Since the end of the regular season, the Cubs front office has made it clear that they intend to compete in 2015. Signing Joe Maddon to one of the richest managerial contracts in baseball only confirmed that. It’s fairly clear what the Cubs actually need to do to compete next season in addition to Anthony Rizzo and Jake Arrieta proving their 2014s were not flukes. (1) The prospects (Baez, Soler, and Alcantara should be up on Opening Day, Kris Bryant will be up a couple of weeks later at most, and Addison Russell could be ready mid-season) need to contribute. This doesn’t mean that they all need to be stars, or even that none of them can be busts. As an overall group, however, they need to succeed. (2) The Cubs need to add top to middle of the rotation starting pitching. (3) The Cubs need a much better overall performance from their outfield.
In regards to number 2, most believe that the Cubs are going to sign two free agent pitchers this season, one from the top tier (Lester and Scherzer, with Shields as the fall back) and one from the middle tier (too many to list, but includes Brendan McCarthy, Ervin Santana, and Jason Hammel). A minority, however, believe the Cubs will sign one big name pitcher and trade for another pitcher. TheCubs would have two options for what to give up in such a trade: (1) a prospect like Javier Baez or Addison Russell; or (2) Starlin Castro.
This piece is not to debate the merits of specific Starlin Castro trades, although I could see some potential matches depending on what the front office is looking to do. The Cubs could try do something like trade Castro to the Mets for a package headlined by someone like Noah Syndergaard, taking the potential risk and reward of using their 3 time All Star shortstop to obtain a near MLB ready prospect with ace potential. Or the Cubs could try to match up with the Nationals for Jordan Zimmerman if the Cubs were able to come to an extension with the Nationals’ right hander, which would also solve a short term (2B is their weakness if Rendon plays 3B) and long term (Desmond is likely gone after 2015, so they’ll need a shortstop) problem for Washington.
The question I’m examining, however, is if the Cubs could actually claim to be “competing” in 2015 if Castro isn’t slotted in as the opening day shortstop. Castro was worth 2.9 fWAR last season. For the sake of argument, let’s say that Castro would have stayed on that pace had he stayed healthy and been worth 3.5 wins above replacement while taking something around 99% of the plate appearances at shortstop. If the Cubs trade Castro, they need to replace those 3.5 wins.
On top of that, the Cubs were poor last season at second base, so the Cubs need to find a way to improve that middle infield position. I’d argue the Cubs should be looking for about 2.5 WAR from second base next season, which is pretty much exactly league average performance. This is in part to set reasonable expectations for Javier Baez, to be a league average player this coming season, not a superstar. If these numbers panned out, that provides a total of 6 wins above replacement from the middle infield.
If Castro is in the fold, the answer to “where do those wins come from?” is pretty simple. You count on Castro for the 3 to 3.5 WAR he’s been good for in 3 of the last 4 seasons, hope Baez becomes a league average, and have Valbuena as an early season fallback option if Baez continues to struggle so greatly making contact. But what if Castro was gone?
Second base actually wouldn’t be that great a concern. A Luis Valbuena led platoon should put up 2.5 to 3 WAR (Valbuena alone was worth 2.7 fWAR last season and 2.1 fWAR in 2013). The problem would be that you’d have no real backup option to Baez at shortstop until Addison Russell is ready, which could be in June, September, or in 2016. Baez definitely has the talent to become a great player as early as next season, but can the Cubs really bet on a player who struck out 41.5% of the time in his first short MLB stint to be anything more than league average in his age 22 season?
Not if they truly intend on competing in 2015. If the Cubs want to fight with the Cardinals and Pirates for playoff spots, Starlin Castro should be a Cub in 2015. Despite the prospect talent the Cubs have at the position and their need for high end pitching, now is not the time for the Cubs to trade their All Star shortstop. If Baez makes the necessary adjustments next season and Russell looks like the real deal, the Cubs can examine moving Castro a year from now with no diminution in value because of the long term team friendly nature of his contract.