While the Cubs keep their eye on the pitching market as they mull a buyer’s approach for the trade deadline, one of their biggest targets heading into June is play-anywhere hitter Ben Zobrist of the Oakland Athletics, according to multiple sources.
Zobrist, a Joe Maddon favorite who played for the Cubs manager for nine years in Tampa Bay, would dramatically alter the look of a Cubs bench in shambles and allow Maddon to rotate days off for at least five starters he’s been forced to play almost every inning.
A bench that at various points this season has been limited, compromised and/or terrible has been one of the biggest ongoing concerns for a team that has played more one-run games than anyone else in baseball, say team insiders.
It makes Zobrist, a two-time All-Star with significant experience at both middle-infield spots and the outfield, an ideal strike-fast acquisition for a front office that has made major trades four weeks ahead of the trade deadline each of the last two years.
The Cubs have been in contact with the A’s, who beat out the Cubs in January to land Zobrist in a five-player deal from the Tampa Bay Rays (who, by the way, were still smarting over the loss of Maddon and were pursuing a tampering case against the Cubs).
While it’s widely expected the last-place A’s will be sellers, industry sources say general manager Billy Beane has not yet conceded and, consequently, not made Zobrist available. They’ve lost an astounding 15 one-run games, with several key players on the disabled list early. And they’ve told teams they believe they have a chance to get healthy and go on a run.
In fact, they’ve won four of their last six, all against teams with playoff expectations, through Thursday.
“We’re trying to balance short- and long-term interests,” team president Theo Epstein said, when asked about making moves between now and the July 31 trade deadline. “But we’re in a situation [in which] we have a fairly competitive team right now, and we have some needs. So you don’t ignore that. You keep it in mind. But at the same time you can’t just go out and unilaterally add.”
The Cubs already have made moves to upgrade the bullpen, and that’s still an area of focus for more moves. The Cubs are believed to be one of several teams in the mix for free agent closer Rafael Soriano, and a source links the Cubs to veteran left-hander Oliver Perez of the Arizona Diamondbacks – whose new front office already has made a significant trade (Miguel Montero) with the Cubs.
“Every year I get rumors that I’m going to get traded and all that stuff,” said Perez, a twice-traded former starter, who could potentially give Maddon an eight-man bullpen with four arms from each side. “I’ve lived [in Arizona] for six years, so I’d like to finish my career here. But I understand how baseball is. It’s part of the process.”
Soriano, Perez, Miami’s Jason Grilli?
“We realize it’s going to take a lot of arms to get through the rest of the season,” Cubs general mangaer Jed Hoyer said. “We’ll look for ways to upgrade. We’ve had some guys throw well over the last week or so, but that’s an area where you can’t really be static.”
But nothing’s as urgent for this team right now as a depleted, underperforming bench for a manager who might need it more than any other to get the most out of his managing style.
With versatile, veteran outfielder Chris Denorfia and promising lefty-hitting infielder Tommy La Stella on the opening bench, the Cubs looked at that as a strength – especially if super-utility candidate Arismendy Alcantara could be the Zobrist they didn’t get in January.
Instead, La Stella (oblique) and Denorfia (for the second time with a hamstring) are on the disabled list.
Alcantara looked lost and is back in AAA.
And nine bench guys used this season have produced a cumulative .192 average and just two homers in 245 at-bats (through Thursday). And that’s with Denorfia going 9-for-21 (.429) in his limited time.
How the team performs during this stretch of four contenders in five series, could determine how quickly they can – or are willing to – make their next move.
But indications are they have the flexibility to handle some salary (Zobrist makes $7.5 million in a walk year).
“Absolutely,” Hoyer said. “Both from a financial-resource standpoint and obviously through good drafting and good international signings, and good trades, I think we’ve built up a farm system that can help us fill a hole if we need to fill a hole.”
All Maddon and his players have to do now is prove in the next two weeks those holes are worth filling.
“We struck early in the trade market when we were sellers [the last three years], and I’m not here to say we wouldn’t do the same thing if we’re buyers,” Hoyer said. “But I do think you have to be at a place in the season where you feel like, `OK, we’ve established that we’re going to be in the race, and we have clear weaknesses that you can address.’ “