Offseason In Review: Chicago Cubs

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The Cubs made two big signings and added a ton of veterans on short-term deals as they attempt to move past their 2016 championship core.

Major League Signings

Options Exercised

Trades and Claims

Notable Minor League Signings

Extensions

Notable Losses

The Cubs’ first order of business during the 2021-22 offseason was hiring a general manager, after leaving the position under president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer open for nearly a year.  Hawkins had spent 14 years in Cleveland, regarding which Hoyer noted, “certainly their ability to develop pitching has been remarkable.”  Finding pitching late in the draft or cheaply in the marketplace and getting good Major League results had not been a strong suit of the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer regime.

In addition to improving the pipeline, the Cubs needed pitching to get through the 2022 season, which Hoyer called his “top priority” in early October.  Hoyer spoke about being “active” in free agency, a word echoed by owner Tom Ricketts in a letter to fans.  Hoyer and Ricketts made sure to couch their comments with words like “intelligent” and “thoughtful,” which I took to mean the Cubs would be out on the top dozen or so free agents given a desire to avoid long-term commitments.

After following the Hawkins hire with the additions of Ehsan Bokhari as assistant GM and Greg Brown as hitting coach, the Cubs kicked off their active offseason by claiming veteran lefty Wade Miley off waivers from the cost-cutting Reds.  Given the Cubs’ extremely thin starting rotation at the time behind Kyle Hendricks, snagging Miley off a 3.37 ERA/163 inning campaign without giving up any players was an easy win – even if he doesn’t meet the desire for someone with strikeout ability.  It was the equivalent of an early free agent signing, at a commitment probably a bit lower than what the market would have required.  An injury development has dampened enthusiasm for the Miley claim, as the 35-year-old southpaw is experiencing elbow inflammation that will keep him out until at least late April.

As the lockout approached in late November, the Cubs reportedly made an offer to free agent lefty Steven MatzAccording to Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic, “The Cubs were heavily involved with Matz, but were unwilling to go to four years,” as the Cardinals ultimately did.  Instead, the Cubs were able to lure Marcus Stroman with a three-year, $71MM offer that was very different from MLBTR’s projected five years and $110MM.  Apparently the pre-lockout market wasn’t offering Stroman four or five years at an AAV he liked, and the Cubs pounced.

The Stroman signing marked the Cubs’ biggest free agent expenditure since they signed Yu Darvish nearly four years earlier.  Like Miley, Stroman still didn’t match Hoyer’s goal of adding strikeout pitchers to the rotation, as Stroman’s success has been built on groundballs and good control.  It was another case of the Cubs adapting to what the market gave them while avoiding long-term commitments, and Stroman should give the team much-needed above-average innings.  They didn’t have to commit to his age 34 and 35 seasons, as the Blue Jays did with Kevin Gausman, or forfeit their second-highest draft pick as they would have with Robbie Ray.

The Cubs also added a pair of position players prior to the lockout, signing catcher Yan Gomes and corner outfielder Clint Frazier.  Gomes, perhaps the best catcher in a weak free agent market at the position, will serve as Willson Contreras insurance in multiple ways.  For as long as the two are together, Gomes will lighten the load on Contreras, who caught two-thirds of the Cubs’ innings behind the plate in 2021 despite missing more than three weeks with a knee sprain.  Gomes also ensures the Cubs will have a capable backstop in the event they trade Contreras between now and the August 2nd deadline.

The Cubs seem to have little desire in extending Contreras, one of the last remaining links to the 2016 championship club.  Thus far, they haven’t even been able to agree on his 2022 salary, and they’re headed toward a midseason hearing over the $1.25MM gap.  Contreras’ free agency will begin with his age-31 season, and he figures to seek at least a four-year deal.  The Cubs have one well-regarded catching prospect in Miguel Amaya.  He underwent Tommy John surgery in November after playing only 23 games in 2021, so Gomes is necessary to bridge the gap.

Frazier is a lottery ticket that makes tons of sense for the Cubs.  The 27-year-old former fifth overall pick cost just $1.5MM, and if he has any measure of success the Cubs can control him through 2024 as an arbitration eligible player.  Frazier hit well in the brief 2020 season, but he’s also dealt with the effects of multiple concussions.  The Cubs’ outfield should offer ample opportunity for Frazier to re-establish himself.

The Cubs’ first post-lockout move was a contract extension for manager David Ross.  After that, it was back to the free agent market.  While fans had visions of Carlos Correa, to whom the Cubs were at least loosely connected, they instead signed Andrelton Simmons to a modest one-year deal.  The 32-year-old defensive wizard will start the season on the IL due to a sore shoulder, putting Nico Hoerner into the starting role.

As for Correa?  His three-year, $105.3MM deal with the Twins, which includes opt-outs after each season, reportedly came together with the Twins in the span of 14 hours, initiated by agent Scott Boras.  Boras certainly spoke to other clubs during that frenzied late-March period.  Aside from the draft pick forfeiture, Correa’s contract generally fit with the Cubs’ new m.o., but it’s unknown whether they were in the mix late.  As of now, shortstop is an unsettled position for the Cubs for the next several years.

I had mentioned in November that free agent right fielder Seiya Suzuki, one of the best players in Japan and only 27 years old, made sense for the Cubs.  Hoyer agreed, winning the bidding with an aggressive five-year, $85MM contract plus a $14.625MM posting fee.  According to MLBTR’s Steve Adams, “The most bullish opinions we’ve gotten peg Suzuki as an everyday Major League right fielder — a solid defensive player with a strong arm and enough power to hit in the middle of a big league lineup.”  This is the type of player the Cubs were sorely lacking, and if Suzuki’s power translates, fans will start to replace those Rizzo, Baez, and Bryant jerseys with Suzuki ones.

Beyond the big splashes in Stroman and Suzuki, the Cubs lived up to their word about being active in free agency.  I can’t remember another time a team brought in a dozen free agents on Major League contracts, and the number grows to 14 once you add Miley and Jesse Chavez, whose contract has already been selected.  It’s a crazy number of players to add to the Major League roster in one offseason, and it speaks to the lack of MLB-ready talent the Cubs had after trading away every decent veteran last summer.

The Cubs’ approach to building a bullpen is as good as any, given the volatility of relievers and how often the larger free agent contracts go bust.  With basically no established bullpen to speak of, especially after Codi Heuer went down for Tommy John surgery, Hoyer added five free agents on one-year deals for a total of $14MM: Mychal Givens, David Robertson, Chris Martin, Daniel Norris, and Jesse Chavez.  It’s difficult to say which of these five new relievers will succeed in Chicago, but the Cubs were likely emboldened by getting excellent work out of Ryan Tepera and Andrew Chafin after signing them for a total of $3.55MM last winter.  The pair signed two-year deals for $14MM and $13MM with the Angels and Tigers, respectively, this offseason.

We thought Jonathan Villar might require a two-year deal, so the Cubs did well to grab him for one year and $6MM.  He’ll likely see time mainly at third and second base, but could also serve as the Cubs’ third-string shortstop.  Villar is a switch-hitter without much of a platoon split, and he’ll spell Patrick Wisdom, Nick Madrigal, and Hoerner.

Drew Smyly has had interesting free agent experiences in his career.  The 32-year-old southpaw has just one 2-WAR season on his resume, back in 2014.  He signed a two-year, $10MM deal with the Cubs with an eye on his 2019 season, as he spent 2018 recovering from Tommy John surgery.  The Cubs instead shipped him to Texas to save money before realizing that plan.  Smyly struggled in ’19 but still found $4MM the following offseason as one of the Giants’ pitching projects.  That went well enough that the Braves gave Smyly $11MM on the strength of 26 1/3 innings in 2020.

After middling results for Atlanta, Smyly received another $5.25MM from the Cubs and will open the season in a rotation that’s missing both Miley and Adbert Alzolay due to injuries.  The Cubs also added some rotation depth with Steven Brault, who continues to battle injuries.  The Cubs’ season-opening rotation is shaky behind Hendricks and Stroman, with Smyly, Justin Steele, and Alec Mills penciled in.  As aggressive as Hoyer was in free agency, the Cubs are still running a competitive balance tax payroll more than $60MM below the $230MM threshold, and it seems like they could have piled up more rotation depth.

The 2022 Cubs figure to be, if nothing else, a watchable club with the additions of Suzuki and Stroman and the likely summer promotion of top prospect Brennen DavisFanGraphs projects them for about 75 wins.  Given a 12-team playoff field, the Cubs should at least be able to hang around the periphery in a division where the Pirates are rebuilding and only the Brewers stand out.

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