NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Officially, the Cubs made two deals at the Winter Meetings on Tuesday, agreeing to a deal with versatile free agent Ben Zobrist and trading Starlin Castro to the Yankees, but the reality is, the moves were interconnected and would not have happened separately.
"Ben is a player we have coveted for a long time," said general manager Jed Hoyer. "We tried to trade for him several times, and when he became a free agent, obviously he was a huge priority for us.
"We obviously had to make some transactions to make it happen, but we think it's well worth it. He's a player that fits our roster incredibly well, both offensively and defensively, and perhaps even most importantly, makeup-wise."
The Cubs landed Zobrist with a four-year, $56 million contract, and acquired right-handed pitcher Adam Warren and a player to be named from the Yankees for Castro, a three-time All-Star who grew up in the organization.
"We couldn't have made this free-agent signing without this trade, and would not have made the trade without the free-agent signing," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon will be reunited with one of his favorite players in Zobrist, who played for Maddon with Tampa Bay from 2006-14. He split last season between the A's and Royals, helping Kansas City win the World Series. On the season, Zobrist batted .276 with 13 home runs, 36 doubles and three triples, playing second base, third base, left field and right field.
"Zo is only about one thing," said Maddon. "He's the consummate team-player professional. The kind of impact he can have on our young position players to me is going to be phenomenal. He does take care of himself great. Just the example to be set is going to be perfect, I think, for our young players."
The Cubs' pursuit of Zobrist didn't come to light until Tuesday, but they had talked to him about a potential union early in the offseason.
"It was pretty clear that we were right at the top of the list of places where he wanted to play," Epstein said. "We asked him to be patient and said that we couldn't act right away but that we had a lot of interest and if the right corresponding move came our way, we could get involved quickly."
The Yankees had shown interest in Castro early in the offseason as well, but Epstein said that was it. When the Cubs arrived in Nashville for the Winter Meetings, Epstein got a call from New York general manager Brian Cashman. Zobrist had his physical on Tuesday in Chicago, and the Cubs could not announce the deal until that was completed.
"We needed all the components of both deals to line up, including the medicals, and have the timing sync up," Epstein said.
Zobrist will receive full no-trade protection in the first three years of the deal. The contract includes a $2 million signing bonus plus $10 million salary in 2016, $16 million in both '17 and '18, and $12 million in '19. Castro has four years and $38 million remaining on the seven-year, $60 million deal he signed with the Cubs in 2012.
Zobrist is the type of contact hitter the Cubs need, and he is projected to bat at the top of the order. Chicago is still in the market for a center fielder, but now the club does not have to find someone who can also fill the leadoff spot vacated by Dexter Fowler's departure.
"Ben's a winning baseball player," Epstein said. "If you look at his overall contribution on the field -- his offense, his defense, his baserunning -- he's been one of the most valuable players in the game. He's incredibly versatile. He's exactly the type of offensive player we're looking for who grinds every pitch, works his at-bat, makes a ton of contact, draws his walk, gets on base and is versatile and can play all over the field."
Maddon is a big believer in giving versatile players like Zobrist more credit, and he lobbied again on Tuesday to have one named to the All-Star teams.
"A real legitimate [super-utility] guy is a position, and it permits you to do so many different things with your lineup daily and so many different things to get progress daily," Maddon said Tuesday during his manager session. "When you have a guy -- part of that is the selfless attitude of the player themselves. Not everybody is suited to that for two reasons. They're not comfortable moving around or their ego doesn't permit them."
But Maddon says Zobrist has accepted that role from Day 1.
"He's all about winning -- that's what he's about," Maddon said.
Castro batted .265 last season in a roller-coaster season in which he began the year as the Opening Day shortstop but was benched and eventually moved to second base. He accepted the switch, and led the National League with a .426 average in September.
"He really grew up in this organization," Epstein said of Castro. "He went through a lot here and made tremendous contributions to help get us where we are. It's a bittersweet feeling with some sadness that we see him go."
Warren, 28, will be stretched out this spring and can be used as either a starter or reliever. He posted a 3.29 ERA in 43 appearances with the Yankees last season, splitting time between the bullpen and rotation.
Fantasy spin | Fred Zinkie (@FredZinkieMLB)
Not one to make a huge contribution in the homers or steals departments, Zobrist has long possessed more value to his actual big league team than to fantasy squads. But with his strong plate skills (lifetime .355 on-base percentage), the 34-year-old has nonetheless been a steady mixed-league asset for a while. If the defensively versatile veteran (will qualify at second base and outfield in most leagues) hits in a premium spot for the Cubs, he could tally roughly 85 runs and 65 RBIs in 2016. And if he were to get the green light to run from manager Maddon, Zobrist could more than triple his three-swipe total from '15. If such were to occur -- and it's entirely possible given his 10-plus swipes from 2009-14 -- then Zobrist would have appeal in shallow leagues.