Considered in a vacuum devoid of context, Whit Merrifield would be a no-brainer acquisition for the Cubs. He hits for high average and OBP out of the leadoff spot and can man both positions, second base and center field, at which they’ve gotten sub-par offensive production. He’s only earning $4 million annually and is signed for at least the next three seasons, so he brings low-cost stability beyond the 2021 event horizon of expiring deals for the young core.
Ah, but we’re not in a vacuum and the Royals are very well aware of just how valuable Merrifield is to the Cubs and other contenders. Which is why they’ve placed a reported reserve price of three MLB-ready players just to pick up the phone for a conversation. The Cubs can absolutely meet that price should they so choose, even if the package involves mainly prospects, but doing so would sting. A lot.
So the choice then becomes whether they would want to swing a blockbuster trade or pursue one or more smaller moves that shore up soft spots without significantly depleting their depth. The most persistent reports of late have the Cubs as a “serious suitor” for Detroit’s Nicholas Castellanos, a righty-batting corner outfielder who has gotten better at the plate as the season has progressed.
Thing is, acquiring Castellanos, who has played right field exclusively over the last two seasons, means making Jason Heyward the primary center fielder. He’s played there a lot this season and his defense in center isn’t brutal, but playing Heyward and Castellanos together would represent a decided drop-off in defensive acumen that the big offensive bump might have trouble making up for.
Instead of, or in addition to, a move for Castellanos, the Cubs could opt for more of a Merrifield Light who can handle multiple positions and perhaps spark the top of the order. One name being mentioned lately is Danny Santana, who is having a breakout season and could be moved as the Rangers’ seven-game free-fall sees them falling out of contention.
In addition to slashing .320/352/.566 with 13 homers, Santana has logged over 100 innings each at second (133.2), first (121.1), and center (117) while also playing left (72), right (45), and short (32). If that’s not a Joe Maddon guy, I don’t know who is. Though his defensive numbers don’t look very good in center, he’s been passable at other spots and has a lot of experience playing short from his time in Minnesota.
That could come in very handy should the Cubs choose to make other personnel moves at the deadline. Daniel Descalso figures to be a casualty of a stronger roster, but Addison Russell could well be on the move if the Cubs are able to land someone capable of backing up Javy Báez. The big drawback to Santana is that he’s just breaking out at 28 and still has two more arb-eligible seasons. Do the Cubs trust he’ll keep this up?
Sources: Toronto’s Eric Sogard and Texas’ Danny Santana are among the super-utility players drawing interest across @MLB, as teams (so far) have been unwilling to meet the high price on #Royals All-Star Whit Merrifield. @MLBNetwork @MLB
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) July 21, 2019
Perhaps they’d rather go older, cheaper, and less risky with Eric Sogard, who’s having his own breakout season north of the border. The Blue Jays will undoubtedly look to move the 33-year-old utilityman ahead of the deadline after picking him up on a minor-league deal and watching in awe as he has gone on to hit nearly 60 points above his career average (.305 to .248) while popping 10 homers after hitting a total of 11 over parts of nine previous seasons.
That’s not a guy you want to depend on, but the Cubs wouldn’t have to if Sogard was sort of a supplemental move to solidify second base for the remainder of the season. He’s also played a little at short, third, and both corner outfield spots, so it’d be like the Cubs getting Ben Zobrist back even if Zobrist opts not to return. Neither the acquisition cost nor the salary should be high, so this could make sense.
One other player whose name has popped up recently ($) is Jarrod Dyson, the Diamondbacks outfielder who will turn 35 in August and is on the final year of his contract. The Cubs had previously been mentioned in connection with Arizona’s David Peralta, though his additional control and recurring shoulder issues make him a little more of a risk at this point. Even though Dyson is putting up by far the lowest numbers out of this group, his production is much more in line with his career marks and can more readily be expected to continue.
He’s also a leadoff hitter, though not necessarily a great one, so that’s a plus for the Cubs. And as with Sogard, his age and lack of control would keep the trade cost relatively low should the Diamondback opt to move him. That could be a legitimate factor for a team that is still hampered by the financial restrictions that dictated their lack of offseason movement.
Signing Craig Kimbrel was made possible at least in part by Zobrist’s salary forfeiture in accordance with his trip to the restricted list, so the front office doesn’t have carte blanche to trade for whomever they like. Please understand that I’m not saying that should be the case, just that it’s the unfortunate reality of the situation. Take this blurb from Sahadev Sharma and Patrick Mooney of The Athletic (linked above in Dyson section), for instance:
To absorb a player like Castellanos and his corresponding salary, the Cubs would need to get creative. That could mean shedding money from their major-league roster, paying down the cost with a more attractive package of prospects or getting a raise in the allowance from the Ricketts family, which has authorized a franchise-record payroll — more than $240 million this season, according to the luxury-tax calculations on RosterResource.com.
And that brings us to our final potential target, old friend Billy Hamilton. The speedy center fielder has consistently been one of the least productive hitters in the game, never once exceeding 79 wRC+ in a full season. But even though he’s tied with Albert Almora Jr. and Chris Davis for the lowest offensive production in MLB over the last calendar year (58 wRC+) and is the only player in baseball (min. 250 PAs) with a wRC+ under 50 this season, Hamilton offers the Cubs a dimension they lack.
He is at least as capable as Almora in center and the plate production is negligible, but the addition of a legitimate stolen-base threat has been part of the Cubs’ MO for the past several seasons. The Royals are surely looking to move Hamilton, who is on a one-year deal for $4.25 million that includes a $7.5 million mutual option with a $1 million buyout for 2020.
Acquiring Hamilton straight-up would put the Cubs on the hook for around $1.65 million in pro-rated salary this year, plus the buyout and potential incentives ($100,000 each for 325, 350, 375, 400, 425, 450, 475, 500, 525, 550 plate appearances). Ah, but there are ways to offset some of that, some of which the Cubs may already have worked out to an extent.
It’s probably a little on the conspiratorial side, but it’s possible the Mike Montgomery/Martin Maldonado trade came with something like store credit. Which is to say both teams were aware that the Royals were receiving a little additional value that the Cubs could cash in on a subsequent deal should things break that way. Maybe that means getting Hamilton with salary offsets or for a PTBNL or something.
Though you wouldn’t want him in there on an everyday basis, the speedster would offer more dynamism in a bench role than what the Cubs are currently getting from Descalso. Then again, who wouldn’t?
With less than 10 days to go before the deadline, we’re sure to hear a lot more names coming up in connection to the Cubs. Or maybe Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer decide to jump the market and make a move prior to their trips to Milwaukee and St. Louis. Trade season, man, it’s the best.