costs with their ballooning payroll, which currently sits barely below the luxury tax threshold at $205.9 million. For a team that not only lost its hold on the National League Central crown in game 163 but also lost the Wild Card game at home to the Colorado Rockies, the massive payroll commitment that rivals that of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox do not match their postseason play.
The player at the forefront of these cost-cutting measures is utilityman Ben Zobrist, who has played an integral role for the Cubs across the past three seasons. Going into the final year of his current deal in Chicago, his salary of $12 million plus a $500,000 prorated signing bonus is the deal’s second-lowest.
Zobrist is the team’s most flexible player role-wise, as he can play every position of the back seven. Zobrist’s role on the team depends on the day, which is something that has played into his usage rate under manager Joe Maddon, who also managed him while in Tampa Bay.
Any team looking for a valuable utility piece that wants to spend less than what free agent Marwin Gonzalez is asking for should be calling Chicago up and asking what it will take for the Cubs to ship him out. Looking to clear money, here are three options for the Cubs to send Zobrist to.
While making trades to division members is unseen in the league, sending it to your most bitter rival (and yes, it is actually a rivalry Cole Hamels) is almost written into the MLB constitution as being illegal, but here we sit, entertaining a deal with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Even with the small market franchise taking the money-conscious approach, David Stearns and company could be compelled to take on the final year of Zobrist’s deal. Currently on the market searching either for an above-average second or third base option, the Brewers should be interested in bringing Ben Zobrist into the fold, at the right price.
Zobrist would be a good fit at second, even with his defensive inabilities. This would help push Travis Shaw back to his natural position of third base while giving the team a solid offensive option up the middle. The idea of covering his defensive issues would lie in the team’s heavy shift usage, which could pit shortstop Orlando Arcia’s strengths of range and arm strength next to Zobrist.
By staying in the division, the Cubs would need to understand the return would be small, so the Brewers could minimize any sort of damage the return could deal with them down the road. A non-top 30 but Triple-A level prospect would probably be enough to entice the swap.
Staying within the National League, the San Francisco Giants could be interested in swapping second basemen, as Joe Panik was rumored to be getting some looks from other teams in the trade market. An interesting addition for the Cubs, Panik would save the team a lot of money as he is still earning arbitration and will be in his third season of earning arbitration next season.
A straight-up swap of the two would not be enough, as the Giants would be adding more money to their payroll, so some sort of an interesting prospect would need to go with Zobrist to sweeten the deal and make it worth it for San Francisco. A top-25 prospect who is two to three years away should be enough to get the deal done.
With Zobrist coming off the books after the 2019 season, the Giants would be able to gauge any of his value while still holding out the hope that they can make the playoffs. While Panik is the better player of the two, Ben Zobrist could offer positional flexibility while being a nice offensive addition. Another option for the Giants would be to ship him out at the trade deadline in July if they wanted to recoup any value for him if they were not interested in bringing him back for 2020 or beyond.
The final team that would be smart to gauge the Cubs’ interest would be an American League squad, the Cleveland Indians. While adding salary is the complete opposite of what the team came into the offseason planning to do, the Indians could look to build a trade for Zobrist around Jason Kipnis, the incumbent second baseman.
While Kipnis has one more year left on his deal for 2020, he would be earning $4 million more than Zobrist would be, which would help get money off the books for Mark Shapiro and company, while also getting out of a deal in one fewer seasons.
While Zobrist is not as young as Kipnis, the Cubs would be smart to recoup any MLB-capable value in this deal, as their window for winning is now. Adding an extra $4 million the payroll would push Chicago over the luxury tax threshold, there would be plenty of time to get underneath it yet again before the season was to begin.
Ben Zobrist may very well be on his way out of the friendly confines of Wrigley Field, potentially sooner rather than later. A few unconventional deals could speed this process up and get Zobrist in a new uniform.