Chicago Cubs: Which signing will they regret?
Baseball-reference.com offers a cool tool called a “Similarity Score”, a concept they lifted from Bill James. Particularly helpful for suggesting the value of our free agents is the “Age Based Similarity Score”. Essentially, it shows us who has posted similar numbers to a player up this time in their careers, and we can then look at those players’ subsequent seasons as predictors for a free agent’s future performance.
The Cubs handed utility man Ben Zobrist a four-year, $56 million deal in December. For 2016, they’ll pay Zobrist just over $10 million (according the baseball-reference.com). Position players being paid similarly in 2016 are James Loney, Edwin Encarnacion, Martin Prado and Nick Markakis (as reported by sportrac.com). That suggests the Cubs are getting good value for Zobrist, who is certainly capable of putting numbers competitive with Prado, Loney and Markakis–though we should not expect him to play up to Encarnacion’s levels, at least offensively.
Now if we look at Zobrist’s Similarity Scores, we see that his career, up to this point, has been most similar to former Cub Bill Mueller and a couple of former Yankees in Hector Lopez and Aaron Boone. This isn’t good news if we use Similarity Score for future predictions. Zobrist will play most of the season at age 35. Mueller only had 126 plate appearances after turning 35. Lopez had a little more than 400 plate appearances. And Boone had only 269. The model doesn’t bode well for Zobrist’s longevity. But who can really predict the future health of a player?
The last time the Cubs spent some serious money on a utility-type player may have been back in 2004 when they signed Todd Walker. Walker did just what the Cubs expected him to do: provide them with a bit of pop offensively while being able to play all over the diamond. Walkers OPS while with the Cubs was over .820 while he played first base, third base, second base and left field.
As long as our expectations are kept in perspective of other player’s in Zobrist’s pay scale and what he was signed to do (provide a bit of pop from several different defensive positions), we should feel OK with the Zobrist signing–assuming he can stay healthy.
Next: The aging aces