Cubs President Theo Epstein condensed his two major moves Tuesday night as the simple transaction of “trading” mercurial infielder Starlin Castro for two-time American League All-Star Ben Zobrist and pitcher Adam Warren.
But it took some juggling for Epstein and his staff to address several significant needs for the Cubs.
The Cubs cleared $38 million in trading Castro to the Yankees for Warren, 28, who could help the pitching staff in a variety of roles and isn’t eligible for free agency until after the 2018 season, and a player to be named.
In moving the contract of Castro, 25, a three-time National League All-Star shortstop who moved to second base and excelled in the final month of the 2015 season, the Cubs cleared enough money to sign Zobrist, a highly-sought free agent, to a four-year, $56 million contract. The versatile Zobrist fills many needs and allows them some financial freedom to plug other less significant holes.
“That’s something, in our situation, that made a lot of sense for us,” Epstein said in addressing the moves.
Zobrist, 34, who spent his first nine seasons with Cubs manager Joe Maddon with the Rays, has a lifetime .355 on-base percentage. Since 2009, Zobrist ranks fourth in the majors with 566 walks and fifth with 247 doubles. That should help a Cubs offense that had a .321 on-base percentage and led the league with 1,518 strikeouts.
With the expected loss of free agent Dexter Fowler, Zobrist could fill in as the Cubs’ leadoff hitter, Epstein said. Zobrist has scored at least 74 runs in each of his last seven seasons.
The switch-hitting Zobrist also provides balance to the Cubs’ lineup, which showed vulnerability against the Mets’ hard-throwing right-handed pitchers in the National League Championship Series.
“He’s exactly the type of hitter we’re looking for,” Epstein said.
Zobrist played second base in 69 of his 126 games for the Athletics and Royals last season and will spend the majority of his time there, Epstein said. Over his career, he has played much outfield.
Javier Baez will continue to play various positions, but now the Cubs have the depth and financial resources to acquire another pitcher or a solid defensive center fielder.
The Cubs expressed their interest in Zobrist early in the free-agent period but asked him to remain patient so they could clear money and address other needs.
That included moving Castro, who lost his shortstop job to rookie Addison Russell on Aug. 7 but resurrected his career with a move to second base and an NL-high .369 batting average in September and October.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said he tried to acquire Castro at the July 31 trading deadline with the intention of moving him to second but that the Cubs weren’t interested.
Discussions resurfaced a few days ago, and the Cubs found a fit with Warren, who was 7-7 with a 3.29 ERA in 43 appearances (17 starts).
“We’re excited on our end,” Cashman said. “We think (Castro) is a guy who is an above-average defender at second base, has a quality stick, is 25 and can play short and third and gives us a lot of athleticism for his age and hopefully performance.”
The trade of Castro removes one of the final links of the pre-Epstein era that started before the 2012 season. Castro received a seven-year, $60 million contract in 2013 but was inconsistent at the plate and in the field.
“It’s certainly bittersweet with sadness that we see him go,” Epstein said after talking with Castro, who currently is working out near the Yankees’ spring training facility in Tampa.
Warren, like Trevor Cahill, Travis Wood and Clayton Richard, will be stretched out as a starter in spring training but could be used initially as a reliever. Warren could end up in the rotation in the future with John Lackey’s contract expiring and Jake Arrieta eligible for free agency after 2017.
Warren, who features a 95 mph fastball with an “excellent change-up,” according to Epstein, was 6-6 with a 3.66 ERA in 17 starts and had a 2.29 ERA in 26 relief appearances.
“It was tough to lose him, but you have to give to get,” Cashman said.
The player to be named is expected to be infielder Brendan Ryan, according to a source.