What a Cubs Trade for Ben Zobrist Might Have Looked Like

After weeks of speculation and chatter among Cubs fans about what it could take to get super-utility-man (cool nickname, bro) Ben Zobrist from the Rays, the drama finally has ended before it ever officially got off the ground. The Rays never were publicly linked to the Cubs, and over the weekend they dealt Zobrist and shortstop Yunel Escobar to the A’s for catcher/DH John Jaso and prospects.

Before I look at that deal, I have to admit the reason for my silence on Zobrist the last few weeks: I never really wanted the Cubs to deal for him. I just figured that, given the number of teams that could use a guy like Zobrist, the price would be more than the deal was worth. After seeing the return, though, I’m not so sure. But hindsight is 20/20.

Looking at Zobrist alone, there’s a lot to like. He switch-hits, can play a multitude of positions, he’s playoff tested, he’s a familiar soldier for manager Joe Maddon, and his low K rate (15.7%) and high BB rate (12.1%) over his career are outstanding. But on the flip side of all that, he’ll be 34 this season, has only one year left until he can be a free agent, and what the Rays expected to command in a trade seemed like too much for a guy that has posted a .753 OPS the last two seasons.

In looking at the actual trade, though, I’ve started to waffle a bit. The biggest name in the return is John Jaso, a 31-year-old left-handed hitter with a .259/.359/.399 career slash line. The obvious comparison for the Cubs is soon-to-be-former-catcher Welington Castillo. Castillo is a 28-year-old right-handed catcher with a .256/.324/.400 career slash line, coupled with solid defensive skills but questionable/poor framing skills. It makes you wonder if the Cubs could’ve built a deal around Castillo the way the A’s did with Jaso.

The other parts of the deal are Escobar and the two prospects that went to the Rays. They are shortstop Daniel Robertson, a 21-year-old first round pick from 2012, and outfielder Boog Powell (no, not the one from the 70’s). Escobar is going to be 32 and has hit .256/.318/.350 over the last three seasons. I wouldn’t think the Cubs would be asking for him, as they don’t really have the need for a shortstop. The Rays have several left-handed pitchers on the 40-man roster, and could probably spare former Cub Jeff Beliveau.

Robertson’s best asset is his hit tool, and while he isn’t flat outstanding at any one thing he’s pretty good at a lot of stuff, according to Baseball America:

Roberston, 20, is coming off a strong season at high Class A Stockton, pairing his developing power and batting eye with solid all-around baseball athleticism…He’s more of a smooth defender rather than a flashy one, with above-average arm strength that suits him for the left side of the infield. He’s athletic though not electric and most notable for solid all-around tools rather than one standout skill or physical ability.

Powell, 22 years old and headed for AA in 2015, was a late-round pick in 2012 but has been impressive. He’s walked 102 times to just 96 strikeouts in 756 plate appearances in the minors, has hit .317/.412/.384 over that same span, and put up .343/.451/.435 in 83 games in 2014 (split between A and A+). He has played mostly centerfield and, while he’s not Billy Hamilton, he does have good speed. If you’re looking for a comparison, think Brett Gardner. Perhaps of note is that he served a 50-game suspension after testing positive for amphetamines in 2014.

It’s hard to compare prospects across organizations, but the description of Robertson reminds me of what is often said about Albert Almora. Smooth defender, good batting eye, and all-around athleticism are descriptions that seem to fit both players. Both were drafted in the first round in 2012, and while Robertson was the A’s top prospect at the time of the deal, I’d bet Almora would be about parallel to him if they were in the same organization.

It’s a bit more difficult to find a similar player to Powell in the Cubs farm system. He was ranked as the A’s eleventh-best prospect, so the best parallel I could find from the Cubs is probably Gioskar Amaya. He would probably be ranked around the same on the A’s list, although maybe a tad lower than Powell. Amaya also has strong on-base skills, is also 22 and likely headed for AA in 2015, has similar gap power, and decent base-stealing abilities.

All of this is hypothetical because we really don’t know specifically what the Rays valued in each of these players. If they liked Jaso because he’s a Major League-caliber catcher with experience handling a pitching staff, then it’s fair to assume they may have taken Castillo. If it’s because he’s left-handed and has a good career BB rate, then that assumption would be off base.

But restructuring the deal in a way that more fits the Cubs dealing Castillo, Almora, and Amaya for Zobrist and Beliveau is an interesting thought, even if it’s hypothetical to the max. Is that giving up too much? For the player Zobrist is now, I’d say it’s probably about right. For the fact that he’s 34 and can walk after this season, I’d say the Cubs would probably have been giving up too much.

If this were the deal, would you still want the Cubs to deal for Zobrist?

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