Real Zo-Getters: Cubs Add Ben Zobrist as Part of Wild Tuesday in Nashville

Remember earlier in the day when we were all lamenting what we felt was the constipated (lack of) progress at the Winter Meetings? Well, the Cubs musta dumped a boatload of Metamucil into the coffee at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center at some point on Tuesday. After a good deal of hints, allegations, and things left unsaid, Theo Epstein and Co. made a huge coup by snatching up Ben Zobrist with a 4-year, $56 million contract.

That signing necessitated the subsequent trade of Starlin Castro to the Yankees for Adam Warren, a move that had been a long time coming. Well, not this specific trade, though Castro to New York for a pitcher has been at the crux of a nauseating number of scenarios over the years. It wasn’t to the Mets and it wasn’t for a super-stud, but the deal should be a win-win for both teams.

And speaking of a win-win, both the Cubs and Zobrist should benefit from the deal that made Castro expendable. The Cubs get a veteran presence and a player who’s able to move comfortably between several different positions and the 34-year-old super-utilityman gets paid.

If you’ve gotten really hung up on the all the wrong-side-of-30 stuff, you might think this is a lot of money to pay for what could end up being a depreciating asset. But judging value on age alone is both foolish and unrealistic, neither of which are words generally used to describe anyone in the Cubs’ front office. Even without factoring for inflation, Zobrist need only 1.69 WAR/season over the next four years to make this deal worthwhile. Nice.

That might scare someone who looks at Zobrist’s 2.1 fWAR this season and assumes he’s due for regression from that over the next few seasons, but you’re not that someone. At least, I don’t think you are. No, you know that WAR is a cumulative stat and that the new Cub was limited by a torn medial meniscus in his left knee and played only 126 games for the A’s and Royals. Okay, that’s still only worth 2.5 WAR in a 150-game season, but still.

And here’s the thing: even if Zobrist never totals enough wins above replacement to fully validate on paper the paper the Cubs handed him, his intangibles create a great deal of intrinsic value. Not since Bela Karolyi have we seen someone as adept at managing flexible athletes as Joe Maddon, and Zobrist is basically Mary Lou Retton. His ability to play all over the field should help his teammates stay fresh while burdening the team as a defensive liability.

He’s got a pretty solid bat too, boasting a career-average wRC+ of 118 (18% better than average major leaguer). Even with the bad wheel last season, Zobrist put up a very healthy 123. By comparison, Cubs second basemen posted a wRC+ of 81. Granted, that’s not some kind of catch-all stat that should provide the basis for all assessment. It is, however, a decent place to start.

In the end, Ben Zobrist is a really good baseball player and a guy with whom Joe Maddon is very familiar after several years together in Tampa. He is also a winner, as much as I know some people don’t like to hear it. I’m not really talking about some sort of amorphous psychological trait (though that’s in there too), but rather the fact that the guy has been on some very good teams and has experienced the ultimate victory is his sport. He shouldn’t disrupt the chemistry in the clubhouse and one can reasonably assume that he’ll be a good mentor to the young guys on the team.

And there’s something else about the Zobrist signing I really like: he chose to come to Chicago. Zobrist was a really sought-after free agent and could have gone to to New York or even Washington, among others. In the end, he had to have seen Chicago as a place that gave him the best chance to win again. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he grew up in Eureka, IL, spent his early college years at Olivet Nazarene in Bourbannais, and now calls Nashville, TN (which is just a short flight away) home. Jon Heyman confirmed the emotional investment early Wednesday morning.

Now he’s back in his home state and looking to get his hands back on the Commissioner’s Trophy he recently raised with the Royals. Ben Zobrist makes the Cubs better. And he won’t be the last player to do so this offseason.

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