Other than the pursuit of Jon Lester, the other thing to look forward to this offseason is the position player group. The Cubs need to upgrade their lineup and/or add leadership to the equation for 2015. The lineup is going to be young because the kids are going to play. GM Jed Hoyer made that pretty evident that the position player portion of the roster is going to be taken up primarily by young players.
“That takes up a fair number of positions," Hoyer said, "but we wouldn’t rule out adding a starting player or two that can help there as well."
But getting a starter is pretty tricky. Barring a big trade, it would seem there is little room to upgrade. The lineup is filled with players who have starting experience, in or before their prime years, and cost controlled. Here is how it currently projects with their 2015 Opening Day age.
- C: Welington Castillo, 27
- 1B: Anthony Rizzo, 25
- 2B: Javier Baez, 22
- SS: Starlin Castro, 25
- 3B: Luis Valbuena, 29
- 3B/OF: Kris Bryant, 23
- OF: Arismendy Alcantara, 23
- OF: Jorge Soler, 23
There are limited ways to upgrade here. One is to keep Kris Bryant at 3B, move Luis Valbuena to the bench, and pick up a short term outfielder. But that is rather tricky. Valbuena's offensive numbers are actually pretty good. And when you hear the Cubs talk about the position players they want to add, you'll often hear 3 things mentioned: LH hitter, OBP skills, and leadership. Valbuena represents all 3 of those things and upgrading a .339 wOBA/114 RC+ player with those attributes will prove difficult in this market. And note that I did not use the word replace. I used the word add. That is no accident. The Cubs aren't good enough to be shuffling furniture in and out. Hoyer said as much,
“We need to add some guys to our roster that can help provide that. We also have to lengthen out our position-player group.”
The word lengthen is an interesting word choice. It suggests the Cubs want to build rather than make a straight one-for-one upgrade. It isn't language suggestive of an overhaul. It does tell us, however, that the Cubs will look to upgrade their position player group. If they can get themselves an extra starter in the equation, all the better, but I don't look for them to be the ones pursuing major changes. I expect them to listen and I expect teams to put out feelers, but at this stage some team would have to give up two core type players for the Cubs to give up one of their own.
That is one way to lengthen the position player group, but I see that kind of 2 for 1 deal as difficult to achieve.
So what are the alternatives?
Upgrading the OF
As mentioned, acquiring a starting outfielder is one way to lengthen that roster. It moves Chris Coghlan and eventually, Valbuena, to the bench. The Cubs could also hang on to Justin Ruggiano and have Matt Szczur and Logan Watkins on call at Iowa. That makes the Cubs longer and more versatile, but again, upgrading on Coghlan, much less Valbuena, isn't going to be easy. Some names we have suggested that could do that are Dexter Fowler, Coco Crisp, Ben Zobrist, and Denard Span. None of those players will be easy to obtain. Span could become a free agent and that would make sense because the Cubs wouldn't have to give anybody up to get him. Obviously, the easiest way to lengthen is to add without subtracting. Another way to do that is to trade one spare part for another, as I suggested with an Edwin Jackson/Michael Bourn swap. Bourn wouldn't be an offensive upgrade over Valbuena, but he would certainly upgrade the depth and lengthen the roster.
The other players, if they are even available, would require the Cubs give up some of their assets, but to do that and still lengthen the short term roster without costing them long term, the Cubs will have to deal from organizational depth. That limits their trade options to 2nd tier prospects like Christian Villanueva or blocked positions like 1B. (And no, I don't consider SS a blocked position at this point because those players are more easily moved to other positions).
There is also the catching position. I want to start by saying you can do a lot worse than the 2013/2014 versions of Welington Castillo. You can also do better. Whether that comes with internal improvement from Castillo himself, some veteran backup help, or replacing him altogether should all be options on the table for the Cubs.
I don't have anything against Castillo. I like him, in fact. But with such few places to upgrade, the catching position has to be considered. Unlike Valbuena, Castillo represents something the Cubs have in surplus: RH hitters with some pop.
Russell Martin is the big name here but we've gone over the pros and cons plenty of times already, so we won't rehash that.
What's more interesting to me is how the Cubs could sign Martin and still lengthen their roster. The obvious and easy way would be to move Castillo to the bench. He is a fringe starter at this point anyway but would make an outstanding young backup -- and an inexpensive one at that. Is that the best way to utilize that asset? I don't know. That is a much more difficult question to answer as backup catchers don't carry a lot of value in this league. Such a move would essentially be giving up on Castillo when you consider Martin would likely require a 4 year deal.
The other choice is to deal Castillo and acquire a player at a different position, perhaps the kind of outfielder we spoke of earlier. But that is also problematic as there are too many moving parts. If you sign Martin and attempt to deal Castillo, you've effectively given up much of your leverage. If you deal Castillo first, you may get more in return but then leave yourself open to missing out on Martin. If you do fail to sign Martin, you are essentially just shuffling the deck and not adding/lengthening.
Upgrading the backup catcher spot
The safe choice would be to get a backup that helps fill the gaps. Castillo's biggest weakness is his ability to frame pitches. David Ross has appeal because of his pitch-framing skills, leadership ability, and the bonus of having a good relationship with free agent to be Jon Lester, a potential Cubs target. The Cubs could also take the route of getting a complementary backup such as Hank Conger or Jose Lobaton. Both provide a lefty bat (switch-hitters), have solid approaches, and are also adept at pitch-framing. It isn't sexy, but it at least it upgrades and lengthens the Cubs at the position overall, if not at starter. Both players may be good enough to share time as opposed to strictly being a backup.
Miguel Montero is also intriguing. He is overpaid right now as he is owed 3 more years and $40M. For a catcher who should probably be more of a quasi-starter/platoon player, that is a significant amount. However, the fact that Castillo makes just over the minimum right now balances that out. Montero complements Castillo well. He is one of the best in the game at pitch-framing and he is hitting .259/.353/.398 with 11 HRs vs. RHP. Castillo is hitting .301/.350/.505 with 5 HRs vs. LHP. Put that together and you get a guy hitting .267 with 16 HRs, and a .353 OBP. You also get some of the best all-around defense at the position while significantly upgrading the team's pitch framing. Is that combined player worth roughly $13M next year? I think so. It also has the added benefit of keeping the popular Castillo around. Perhaps he can even become a longer term solution if he can learn better framing skills from a mentor like Montero.
Here is another idea I have been tossing around. Instead of swapping out Edwin Jackson for BJ Upton (as has been rumored) or Michael Bourn (which I have suggested in the past), what about Brian McCann? He checks all the boxes: He provides leadership, has a solid approach, frames pitches well, and can provide a 2nd power threat from the left side to go with Rizzo. One industry source told me last year that he considered McCann a great fit for the Cubs and thought they should have pursued him as a free agent.
Obviously this could not be a one-for-one deal as McCann received a pretty large deal (5yr/$85M) and one that is best suited for the AL because of the DH. The Cubs would likely want some significant salary relief in return in addition to unloading Jackson's contract. It's a difficult to deal to come to terms on for both sides so it is highly unlikely, but if you would indulge me for a moment and allow me to also pry loose my annual obsession --Coco Crisp, then I rather like the chances of a Cubs team that looks like this...
- Crisp, LF
- Castro, SS
- Rizzo, 1B
- Soler, RF
- Bryant, 3B
- McCann, C
- Baez, 2B
- Alcantara, CF
Backups: David Ross or Castillo, Luis Valbuena, Chris Coghlan, Justin Ruggiano, Chris Valaika or some other RH hitting bat/infielder.
Such a deal would take a lot of creativity, compromise, and cash to work, but that team (with Lester in the rotation) is a contender to me. Balanced lineup, leadership, good approaches ...and the young cheap, talented core to sustain the financial hit in the short term and keep the run going in the long term.
Just a thought, nothing behind it, no rumor, no inside info as to whether either team would even be interested in completing such a potentially messy deal.
The Montero/Castillo platoon idea is more plausible and probably cheaper, It's also a shorter term arrangement that lasts only until 2017, so I am leaning in that direction right now.
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