The Chicago Cubs have indicated, by words or actions this offseason, that they are in the market for a catcher (actions) and a lefty reliever (words). So, when they non-tendered a catcher and a lefty reliever yesterday, we probably should have seen it coming.
With a little time to digest the non-tender news, I have some additional thoughts on the Cubs declining to tender 2015 contracts to John Baker and Wesley Wright.
Picked up as a minor league free agent last year, Baker surprisingly beat out George Kottaras for the Cubs’ back-up gig. Although he was always light with the bat, pitchers seemed to really enjoy throwing to Baker. Depending on your source, Baker’s defense was middle-of-the-pack last year, including framing. I am #NotAScout, but my eyes told me he was clearly a better receiver than Welington Castillo (not saying much), but probably not as good defensively (also not saying much). In a light-hitting, back-up catcher, Baker probably wasn’t quite as good defensively/receiving as you’d like to see, but he wasn’t a problem.
Set to make more than $1 million in arbitration, though, the Cubs let him go. Given that guys with Baker’s profile can usually be picked up for about half that amount, the decision makes sense on those grounds, alone.
But was there more to it? I suppose it’s possible that the non-tender is a signal that the Cubs are targeting a catcher this offseason, be it a new starter (Miguel Montero? Yasmani Grandal?) or a back-up (David Ross?). It’s possible that the non-tender is a signal that the Cubs have a lot of confidence in Rafael Lopez, who is now the de facto number two behind Castillo. It’s also possible that there was always a plan to bring Baker back, just on a lesser deal. We’ll see if that happens.
In any case, the Cubs will need another catcher or two, even if just for minor league depth purposes. And if the Cubs don’t ultimately bring back Baker in some capacity, I will have some fond memories of his time with the Cubs.
I went back and forth on a Wright tender in the early part of the offseason, but, by the time yesterday rolled around, I was no longer expecting a non-tender. Boo on me, because I probably should have been. Ortiz, Rosscup, Wood, Doubront, Wada, Jokisch. That’s a lot of in-house lefty bullpen options, depending on how the rotation shakes out, especially when the front office has already said they want to add a lefty in free agency. Thus, Wright at $2 million was more luxurious than the Cubs needed to be right now, especially if the Cubs simply want to add a true LOOGY, of which there are probably going to be many cheaper options later in the offseason.
As for Wright’s year with the Cubs, there was some success – a 3.17 ERA over 48.1 innings is great – but the peripherals were pretty ugly. Consider that Wright’s HR/FB ratio was just 5.7% – far less than the 10ish% you expect to see for most pitchers, and nearly 10 percentage points lower than his ratio coming into the season. For some reason, a disproportionate volume of fly balls went for homers in Wright’s career (short porch at Minute Maid?), and then an almost-certainly unsustainable volume of them didn’t go for homers last year. That’s the primary reason, by the way, that Wright’s xFIP was 3.80 – solidly below average (3.67) in the NL last year.
Wright was good against lefties last year – 23.5% K rate, 5.9% BB rate, 2.01 FIP – but really struggled against righties – 13.7% K rate, 11.3% BB rate, 4.42 FIP. He also really fell off in the second half (1.25 K/BB, 4.25 FIP). All in all, Wright performed like an acceptable LOOGY, but the Cubs can probably replace or improve upon his performance for less money, either by using an in-house LOOGY option or picking one up later in the offseason.
Or, of course, the Cubs could try and add a full-inning lefty reliever to the mix. They’re probably not going to pay the king’s ransom that a guy like Andrew Miller will get, but what about a Joe Thatcher or a Tom Gorzelanny? I’m just shooting from the hip here, obviously.
The sum of the points, then, is that the Cubs didn’t exactly put themselves in a bad spot by letting Wright go. They’ve got in-house options to replace him, expensive free agent options, cheap free agent options, and, of course, there’s always technically the chance that the Cubs could try and bring Wright back for cheaper. They’ve got an extra $2 million to work with now.