MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Cubs acquiring assets without giving up prospects

Cubs acquiring assets without giving up prospects

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Sooner or later, it's going to happen. Theo Epstein is going to trade one of his top prospects.

That could happen any day now. But somehow, it didn't happen on Tuesday in the swirling, fast-moving waters of baseball's Winter Meetings.

For the 1,517th consecutive day since he agreed to become the Cubs' president of baseball operations, Epstein remained in the business of accumulating ultra-talented players in their formative years, not using them as collateral to make his team a little better for the short term. That's discipline.

• Cubs add FA Zobrist, deal Castro to Yanks

And it's hard to believe Epstein has been able to do it when you look at all the moves that he has made, including the most recent two: signing Ben Zobrist to a four-year, $56 million contract and trading Starlin Castro to the Yankees for Adam Warren, a very useful pitcher, and a player to be named later (expected to be backup infielder Brendan Ryan).

They're among 11 players whom the Cubs have acquired through free agency, trades or waiver claims since being swept by the Mets in the 2015 National League Championship Series -- and Epstein is still holding all of his most valuable cards.

Cubs sign Zobrist, trade Castro

You'd think Epstein has got more moves to make and those could be some real beauties. Jason Heyward in free agency? There's certainly lobby talk about it. A deal that sends Javier Baez and a handful of others to the Rays for more pitching, maybe even one solid starter (Matt Moore or Drew Smyly, most likely) and a late-inning reliever (Brad Boxberger or Jake McGee)? No reason why not, if Epstein can cut ties with any of his valued kids.

This is a guy who traded Nomar Garciaparra in his first season as the Red Sox's general manager. He can make the tough call. But he's just fine with having a surplus of intriguing parts.

Epstein went into the offseason needing to re-sign or replace free agent Dexter Fowler in center field and add depth to the rotation and bullpen. He talked about wanting to improve the fielding, especially the outfield defense.

Zobrist in, Castro out for Cubs

John Lackey (signed to a two-year, $32 million contract that became official Tuesday), Trevor Cahill and a cast of relievers with something to prove (lefties Rex Brothers and Edgar Olmos and right-handers Spencer Patton and Andury Acevedo) answer the questions about pitching depth. Center field becomes the priority.

Heyward is a perfect fit if there's any way to fit him onto the payroll, and don't underestimate Epstein's cunning in figuring out how to make him fit.

No doubt with the help of manager Joe Maddon, Epstein swept in at the 11th hour and landed Zobrist on Tuesday, when he seemed more likely to go to the Mets -- who had put on a full-court press to get him -- or the Nationals.

Zobrist Deal: Maddon a Factor?

At 34, the switch-hitter doesn't seem an obvious long-term fit for the Cubs. A lot of the value that has made Zobrist one of baseball's biggest secret weapons (his 39.3 WAR since 2009 ranks fifth among position players) came through his versatility, and he has been telling teams he wants to be a regular second baseman. But he's a guy Maddon wanted badly after managing him for nine seasons with Tampa Bay, and Epstein got him even though he already had four second basemen on the 40-man roster (Castro, Baez, Tommy La Stella and Arismendy Alcantara).

That's Theo being Theo.

Castro, the longest-tenured Cub, will be missed after he joyously took advantage of the chance to learn second base once Addison Russell had replaced him at shortstop. But Zobrist was signed for only $15 million more than the Cubs still owed Castro, and Epstein is dealing Castro when his value is high.

There's nothing sexy about Warren. But he was as consistently effective as anyone in the Yankees' rotation (3.66 ERA in 17 starts, albeit only 96 innings) when Joe Girardi moved him to the bullpen at midseason. Girardi pointed out how Warren was moving into the rotation after pitching in relief in 2014 and needed to be handled cautiously.

"We want Adam for a long time,'' Girardi said in announcing the move.

Turns out the Cubs are the team that could benefit from Warren being limited to 131 1/3 innings.

For now, Warren could wind up battling Kyle Hendricks, Travis Wood, Clayton Richard and Cahill for a rotation spot if Epstein does get around to dealing Baez or right fielder Jorge Soler for one of those 25-and-under arms he covets.

Maybe Baez will wind up as the center fielder. Or maybe he'll play third and Kris Bryant will go to center field. Or maybe Heyward is more than pie in the sky.

Sounds crazy, but with the Cubs in this era of Theo and Joe, never say never.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.