For the first time in more than a half decade, the Cubs were among the most active teams at the Winter Meetings. They added one of the two best available free agent pitchers in left hander Jon Lester, brought back Jason Hammel to help solidify the middle to back of the rotation, and traded for catcher Miguel Montero. As the Cubs’ signing of reliever Jason Motte showed yesterday, though, the Cubs are not done this offseason. While the rumors of what they are looking for vary (a big bat in the outfield or a bench veteran with a great clubhouse reputation?), these are the moves that I think are most likely. As a quick note, though, I’m not including “just getting rid of a guy” moves, so Edwin Jackson is not included here despite a pretty high likelihood of not being on the roster by the end of spring training, despite being due $22 million over the next two seasons.
MOST LIKELY CUBS TO BE TRADED:
Welington Castillo (C): There are two primary reasons that the Cubs brought in Miguel Montero to replace Welington Castillo as the team’s primary catcher. First, Castillo does not hit right handed pitching well. Montero, who bats left handed, has done most of his offensive damage over his career against right handed pitching. Second, Castillo is among the worst pitch framers in baseball, while Montero is one of the best.
While a Montero/Castillo platoon clearly makes sense from an offensive perspective, from a receiving perspective the Cubs would face a big drop off during games against left handed pitchers. And there is a veteran free agent backup catcher our there who also hits left handed pitching very well, without the huge decrease in pitch framing ability: David Ross. Ross also was Jon Lester’s personal catcher for the last few years in Boston, and would probably be cheaper through free agency than Castillo would be in arbitration.
Short version: if the Cubs bring in Ross, Castillo will be traded. If they don’t, Castillo won’t.
The likely return for Castillo is hard to predict because, aside from being a poor pitch framer and receiver he’s a good defensive catcher. He throws runners out at a strong rate and generally controls the running game well. So a team that emphasizes pitch framing, which more and more are every year, would be willing to give less for Castillo than a team that isn’t yet convinced by the framing data. He’d be worth someone who is at least useful, but probably no one to get excited about. Castillo is predicted to receive $2 to $2.3 million in his first year of arbitration in 2015.
Luis Valbuena (3B/2B): Heading into the offseason, I wasn’t sure what the Cubs were going to do with Luis Valbuena. He’s a starting caliber 3B or 2B on most teams, and at least worthy of being the strong half of a platoon on nearly any team. Moreover, as a guy who builds a lot of his value by drawing walks and playing solid defense, he won’t get as much through arbitration as the 25 home run types who don’t otherwise get on base. He’s predicted to make about $3.1 million in his second year of arbitration.
Here’s the rub: once Kris Bryant comes up, likely in mid-April after the extra year of team control is secured, Valbuena won’t have a starting spot on the Cubs if Bryant is initially plugged into third base as most expect. You typically don’t get the most value out of a starting caliber player by sticking him on your bench, since another team that needs that starting caliber player will probably have someone else that you need. Yet the Cubs still had a potential need for Luis Valbuena, at least at the start of the offseason: Javier Baez insurance. Baez clearly needs to make a lot of adjustments to succeed at the MLB level, and it’s not clear that a demotion to Triple A isn’t in his future next season.
Enter Tommy La Stella. La Stella is not an ideal starting second baseman, but he can hold the position down respectably long enough for the Cubs to not feel their only backup plan to Baez is promoting Addison Russell earlier than they want to.
Valbuena could bring a good amount in a trade due to his value over the past two seasons and relatively cheap last two years of team control.
Travis Wood (SP): The Wood story is pretty well known: he was great in 2013, but likely in an unsustainable fashion due to more average peripherals. In 2014 he was just all around worse, with not only having his results fall to his peripherals, but having his peripherals get worse. It’s essentially presumed at this point that Travis Wood has the first shot at the fifth spot in the rotation, but I’m not positive the Cubs won’t add another starting pitcher before all is said and done.
Even if the Cubs don’t add another starting pitcher, Wood could be dangled towards the end of spring training if Jacob Turner impresses, or Tsuyoshi Wada just clearly looks like the better option. Unfortunately, at this juncture it is unlikely Wood would bring much in the way of return. Due to his strong 2013 performance, Wood entered arbitration at a pretty $3.9 million in 2014, and that’s going to guide his arbitration award upward over the next two years as well. Odds are, at the most, you’re getting some other play who is approaching being overpaid in arbitration that also struggled last season. If this were one of the last three years, the Cubs would hold on to Wood in the hopes he could regain value. With the Cubs looking to compete in 2015, they might not feel that is an option now.
Kris Medlen (SP): The starting pitching market has really thinned out over the last week, with really just Max Scherzer and James Shield at the top before you get to the fliers. The Cubs won’t be in on either of those top two guys, so we can go straight to the fliers. I was going to list Brett Anderson as my favorite among them, but he signed a 1 year, $10 million deal with the Dodgers last night. So my new favorite on that list is Kris Medlen, who was non-tendered by the Braves. Medlen was a quite good pitcher for the Braves as recently as 2013, and no one was better in the second half of 2012. The problem with Medlen is that he’s going to be coming off his second Tommy John surgery, which does not have the successful return rate as guys who have had their first Tommy John surgery. If the Cubs sign Medlen, they’d probably want some rather team friendly option to keep him for 2016, since he probably won’t pitch in the Majors until close to mid-season.
Too numerous of arbitration eligible mid to back of the rotation options to list that potentially could be available via trade: These would be the guys that the Cubs would be most likely to receive in a Valbuena or Wood trade. For Valbuena you probably get a legitimate mid-rotation guy with a couple of years of arbitration left. For Wood you probably get a little less.
Colby Rasmus (CF): The Cubs have reportedly met with the former Cardinals top prospect, who has solid power and plays good center field defense, but doesn’t get on base and strikes out way too much. He’d have to be a guy the market passes over for me to be interested, a guy on a one year prove you can put it together deal. My biggest problem with Rasmus is that there’s some team out there that shouldn’t view him like that: a team that doesn’t strike out a lot but also doesn’t hit for a lot of power. The Cubs of the near future will only be that team if something goes really, really wrong with the prospects.
Nori Aoki (RF/LF): While Aoki doesn’t come with the former prospect credentials that Rasmus does, he could be a great fit for the Cubs. He gets on base through a combination of an average walk rate and extremely low strikeout rate, posting at least a .349 OBP in each of his three seasons in the Majors. He’d be a great table setter for the Cubs in front of the multitude of power bats. Also, while Aoki’s rather… interesting… fly ball routes have become the stuff of legend, he’s a decent outfielder, and should be helped by moving from right field to left, which he would with the Cubs. Personally, this is a situation where I’d prefer the former Brewer to the former Cardinal.
Jonny Gomes (LF): Gomes has long been said to be a guy the Cubs want to bring in to be a part of a left field platoon with Chris Coghlan if the Cubs don’t add a regular there. I don’t really get it, largely because I don’t see how he’s any better of a hitter than Justin Ruggiano and Ruggiano is a far superior fielder. I understand that Gomes is supposed to be an awesome clubhouse presence, but that should only be a consideration if the players are otherwise pretty equivalent, or one of the players is an outright clubhouse cancer. I just don’t think Gomes is Ruggiano’s equal at this point. And if I don’t think you’re Ruggiano’s equal, it means I don’t think you’re a very good baseball player.
Justin Upton (LF): The Braves already traded Jason Heyward to the National League’s version of the evil empire this offseason, and are rumored to be shopping Justin Upton, who is in the last year of his contract, as well. I know what you’re thinking: it’s going to cost way too much to get a guy we’d only have for one season! My retort: look at what the Cardinals gave up for Heyward: a starter who lacks the secondary pitches to be a top of the rotation piece and a prospect who most think is more likely to be a reliever. Plus, the Braves didn’t get that for just Heyward. They got it for Heyward and Jordan Walden, a quality relief pitcher in his own right.
If the Cubs are going to trade Luis Valbuena for a current MLB player, they should at least reach out to the Braves to see if they could exchange him for Justin Upton. Valbuena provides the Braves with a significant and cost effective solution at third base for two years, which should appeal to them. Upton would provide the Cubs with a veteran middle of the order bat who could take some pressure of some of the prospects next season. The real question is if the Cubs should be trying to trade Valbuena for a current player, or use him to continue to keep the farm system stocked.