The Chicago Cubs have been rumored all offseason to be looking to shed payroll. With financial restrictions in place that are currently keeping them from entering the bidding on free agents such as Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, a salary-dump or two would go a long way in helping the Cubs to extend their window of contention.
Among Cubs fans, the most popular players to send away are Tyler Chatwood and Jason Heyward. The former is a starting pitcher who has forgotten how to throw strikes, while the latter is a Gold Glove outfielder who has forgotten how to hit them. Combined, Chatwood and Heyward make up $35 million of the Cubs’ payroll commitments in 2019.
But there are others on the club with larger salaries that would be much easier to move, and one of them is 38-year-old Ben Zobrist. Take, for instance, this recent blurb from Tampa Bay Times reporter Marc Tompkins regarding how the Tampa Bay Rays could improve their roster.
If the Rays did want to add another proven bat, Ben Zobrist could be an intriguing, and quite popular, option in trade from the Cubs.
Such a move would make sense for the Rays, who quietly went 90-72 in 2018 and finished seven games behind the Oakland A’s in the wild card race. Tampa Bay finished just ninth in the American League in runs scored and could desperately use a bat such as Zobrist’s. The second baseman/outfielder had a rejuvenated season for the Cubs last year, hitting a career-best .305 with a 115 OPS+ in 520 plate appearances.
There is also the familiarity factor with Zobrist. He made his major league debut with the franchise back in 2006, when they were still the Devil Rays, and played a utility role for the first nine years of his career – including a trip to the 2008 World Series. The Rays traded Zobrist to the A’s in 2015, and he was later dealt to Kansas City to help the Royals win their first championship since 1985. He signed a four-year deal with the Cubs that offseason, and the next year won the World Series MVP award and his second championship ring.
And all of that doesn’t even begin to touch on Zobrist’s stellar reputation around the league as a clubhouse leader and one of the true “good guys” in the game. So it’s easy to understand why Tompkins would mention Zobrist as a potential target for the Rays. Beyond Tompkins’ speculation, it’s not too far-fetched that the Rays front office may be actively seeking out a trade to bring Zobrist back where his big league career started.
However, there is one major wrench in that plan. It’s hard to see why, at this stage of the offseason, the Cubs would have any interest in such a move.
Harper and Machado are still available, which means anything is possible. If the Rays were willing to take suspended shortstop Addison Russell in a deal with Zobrist, the Cubs could save nearly $16 million in their 2019 budget. That alone wouldn’t be enough to sign one of the two free agent superstars, but maybe it closes the gap for the Cubs?
However, would the Rays really be interested in taking on all of Zobrist’s salary? It’s all speculation at this point, but Tampa Bay has always been notoriously tight-fisted with their budget. They might be more interested in a deal that involves taking less of the money but paying a slightly higher prospect cost.
The Cubs almost certainly wouldn’t be interested in paying a large chunk of Zobrist’s contract just to send him away. After all, the value the team could get back in exchange for one year of the moderately productive 38-year-old isn’t likely to make them better in 2019. The more the situation is parsed out, the harder it is to find a fit between the two teams. Even in the most optimistic of scenarios, it all feels pretty far-fetched.
The reality of the situation is that there’s no scenario where the Cubs should want to trade Zobrist unless there were bigger moves on the table that necessitated it. The Cubs likely want to keep Zobrist for all the same reasons that make him an attractive potential acquisition for the Rays.
The Cubs absolutely love Zobrist, both from an on-the-field and off-the-field aspect. His strong 2018 season came after an injury-plagued 2017 season that saw him hit just .232/.318/.375 in 496 plate appearances. He remains the veteran leader on the positional side of a clubhouse that is still remarkably young, despite having made four consecutive trips to the postseason. Zobrist is one of just two Cubs position players over the age of 30 that are projected for the Opening Day roster. The other is free agent addition Daniel Descalso.
Maybe all of this is off base, and the Cubs are actually extremely close to making a serious offer to Harper or Machado. Maybe finding a new home for their veteran leader and World Series MVP – and his $12.5 million salary – is the only thing standing in the way of them getting it done. But given what we know about Zobrist and the Cubs, any interest the Rays may have in a trade is completely one-sided.