Offseason Outlook: Chicago Cubs

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Along with this post, Tim Dierkes held a live Cubs-centric chat. Click here to read the transcript.

After falling just short of a Wild Card berth, the Cubs must re-sign Cody Bellinger or replace his production, while also considering improvements at the infield corners and in the starting rotation.

Guaranteed Contracts

Option Decisions

  • Marcus Stroman, SP: can opt out of remaining one year, $21MM
  • Drew Smyly, SP/RP: can opt out of remaining one year, $11MM
  • Kyle Hendricks, SP: $16MM club option with a $1.5MM buyout
  • Cody Bellinger, CF/1B: $25MM mutual option with a $5MM buyout
  • Yan Gomes, C: $6MM club option with a $1MM buyout
  • Brad Boxberger, RP: $5MM mutual option with an $800K buyout

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

Free Agents

The Cubs generally weren't being picked as a playoff team in the preseason, but by the end of August a Wild Card berth was looking likely.  Instead, the team played to a 12-16 record in September and ultimately fell one win short of the Marlins and Diamondbacks (who held the tiebreaker over them anyway).  The shape and timing of the team's record was painful for fans, but in the end this was simply an 83-win team.

Last winter's big addition, Dansby Swanson, played just about as well as the Cubs could've hoped.  Mirroring the team as a whole, the shape of his contributions was less than ideal, as Swanson limped to an 86 wRC+ over the season's final two months.  Still, Swanson hit well enough overall and led all MLB shortstops in defensive Outs Above Average en route to a 4.9 fWAR season that bested fellow 2022-23 free agents Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts, and Carlos Correa.

The Cubs are in great shape in the middle infield, having added a year of control for Nico Hoerner in a late March extension.  Hoerner provided similar value to his double play partner Swanson, ranking fourth among second baseman in Outs Above Average and posting 4.7 WAR.

On the catching front, free agent signing Tucker Barnhart was inked to a two-year deal in the offseason but was released by August.  The lion's share of work behind the dish went to Yan Gomes, whose 821 2/3 defensive innings at catcher were his most since 2018.  Gomes put in solid work, and the Cubs figure to pick up his option.  But at age 36, he can't be counted on for the same workload in 2024.

Longtime Cubs catching prospect Miguel Amaya made the team for good in June, supplanting Barnhart.  Amaya hit well enough overall in his 156 plate appearances, though he did not receive consistent playing time from manager and former catcher David Ross.  The Gomes-Amaya job share seems likely to shift more toward Amaya in 2024, and a significant addition at catcher seems unlikely.

The Cubs are also set at the outfield corners with Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki, both of whom are under contract through 2026 after Happ's April extension.  Similar to the Cubs' middle infield combination, Happ played about as well as could be expected.  Suzuki's season was uneven, but could be viewed as a leap forward given a wRC+ jump from 116 to 126.  He had a brutal June, perhaps affected by neck issues.  But once the calendar turned to August, Suzuki started hitting like a superstar.  His 183 wRC+ over the season's final two months ranked third in all of baseball, behind only Mookie Betts and Marcell Ozuna.

The Cubs may need Suzuki to anchor their lineup next year, because Cody Bellinger's excellent bounceback season could lead him to greener pastures.  Bellinger, 28, made good on his one-year deal to lead the Cubs with a 134 wRC+.  The likely Comeback Player of the Year split his time between center field and first base, cutting his strikeouts dramatically and crushing 26 home runs.  Bellinger started out strong in April but had been in the midst of a slump upon hitting the IL in late May for a bruised knee.  After a monthlong absence, Bellinger failed to hit the ground running.

Something clicked around June 27th, and Bellinger amazingly hit .414/.448/.682 with 11 home runs over his next 172 plate appearances.  It was, quite possibly, a $100MM hot streak.  Bellinger posted a 103 wRC+ from August 13th forward, but on the whole did well to erase the 2020-22 struggles that led him to a one-year deal.

Those struggles were explained away by agent Scott Boras as injury-related, with Boras saying the Dodgers had “asked [Bellinger] to play with a 35% strength deficiency.”  Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman called that “a very convenient narrative,” and Boras subsequently walked back his comments somewhat.  Understanding how Bellinger went from the 2019 MVP, to one of the worst hitters in baseball, and back to a 4 WAR level this year is crucial in valuing Bellinger as a free agent and projecting his long-term future.  Teams will also be considering Bellinger's Statcast metrics, which as MLBTR's Steve Adams pointed out in mid-August, may serve as red flags.

I have seen suggestions that a team could sign Bellinger for $150MM this winter.  My guess, without talking to Boras, is that the agent has a number roughly twice that high as a target.  Bellinger has youth, the ability to play a premium defensive position, elite offense in his contract year, and an MVP award on his shelf.  He's also reaching free agency in a market devoid of MVP-caliber position player talent, aside from Shohei Ohtani.  Right now, I'm setting my expectations north of $250MM.

Circling back to the Cubs, they can scarcely afford to lose Bellinger, but if I'm in the correct neighborhood on the contract my guess is that the Ricketts family won't have the appetite for it.  The Cubs pretty clearly moved toward the least expensive of the Big Four shortstops last winter in Swanson, and don't appear to have made competitive offers to any of the other three.  Cubs ownership last shopped in the luxury aisle of free agency about six years ago, landing the #2 free agent in Yu Darvish.  They had done the same for Jon Lester and Jason Heyward previously, so there is precedent.  It's just that it's been a while, and there have been several missed opportunities to sign top free agents that would have supplemented the team well.  Bellinger also feels particularly risky on a megadeal, given how far he'd fallen to want to sign a one-year deal in the first place.

Another point against the Cubs signing Bellinger is the presence of Pete Crow-Armstrong.  If the Cubs believe in Crow-Armstrong, then Bellinger could spend most of a theoretical huge contract at first base, where a 120 wRC+ bat (my estimate) is a lot less exciting.  This year Crow-Armstrong conquered Double-A, did fine at Triple-A for a month, and then got a big league look in mid-September.  Crow-Armstrong drew only one start before the Cubs were eliminated, and went hitless in 19 plate appearances.  But much like Swanson and Hoerner, Crow-Armstrong's calling card is elite defense.  Crow-Armstrong's defense is good enough that he may be a credible regular at age 22 next year even if he doesn't hit much.

If Bellinger prices himself out of the Cubs' range and they decide to lean into the elite defender idea, Matt Chapman could be a target.  This year, the Cubs had four different players log 150+ innings at third base: Nick Madrigal, Patrick Wisdom, Miles Mastrobuoni, and trade deadline pickup Jeimer Candelario.  Madrigal and Mastrobuoni didn't hit enough to fit as regulars at third base, while Wisdom was used as a short-side platoon bat and struck out nearly 37% of the time.

Chapman is something of a Dansby Swanson type player, only at third base.  He makes his reputation on his glove, but is generally good for a 110 wRC+ bat.  With Chapman, Crow-Armstrong, Swanson, and Hoerner, the Cubs could have four top-five defenders on the field.  That said, Chapman turns 31 in April, and his bat was even streakier this year than any of the aforementioned Cubs.

Candelario raked for about three weeks upon joining the Cubs, and then he was terrible for the final month or so, a stint that included a lower back strain.  In a thin market, he could be in line for a four-year deal, yet could still be a safer signing for the Cubs than Bellinger or Chapman.  He also has the ability to play first base, a position where Eric Hosmer, Trey Mancini, and Matt Mervis failed to impress.  Mervis, 26 in April, hit well at Triple-A and remains an option at first base or designated hitter.  Rhys Hoskins or Brandon Belt could also be possibilities at first base, if the Cubs are seeking a free agent on a short-term deal.

The Mets' Pete Alonso represents an intriguing first base target for the Cubs.  In August, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic noted that the Cubs were among the teams that spoke to the Mets about Alonso prior to the deadline.  MLBTR projects a $22MM salary for Alonso in 2024, his final year before free agency.  Trading for Alonso would represent a way to replace Bellinger's bat without making a long-term commitment.  The natural question is who would the Mets want from the Cubs for Alonso?  I don't love some of the rare precedents for this type of trade, such as the Teoscar Hernandez or Paul Goldschmidt deals, so I'll just say that Mets president of baseball operations David Stearns would likely seek two MLB-ready potential regulars, and the Cubs might at least have a few options on the position player side in Mervis or Kevin Alcantara.

The other big bat who could be available in trade this winter is the Padres' Juan Soto, also under control for one more season.  Assuming the Cubs don't want to push Happ back into center field, Soto is a less-than-ideal fit position-wise since he plays the corner outfield.  A Soto acquisition would be all about his bat, however, and his glove is shaky enough that increased DH time would be a fine one-year solution if the player is on board.  The cost in young controllable players would be significant, and Soto will earn more than Alonso next year.  I do think the Cubs could pull off a Soto or Alonso trade without parting with Crow-Armstrong.

One variable in all of this is the Cubs' plan for Christopher Morel.  Morel put up a strong 119 wRC+ this year in 429 plate appearances with Statcast data to match, though at times his strikeout rate reached dizzying heights.  Though he's only 24 years old and has the speed and arm to play just about anywhere, the Cubs have yet to find Morel a position.  Morel took about 38% of the team's DH at-bats, and in his 220-game career he's played all three outfield spots as well as second base, shortstop, and third base.

From the outside, there's a pretty obvious long-term solution here: make a major offseason effort to teach the kid to play a competent third base.  Morel was one of six players the Cubs used at the hot corner this year, yet logged only 39 1/3 innings there.  Morel is too young and athletic to be pigeon-holed as a DH, but also doesn't seem like he'll flourish in a super-utility role.  If the Cubs don't think he can play average defense at any position, perhaps Morel will wind up as trade bait.

As poor as this winter's market is for position players, it does offer a fair number of DH types who should receive short-term contracts, such as Belt, J.D. Martinez, Mitch Garver, and Justin Turner.  Such a player could be a fit for the Cubs as a sort of Trey Mancini replacement.  Like Barnhart, Mancini was released before completing the first year of a two-year deal.

Before we get into one other free agent DH, who has also served as one of the best pitchers on the planet, let's take a look at the Cubs' payroll situation.  Under the Ricketts family, the Cubs have reached the competitive balance tax threshold in 2016, 2019, and 2020, though the taxes were not actually paid in 2020.  Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer noted to reporters in October that “We're in a place now where our books are clean long term,” and that “There's been a willingness [by ownership] to go over [the CBT] in the past.”

The first CBT threshold is $237MM in 2024, and the second is $257MM.  The Cubs did exceed the second threshold in 2019, so a $260MM payroll next year would not be without precedent in a CBT sense.  However, talking to reporters about payroll in October, Tom Ricketts said, “We were aggressive this year.  I think we'll stay at those levels.”  He was non-committal on exceeding the CBT.

There are several key variables in saying where the Cubs' payroll will sit when the offseason truly begins, but the one in which I'm least confident is Marcus Stroman's status.  We'll get to Stroman shortly, but if Stroman and Smyly stay put, Hendricks and Gomes' options are exercised, and a few players are non-tendered, the Cubs' CBT payroll could sit around $211MM.  That'd drop to around $188MM if Stroman opts out.  It'd be difficult for the Cubs to sign Shohei Ohtani and add other needed pieces without getting into the $260MM range.  I don't think that's likely, but let's talk Ohtani anyway.

Back in 2017, the Theo Epstein-led Cubs made a strong enough initial pitch to Ohtani to be one of the player's seven finalists – the only one located in the Midwest.  Aside from geography, the lack of the DH in the NL at the time was a major stumbling block.  Now, the Cubs have a DH spot and Ohtani will be a free agent without contract restrictions.  Ohtani had elbow surgery in September and will not pitch until 2025, yet we still believe he'll require an average annual value in excess of $40MM and a contract exceeding $500MM.

The Dodgers figure to loom large on Ohtani, as a perennial contender that plays on the West Coast.  The Cubs can't do anything about where they play, and one 83-win season hardly positions them as a regular contender.  It's possible that most of the other teams bidding on Ohtani also can't make a strong claim as a perennial contender.  So I think beyond a huge contract offer that I'm not convinced the Cubs would make, the team would have to assure Ohtani that they're adding other key pieces this winter and will project to regularly make the playoffs.

It's been four years since the Cubs actually paid the CBT, and six since they've signed a top-two free agent.  Ohtani is a once-in-a-generation player, and this might be the only offseason in which he's technically available to any team.  It's possible the Cubs are planning a run at Ohtani, but they don't seem like a favorite.

As I mentioned, Stroman's opt-out decision is tough to predict after a season in which he started quite strong but tanked in his last 11 outings and somehow fractured his rib cage cartilage.  MLBTR's Anthony Franco wrote about this a few weeks ago for Front Office subscribers.  The points in favor of the opt-out, according to Anthony: “It's possible he'd prefer to take the strong one-year salary, stay in a place where he's comfortable, and bet on better health when he'd be a true free agent next winter.”  Anthony went on to counter, “That said, I don't think it's quite as likely as many Cub fans might expect. While Stroman's value is down, there'd still be multi-year offers on the table if he did test the market. While they might come at a lower annual salary than $21MM, the overall guarantee should be strong enough to make opting out still worthwhile.”  Recent precedent in favor of Stroman opting out: Nathan Eovaldi turning down a qualifying offer from the Red Sox to sign a two-year, $34MM deal.

Justin Steele made a run at the Cy Young this year in a breakout season.  Jameson Taillon disappointed in his first year as a Cub, but his peripheral stats suggest he can get back to the low-4.00s ERA pitcher the team thought they were getting.  Ricketts indicated Hendricks will likely return, which makes sense after a solid bounceback season.  If Stroman stays, that'd be four rotation spots locked up with veteran arms.  Javier Assad, Jordan Wicks, and Hayden Wesneski could compete for the fifth starter job, with Drew Smyly around in a swingman role.  Top pitching prospect Cade Horton reached Double-A this year and could make the leap to the bigs at some point in 2024.  Ben Brown and Caleb Kilian could be in the mix as well, though they did not have success at Triple-A this year.

The Cubs' 4.26 rotation ERA ranked sixth in the National League.  Running mostly the same group out there in 2024 wouldn't be exciting, but it's not out of the question.  Even if Stroman stays, I can see the Cubs making some sort of rotation addition to improve their depth.  But I assume they wouldn't mind the payroll flexibility they'd gain if he opts out, and would become more aggressive in the market in that case.

The free agent market for starting pitching this winter looks strong, led by 25-year-old Orix Buffaloes ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto.  Yamamoto checks a lot of boxes for the Cubs, much like Seiya Suzuki did.  Yamamoto is in the prime of his career, which is almost never the case for a free agent starter.  A team could reduce his AAV by stretching the years to eight or so, and they'd still only be committing through his age-32 season.  Plus, the posting fee paid to the Buffaloes doesn't count against the CBT.  Hoyer took a scouting trip to Japan in September, where Yamamoto and lefty Shota Imanaga were among the players he saw.

As risky as a $200MM+ deal for Yamamoto could be, the rest of the top end of the free agent market would also require a leap of faith, with players like Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery, Aaron Nola, Sonny Gray, and possibly Eduardo Rodriguez.  The trade market doesn't feature a ton of obvious targets, aside from perhaps Shane Bieber.

The Cubs' makeshift bullpen also ranked sixth in the NL in ERA.  The group had the NL's highest strikeout and walk rates, so it was a mixed bag.  David Ross leaned the hardest on Adbert Alzolay, Mark Leiter Jr., and Julian Merryweather in the second half.  MLBTR projects the trio to earn less than $6MM in total next year, so the Cubs have good value there.  Alzolay, 29 in March, broke out as the team's closer this year but hit the IL at a key point in September with a forearm strain.  The wheels started wobbling on Leiter and Merryweather as well.

Out of desperation, Ross also used Jose Cuas, Smyly, Daniel Palencia, and Javier Assad in key spots in September.  They'll all be in the mix next year.  Lefty Brandon Hughes should be back after missing most of the season due to knee surgery.  On his way back from March 2022 Tommy John surgery, Codi Heuer had June surgery to repair an elbow fracture.  His timeline is currently unknown.

Hoyer's bargain-buy veterans last winter were Michael Fulmer and Brad Boxberger.  Both were non-factors this year due to injuries and ineffectiveness.  The Cubs haven't signed a reliever to a multiyear deal since Craig Kimbrel in June of 2019, instead preferring cheap one-year deals in recent offseasons.

In trying to predict the Cubs' offseason, payroll is the biggest consideration.  If the Cubs are to run, say, a $235MM CBT payroll and Stroman stays put, they'd have an estimated $24MM in AAV to add this winter.  That wouldn't be a ton of wiggle room, in contrast to the $88MM in AAV the Cubs added last winter.  With Bellinger possibly departing, it's tough to see the Cubs improving upon 2023 without a notable payroll increase.

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