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Offseason outlook: Chicago Cubs | Yardbarker

The time has come for the Cubs to add significant talent, but are they willing to make long-term commitments?

Guaranteed Contracts

  • Marcus Stroman, SP: $46M through 2024.  Can opt out of remaining one year and $21M after 2023 season
  • Jason Heyward, RF: $22M through 2023
  • Kyle Hendricks, SP: $15.5M through 2023.  Includes $16M club option for 2024
  • Seiya Suzuki, RF: $73M through 2026
  • Yan Gomes, C: $7M through 2023.  Includes $6M club option for 2024
  • David Bote, 3B: $10.5M through 2024.  Includes $7M club option for 2025 and $7.6M club option for 2026

Total 2023 commitments: $92.5M
Total future commitments: $181.5M

Option Decisions

  • Drew Smyly, SP: $10M mutual option with a $1M buyout

Arbitration-Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; salary projections via Matt Swartz)

Free Agents

The 2022 Cubs played to their low preseason expectations.  FanGraphs pegged them for 75 wins, and they won 74.  It was an assortment of players that seemed unlikely to contend, but could maybe hang on the fringes of playoff contention.

As it turned out, the Cubs posted an abysmal 35-57 first half and were out of contention very quickly, but salvaged their record and created optimism in some quarters with a 39-31 second half.  How much of that success is sustainable, and who will president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer pursue this winter to turn this team into a contender?

The rotation posted a 2.89 ERA in the second half, which ranked third in baseball.  This fact was touted by owner Tom Ricketts in his annual letter to fans, so it’s worth a deeper look.  One stat that jumps out is the rotation’s MLB-best 80.1% left-on-base percentage in the second half.  Coupled with a below-average strikeout rate, there’s little indication the Cubs’ starting pitchers are actually skilled at stranding baserunners.

Eight Cubs pitchers made four or more starts in the second half.  Two of them, Drew Smyly and Wade Miley, are headed toward free agency.  The remaining six: Marcus Stroman, Adrian Sampson, Justin Steele, Javier Assad, Hayden Wesneski, and Keegan Thompson.

Stroman dealt with COVID-19 and shoulder inflammation early this year, but was excellent in 16 starts to close out his season.  While the veteran serves as the Cubs’ nominal ace heading into his age-32 campaign, he’s also likely to opt out of the remaining $21M on his contract with a solid 2023.  Stroman is a good player to have for ’23, but he’ll essentially be in a contract year and thus isn’t a long-term piece.

As for Smyly, the Cubs are expected to talk to his agent this month about a new contract, according to Maddie Lee of the Chicago Sun-Times.  If the Cubs were to sign Smyly to a two-year deal, it’d cover his age 34-35 seasons.  Smyly’s 22 starts this year went about as well as could be expected, and the temptation to lock in a veteran for next year is understandable.  Smyly did miss all of June with an oblique strain, and battled shoulder fatigue in the season’s final two weeks.  This year’s 106 1/3 innings is about all a team can expect from him.  Even cherry-picking to leave out April and September, Smyly still averaged fewer than five innings per start.  He had a below-average strikeout rate, too, instead succeeding based on a low walk rate and weak contact.  There may be some recency bias at play here in the expectation that Smyly’s modest 2022 success will continue.

The Cubs did turn up a pair of interesting, under-30 potential long-term rotation pieces in the second half: Justin Steele and Hayden Wesneski.  Steele, a 27-year-old southpaw, closed out his season with a run of 14 starts featured a sparkling 2.05 ERA and solid 16 K-BB%.  For two months, Steele looked, at least, like one of the 20 best pitchers in the game.  He missed all of September due to a back injury, so the next step in his development will be to increase his innings beyond this year’s 119.

Wesneski, 25 in December, came via a shrewd one-for-one trade with the Yankees for reliever Scott Effross.  Wesneski posted an excellent 2.18 ERA in 33 innings with the peripherals to match, but it was only 33 innings and his 5.3% walk rate in the Majors is likely unsustainable.

At present, the Cubs can only write Stroman and Steele into their 2023 rotation.  World Series hero Kyle Hendricks has at least one year left on his contract, but his season ended in July due to a capsular tear in his right shoulder.  The Cubs can hope for a return to form, but can’t count on Hendricks.  Of the other rotation candidates, Sampson and Assad had the best results, combining for a 3.19 ERA in 27 starts.  Neither had the peripheral stats to back up an ERA below 4.50.  The bottom line is that a competitive 2023 team will need to add at least two starting pitchers this winter.  Even if one of them is Smyly, who else might the Cubs consider?

Asked about adding a top-of-the-rotation starter – which the Cubs need replied, “I think it’s important that we continue to add quality innings.  We’re actively looking for quality innings, pitchers we feel like we can work with and potentially make better.”  To me, this is mostly classic GM-speak that doesn’t reveal much about offseason plans, though Gordon Wittenmyer of NBC Sports feels Hoyer’s comment suggests sights set somewhere below one of the best pitchers on the free agent market, Carlos Rodon.

I believe the Cubs are committed to avoiding risky contracts, and wouldn’t take the plunge on a starter like Rodon unless, like Stroman, he could somehow be landed on a three-year deal.  While I agree with the speculation that Justin Verlander and Jacob deGrom are unlikely to join the 2023 Cubs, I think the market is rife with opportunities for good pitchers who can be had with commitments of three or fewer years.  And keep in mind, the three-year limitation is only my speculation.

It’s easy to see the Cubs focusing some interest on older but recently-effective starters who shouldn’t require excessive years: Tyler Anderson, Chris Bassitt, Nathan Eovaldi, Andrew Heaney, and Jameson Taillon are a few who come to mind.  It’s also easy to see Hoyer turning back to Japan for Kodai Senga, who turns 30 in January and just posted a 1.89 ERA in 148 innings for the Softbank Hawks.  A four-year deal for Senga at an AAV below that of the typical MLB-experienced free-agent ace could be possible.  Zach Eflin could be another name to watch, as the soon-to-be free agent righty doesn’t turn 29 until April.  The Cubs could pursue Shane Bieber or Pablo Lopez via trade, and that market always includes a few surprises every winter.  If Shohei Ohtani is made available, the Cubs would have to at least gauge the asking price and consider converting some of their prospect capital into the superstar they’re lacking.

Turning to the bullpen, the Cubs were relying on Brandon Hughes, Manny Rodriguez, Mark Leiter Jr., Adbert Alzolay, and Keegan Thompson in high-leverage situations in the season’s final month.  That was necessitated by the club’s veteran bullpen purge, which saw David Robertson, Mychal Givens, Chris Martin, and Effross sent packing in trades.  It seems likely Hoyer will continue deploying his strategy of one-year deals for veteran free-agent relievers, with the specific names impossible to predict.

On the position player side, the Cubs seem content with Happ and Suzuki at the corners again next year.  While neither fit the profile of a middle-of-the-order masher, both outfielders posted offensive numbers at least 16% better than league average.  At 3.5 WAR, Happ put together the best season of his career in 2022, and the Cubs will at least explore an extension.  I guess that Happ won’t be retained long-term, with prospects Brennen Davis and Alexander Canario near MLB-ready.

The Cubs gave most of their center field reps to Christopher Morel and Rafael Ortega in 2022.  While Morel had a solid rookie season overall, there’s a good chance the Cubs will look outside the organization for short-term help in center.  A one-year deal for Cody Bellinger (who’s likely to be non-tendered by the Dodgers) could be interesting, or the Cubs could take a more defense-minded approach with Kevin Kiermaier.  Long-term, the Cubs will likely keep the center field open for top prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong, who finished 2022 at High-A.

The Cubs surprisingly held on to catcher Willson Contreras at the trade deadline this year, presumably because they felt the offers were worse than the draft pick they would receive if he turns down a qualifying offer.  That pick would be between Competitive Balance Round B and Round 3 in next summer’s draft.  Contreras, 31 in May, will likely seek a four or five-year deal in free agency, and the Cubs have not seemed interested in hammering something out to retain their longtime backstop.

A Contreras departure would leave the Cubs reliant on Yan Gomes and P.J. Higginsbehind the plate.  Prospect Miguel Amaya is recovering from injuries and has yet to play above Double-A, but could be a factor for the Cubs in the second half.  The free agent market features a typical array of veteran catchers, and there’s a decent chance the Cubs will sign one to bolster their depth.

Alfonso Rivas, 26, led the Cubs in defensive innings at first base.  He managed just an 82 wRC+ in 287 plate appearances.  The Cubs released Frank Schwindel in September, and simply don’t have much at the position.  Much of their DH time went to Franmil Reyes, Contreras, and Schwindel.  Reyes posted a 94 wRC+ in 193 plate appearances for the Cubs after being claimed off waivers from the Guardians, and the team may choose not to tender him a contract and instead keep their options open.

This leaves the Cubs hurting for offense at two traditionally easier-to-fill positions in first base and DH.  The ship may have sailed on Anthony Rizzo even if he does opt out of his Yankees contract, but free agency offers names like Jose Abreu, Brandon Belt, J.D. Martinez, Matt Carpenter, and Michael Brantley.  The Cubs may also find some at-bats for Matt Mervis, who would be a 25-year-old rookie next year and had a huge 2022 with the bat as he ascended from High-A to Triple-A.

The Cubs could also look to upgrade at third base, after a 1.1 WAR season from Patrick Wisdom.  Wisdom, who has also played some first base and left field, could still stick around as a lefty masher.  If Nolan Arenado doesn’t reach free agency, the third base market looks thin.  Names like Brandon Drury or Evan Longoria could be in play.

Nico Hoerner’s breakout 4-WAR 2022 campaign affords the Cubs some intriguing possibilities.  The first could be an extension for Hoerner, perhaps with J.P. Crawford’s four-year, $46.15M extension serving as a guidepost.  Though Hoerner logged almost all of his innings at shortstop this year and got above-average defensive marks, the Cubs have signaled a willingness to move him to second base next year.  That could make playing time hard to come by for Nick Madrigal, but the 25-year-old contact specialist put up just a 70 wRC+ in 228 plate appearances this year.

Speculation has been heavy on the possibility of the Cubs signing one of the four big free agent shortstops: Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts, Dansby Swanson, or Carlos Correa.  Owner Tom Ricketts did nothing to dispel that notion, saying in his letter to fans, “We will be active in free agency and have the necessary resources available to substantially supplement our current roster.”  Hoyer told reporters, “I have total confidence — if we get to a place where we ask for a significant amount of money to sign one player or several players — that we’ll have his blessing. And I have no doubt the resources will be there.”

Hoyer has also been known to talk about “intelligent” spending.  He elaborated recently, “To me, intelligent spending involves making decisions that make sense for the 2023 season but also aren’t going to hinder what we’re trying to build. The nature of baseball contracts is challenging that way. We’ve all seen contracts of certain lengths that can bog a team down. It’s easy to talk about the player you’re acquiring, but if that contract ends up hindering the ultimate goal here, which is to build something special and sustainable and lasting, then it wasn’t a good transaction.”

Regret set in pretty quickly for the Cubs’ last two $100M deals.  With Jason Heyward’s eight-year, $184M deal, he simply never hit as the Cubs expected, and Hoyer told reporters in August that the club will release him and eat the $22M remaining on his contract for 2023.  Darvish was traded for prospects halfway through his six-year deal.  Heyward’s contract, in particular, contributed to the Ricketts family keeping the checkbook closed after the 2018 and ’19 seasons.

We at MLBTR are still deliberating our free agent contract projections, but all of the big four shortstops figure to hit the market seeking seven or eight-year deals. Bogaerts, Turner, Swanson, and Correa were born within two years of each other.  Bogaerts, the oldest, recently turned 30.  Correa, the youngest, just celebrated his 28th birthday.  That gap may not seem like much, but the Cubs are worried about entering another long-term deal they’ll quickly regret.  That’s why I could see some favor for Correa, who could sign a seven-year deal that would still only take him through age 34.

Considering likely non-tenders, the Cubs appear to have about $107M tied up for a dozen players in 2023, including Heyward’s money.  Assuming Stroman opts out after ’23, the Cubs have a mere two players under contract for 2024 with Suzuki making $20M and Bote at $5.5M.  The initial competitive balance tax thresholds are set at $233M in 2023 and $237M in 2024.  The Cubs, in one of the country’s largest markets, are currently $217M below the first CBT threshold for 2024 if Stroman opts out.

There are no players the Cubs can’t afford, up to and including Aaron Judge.  But with Judge turning 31 in April and looking to be paid through age 38 and beyond – and with the Cubs’ outfield in decent long-term shape – he seems an unlikely target.

The Cubs are not remotely close to the CBT.  While teams have stopped paying top free agents through age 41, as the Angels did with Albert Pujols a decade ago, paying stars through age 37 is still often the only way to get them.  And even deals for the youngest of free agents can go bust; it’s hard to find a free agent younger than the 26 Heyward was when the Cubs signed him.

The Cubs outspent expectations last winter with over $200M in commitments, yet still avoided the leap of faith required to sign the top players on the market.  With the payroll looking increasingly clear and two rebuilding seasons in the rearview, we’ll find out soon how far the Cubs are willing to go.

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