According to the Tampa Bay Times, the Rays are looking for a catcher. The Cubs have 2, maybe 3 starting caliber catchers with Geovany Soto being the guy the Cubs would be most likely to trade.
Unfortunately, Soto is off to a slow start and doesn't have the kind of consistent track record that makes teams confident he'll rebound. The ZiPS projection system sees him going .236, 14 HR the rest of the way, which would give him a .225/.311/.403 line for they year.
Not exactly the kind of numbers that bring in a strong return, especially given Soto's average defensive skills. Still, catcher isn't a position, unless you're Mike Napoli, where you expect to get huge numbers. So dismal as they may sound, those stats amount to a 2.1 WAR catcher on the season.
If you remember from our stats glossary, a 2 WAR player is starter-level, although not an especially good starter. But it is significantly better than what Tampa has now. With each "win" worth $4.5M on the open market, Soto's 2.1 wins above replacement are worth 9.45M, giving approximately $5M worth of surplus value -- something that would certainly entice a Tampa team who is looking to run as financially efficient a team as possible. Soto has 2 years before he becomes a free agent, so if we assume an 89% raise next year, the average in 2012 for arbitration cases, we're looking at an $8.1M salary next year.
I don't think Tampa will want to pay him that much. They'll either sign him to a long term deal or they'll look to trade him, but seeing that Tampa is going to look at this from a financial value standpoint, we can look at Soto as having about $6M worth of surplus value over the next 2 years.
So it's a fit for Tampa position-wise and in terms of value. Given that the surplus isn't a whole lot, we shouldn't expect much in return, either.
The Cubs have some leverage in that Tampa has a need at catcher, so perhaps they can extract an arm. RHP Wade Davis is a possibility. He's signed to a team friendly deal (4 years/$12.6M with club options for the next 3 years). The deal is not so friendly, however, if he stays in the pen. So perhaps Tampa has some incentive to deal Davis. The option years figures are not ones they are likely to meet, as it escalates 3 years and $25M ($7, $8, and then $10M w/a $2.5M buyout) -- it's especially costly if he doesn't become a starter.
The Cubs would get a 3 year look at Wade Davis before the club options and escalated salaries come into play. Thus far, Davis hasn't been all that special as a starter, posting a 0.6 and 0.9 WAR in his two full seasons in the rotation. In other words, over the past two years, he's been worth 4 less wins than Soto, who has put up WARs of 3.4 and 2.4. If Soto merely hits his modest projection for the year at 2.1, it's still unlikely Davis can top that as a relief pitcher. The Cubs would obviously prefer that he become a starter if they were to acquire him. In the end, the Cubs would be rolling the dice a little as it would be more about playing the upside angle on a 26 year old pitcher moving from the AL East to the NL Central.
Another arm that might be interesting is Alex Cobb. Cobb ranked as the Rays 16th best prospect per Baseball America in 2011. He has a low 90s fastball, a curve, slider, and change. He had some success last year with Tampa. He went 3-2 in 9 starts with a 3.42 ERA (3.61 FIP). He has a 2.00 ERA in 3 starts and 18 innings at AAA, so he's off to a decent start. He consistently gets good results in the minors and in his brief time in the majors, but the trouble is that Cobb's stuff isn't all that great and his command is average. Long term he may project more as a reliever in the big leagues.
The Cubs could go for a higher upside play in Alex Torres. He's a LHP with better stuff than Cobb. He has a low 90s fastball as well but it has good movement and he has a very good change. He has struck out 9.4 batters per 9 innings in his career. He ranked as the Rays 6th best prospect after the 2011 season. The problem is some serious command issues which have led to about 5 walks per 9 innings in his minor league career. This year he is off to a horrendous start with a 10.47 walk rate, although he has struck out over 12 per 9 innings. He's also not a physically imposing pitcher. He's just 5'10". Both factors may spell a career as a reliever, though Baseball America pegs his ceiling as a #3 starter.
While Soto was once a valuable player at a premium position, his value has dropped signficantly. For references sake, the Rockies traded their catcher, Chris Iannetta for RHP Tyler Chatwood, a former Angels top 10 prospect. But there are some important differences. Iannetta was coming off a better year and is making less money. Even still, Chatwood projects as probably a bottom of the rotation starter or reliever. He's a (3.4 WAR) reliever right now with 4 appearances and a 5.63 ERA.
The Cubs are in a tough situation where they are trying to rebuild but don't have players with a lot of value. Other than Garza, Soto and possibly Carlos Marmol may offer the best chance of getting a decent return. But both players may need some time to show they still have good value before the Cubs decide to trade them.