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December 9, 2015

Transaction Analysis

Cubs Implement Flextime

by Jeff Quinton, Sahadev Sharma and J.P. Breen

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American League
National League

Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired 2B-R Starlin Castro from the Chicago Cubs for RHP Adam Warren and a PTBNL (reportedly INF-R Brendan Ryan) [12/8]

Before trading for Castro, the Yankees' plan at second base was a Dustin Ackley-Rob Refsnyder platoon. If such a platoon is the worst spot in an otherwise great lineup, then such a platoon might be fine. But in a merely good lineup with high amounts of age and injury risk, such a platoon looks less and less ideal. An upgrade at the position thus made sense and the Yankees would have to do so either through trade or through free agency. (In other words, we are going to compare the cost of trading for Castro and what the alternatives might have been.)

Via free agency, the Cubs just paid Ben Zobrist $58 million for four years to be their primary second baseman. Zobrist has averaged 3.8 WARP per season over the past six seasons. Via trade, the Yankees landed Castro for Adam Warren and Brendan Ryan. The Yankees will pay Castro, who has averaged 2.6 WARP per season over the past six seasons, $37 million over the next four years (with a $16 million option and $1 million buyout in 2020). Strictly looking at dollars per WARP, the extra $5 million per year that Zobrist costs seems well worth the extra 1.25 WARP or so. Moreover, the Yankees also gave up three years of team control of Adam Warren, who figured to be worth a little over two WARP per season. Given this oversimplified analysis, the Yanks should have tried to sign Zobrist for, oh, four and $60 million, instead of trading Warren for Castro.

So then, let’s take a look at what our analysis might be missing. For starters: age. More specifically, the 25-year-old Castro is nearly nine years younger than the 34-year-old Zobrist. PECOTA’s long-term forecast predicts that Castro will actually provide slightly more value than Zobrist over the course of their contracts. Furthermore, PECOTA expects Zobrist to be slightly better over the next two years and then decline significantly over the back end of the contract; meanwhile, Castro’s predicted production is more consistent. This actually works for both teams, as the Cubs are contending now and should have the prospects to supplement and/or replace Zobrist by the 2018 season. Meanwhile, the Yankees—if they plan to consistently compete—had a greater need for younger players given their old major-league roster and lack of impact middle infield prospects.

It should also be noted that Castro looked great defensively at second base after losing the shortstop job (and the defensive metrics agree) and that he also hit much better after the switch. I would be uncomfortable, though, using such a small sample in making a prediction for his future performance.

More than anything, though, the analysis up until now ignores the Yankees’ current budgetary situation. Ownership appears to have no interest in further increasing payroll. While a team should be able to compete with a $200 million payroll, the sunk costs (all the huge, immovable contracts) the current roster is facing makes such a budgetary constraint a goal that conflicts with a desire to compete for the playoffs—now and in the future. Cash-strapped, it is likely that paying with assets other than cash (like Adam Warren) is more appealing to the Yankees than paying for their more monetarily expensive equivalents in the trade market.

The issue here is that the non-cash market appears to currently be a sellers’ market (ask the Braves), meaning that buyers like the Yankees are paying some sort of a premium. Faced with the choice of paying a premium in talent or paying more dollars, the Yankees chose the former. Maybe this premium is the lesser of evils when we consider other areas for upgrade, and maybe Adam Warren is not as valuable as we think, but as it stands now, the Yankees traded away a pitcher they certainly could have used in order to upgrade at a position they could have addressed through free agency if it were not for budgets and current payroll construction. —Jeff Quinton

Fantasy Impact

Starlin Castro

The former can’t-miss prospect wore out his welcome in the Windy City and will now inherit the everyday job at second base in the Bronx. It’s easy to see the appeal of Castro in fantasy circles. He offers double-digit homers from a middle infield spot with a career .281 batting average. He’s also still 25 and on the “correct side” of the development curve. The problem is threefold: (1) the stolen bases dropped off dramatically after 2012; (2) the power potential never materialized; and (3) his on-base issues should keep him near the bottom of any batting order, which minimizes his contextual stats. Ultimately, Castro is a sleek, high-powered desktop computer that crashes every time Microsoft Word tries to open. He doesn’t do the basics well enough for the tools to matter. The product looks good on paper, though, so a clear path to everyday at-bats should keep his fantasy value inflated with hope.

Didi Gregorius

The young shortstop was a two- or three-win player in 2015. The arrival of Starlin Castro shouldn’t threaten his everyday job, which means his fantasy stock remains stagnant. We’ll just have to debate how a legitimate major-league shortstop (read: unless he's J.J. Hardy, he has some speed) can have a career-high BABIP of just .297 another time.

Rob Refsnyder

Those in deep dynasty leagues who have been stashing Refsnyder for the past 12 months have to be frustrated, even if it was always a foolish decision. The organization traded away Jose Pirela, leaving the 24-year-old fringe prospect as the only legitimate option at second base (outside Brendan Ryan, who has now also departed), but the presence of Castro once again indicates that the Yankees do not believe Refsnyder is the solution. Perhaps he’s a utility guy who can nab 300 at-bats at a couple different positions, but that ain’t worth a thing in fantasy baseball. J.P. Breen

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Signed 2B/OF-S Ben Zobrist to a four-year deal worth $56 million. [12/8]
Acquired RHP Adam Warren and a PTBNL (reportedly INF-R Brendan Ryan) from the New York Yankees for 2B-R Starlin Castro [12/8]

Barely an hour before news broke Tuesday night that the Cubs had made multiple moves, Theo Epstein talked to the media about rumors that were flying around the Winter Meetings.

“There are some guys who are obvious plug-and-play type players for us in free agency, like a starting pitcher, like with John Lackey,” Epstein said. “And there are others who only make sense if we’re able to pull off some other trade.”

The latter is exactly what happened with the Cubs, and, as Epstein put it, the move was essentially swapping Starlin Castro for Adam Warren and Ben Zobrist (while paying a little more cash in the long term). One of the Cubs' stated goals for this offseason was to improve their contact and situational hitting. Zobrist does that, but at first blush, it might seem odd to move Castro, who was one of the Cubs' better contact hitters last season.

Zobrist’s 88.8 percent contact rate in 2015 was a career high and would have led last season’s Cubs. Even his career average of 84.9 percent would have, actually. Castro was second among Cubs regulars at 82.4 percent, but the fact is this upgrade had more to do with than just contact rate.

“It’s contact to go with on-base skills. They’re really related,” Epstein pointed out. “And then I think the switch-hit component of it as well. I think we were starting to get a little bit vulnerable to the right-handed pitcher with some power and a really good slider. This really mitigates that risk for us. Zobrist is really well rounded from both sides of the plate and can hit really good pitching.”

The Cubs feel safe in knowing what they’ll get from Zobrist. The versatile Illinois native hasn’t posted an OBP below .346 or a walk rate below 10.3 percent since his breakout 2009 season. Castro’s career highs in those categories are .347 and 6.2 percent, respectively. Castro’s career started out with much promise, but of late it’s been defined by inconsistency, posting WARPs of 3.9, 0.0, 3.6, and 1.5 over the last four seasons. He’ll be just 26 next summer and certainly has the potential to meet the high expectations set for him early in his career, but the Cubs were looking for a little more certainty, consistency, and versatility—both at the plate and in the field—which they will get from Zobrist.

The key to this signing being a romp for the Cubs could be Zobrist’s defensive value. The advanced stats have had Zobrist as a plus defender, particularly at second, where he’ll spend the majority of his time, at least in 2016. But according to DRS and UZR, Zobrist had his worst defensive season in 2015, with FRAA suggesting it was his second worst. Epstein said his people saw things a little differently.

“The scouting says that a lot of the dip last year was due to the knee injury, which he came back from pretty quickly and was not necessarily all the way over until a little bit later in Kansas City, when he started moving around well. But, obviously, as a player that moves into his mid-30s and ultimately late 30s you can anticipate a little bit of a decline on his range numbers. But he’s just such a good baseball player and I think he’s always going to be a solid defender based on his instincts, hands, arm, and the way he plays the game.”

PECOTA likes Zobrist for 7.5 wins over the span of his deal with the Cubs.


Over the past two seasons, Warren has greatly reduced his usage of his sinker. Of his five offerings, that had been the pitch hitters had slugged at the highest rate. That could help explain why his HR/FB rate dropped from 13.2 percent in 2013 to 6.0 and 8.3 percent over the past two years. After being used exclusively out of the bullpen in 2014, Warren saw his strikeout rate dip from 23.5 to 19.5 percent during 43 appearances (17 starts) in 2015.

If the whiffs can get back to previous levels, perhaps Warren turns into an innings-eating, back-of-the-rotation arm with a wide arsenal (he uses all five of his pitches: a four-seamer, slider, changeup, curveball, and sinker). But even if his ultimate role is as another swingman in the Cubs ‘pen, he still holds tremendous value and helps fill the Cubs' stated goal of creating depth and redundancy on their roster. Warren joins Travis Wood, Clayton Richard, and Trevor Cahill as arms who have started as recently as last season but also have proven to be impressive out of the bullpen.

Brendan Ryan brings little value in terms of the bat, but offers a solid glove in the middle infield and provides competent bench depth. —Sahadev Sharma

Fantasy Impact

Javier Baez

The Zobrist signing can be viewed in two not-mutually-exclusive ways: (1) as an indication that the Cubs aren’t sold on Baez as an everyday guy next year; and/or (2) Baez is on the trading block for a young starting pitcher. If he tears the cover off the ball, he could perhaps push Zobrist to the outfield, but that doesn’t seem to be the immediate plan. The power/speed combination remains intoxicating for fantasy owners. Until he has a clear pathway to 500-plus plate appearances in 2016, though, we’re left with far more questions than answers.

Tommy La Stella

Those fantasy owners who sold high on La Stella in 2014 continue to be far too pleased with themselves.

Adam Warren

Any movement in Warren’s fantasy value comes down to whether this move to the Cubs increases or decreases his chances of starting. With the Yankees in 2015, he posted a respectable 3.66 ERA as a starting pitcher and owned a solid-enough 3.92 FIP. The right-hander avoided any significant platoon issues and seemed poised to begin the 2016 campaign in the rotation for the Yankees. In Chicago, though, he’s faced with a deep rotation—and one that could get even more crowded this winter—and the organization hasn’t been shy about its desire to improve the back end of its bullpen. Warren could be a valuable bullpen ace for the North Siders, as he had a 2.29 ERA and 2.71 FIP as a reliever. For fantasy owners, unfortunately, that role doesn’t carry much value without the saves.

Ben Zobrist

Fantasy owners entered the offseason hoping that Zobrist would sign with a team where he could retain second base eligibility, while playing all over the diamond. The Cubs should provide that opportunity to the 34-year-old superutility man. Although he doesn’t swipe too many bases anymore, he’s still good for a dozen-plus homers with a .270-290 batting average. That’s valuable at second base. Considering Zobrist will join a young, potent offense on the North Side, this all adds up to the best-case scenario for fantasy purposes. —J.P. Breen

Jeff Quinton is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jeff's other articles. You can contact Jeff by clicking here
Sahadev Sharma is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sahadev's other articles. You can contact Sahadev by clicking here
J.P. Breen is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see J.P.'s other articles. You can contact J.P. by clicking here

Related Content:  Chicago Cubs,  New York Yankees

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