These days, most of our time and attention is (rightly) spent focused on the Cubs’ rare push to the postseason. With just under 10 games to go, I don’t blame us. However, the Cubs’ immediate future, beyond this season, appears to be even brighter than their present, and free agency is going to play a big role in that respect. With some obvious needs heading into the offseason – starting pitching and center field, for example – let’s check back in on the high-end of the expected free agent class and see what kind of contracts the top players (of possible interest to the Cubs) are preparing to receive.
At Yahoo Sports, Jeff Passan gets us started by identifying nine of the top upcoming free agents and their expected price tags, using similar/recent contracts for comparison. At MLBTR, Time Dierkes consolidated the 2016 MLB Free Agent Power Rankings to a top ten, providing some additional context surrounding the upper tier of expected free agency. Of the twelve different players mentioned across both lists, the seven bolded below strike me as potential Cub targets (and, yes, you could make arguments for some of the others, too). Let’s take one at a time, and recalibrate our expectations for the upcoming offseason …
- David Price
- Jason Heyward
- Justin Upton
- Chris Davis
- Yoenis Cespedes
- Zack Greinke
- Alex Gordon
- Johnny Cueto
- Jordan Zimmerman
- Mike Leake
- Ian Desmond
- Ben Zobrist
While there are many uncertainties heading into the 2016 offseason, one thing is for sure: David Price is going to get paaaaaid. Given his fantastic career numbers before this season, topping $200M was already expected. Now, given the excellent performance in 2015, as well as the contracts of Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer, topping $200M is all but certain. Passan believes he’ll wind up somewhere between Scherzer and Kershaw, but Dierkes believes his goal is to exceed Kershaw’s contract. I know there is some mutual attraction between Price and the Cubs, but those numbers will be difficult to square. In his walk year, Price, 30, has pitched to a 2.45 ERA, a 2.79 FIP, and a 3.25 xFIP over 220.1 IP.
Given his youth, offensive upside and defensive prowess, Jason Heyward, 26, is probably the second most (to David Price) frequently discussed Cubs target heading into the 2016 offseason. With Dexter Fowler’s contract expiring at the end of the season, many hope that Heyward will be the Cubs’ center fielder of the future, and it’s tough to blame them (assuming he can translate the defense effectively). Given his unusual youth (for free agency) and overall package, though, Heyward is sure to cost a lot in both dollars and years. Both Passan and Dierkes expect 7 or 8 year deals somewhere above $140. While that sort of contract isn’t necessarily outrageous for someone of his skill level and age, there is a hidden obstacle: Both Dierkes and Passan believe that Heyward may command the dreaded “opt-out,” making the contract no more valuable and a whole lot more risky. While I expect the Cubs would be willing to pursue Heyward above the $100M+ mark, I doubt they entertain an opt out. If that is a deal breaker, the Cubs will probably look elsewhere. In his walk year, Heyward has hit .289/.356/.432 (117 wRC+) over 595 plate appearances, and has played his characteristically excellent defense.
Zack Grienke has turned in one of the most impressive seasons by a pitcher all year. His dazzling 1.65 ERA may not be sustainable, but it is equally hard to overlook. Although Greinke is under contract with the Dodgers for more than $23M per year through 2018, he has the ability to opt out of his contract this offseason. Greinke will turn 32 this October, but both Dierkes and Passan see him overcoming the 6-year, $155M contract the Cubs gave Jon Lester, this past offseason. If that is in fact the case, I would not expect the Cubs to be more than casually involved. With so many other, cheaper and younger options available, that is probably the right call. In his will-be-walk year, Greinke has pitched to a 1.65 ERA (2.77 FIP) over 207.2 IP.
Johnny Cueto is yet another available top of the rotation starter and his position behind Price and Greinke serves to underscore just how deep of a free agent class this is. Unlike the other two, though, Cueto hasn’t had as strong of a season overall. Over a recent ugly 26.1 inning stretch with the Royals, for example, Cueto allowed 28 earned runs off of 48 hits, while watching his ERA balloon up to 3.45 (up a full point, from where it was). While his contract previously felt like a lock to reach seven years, both Dierkes and Passan doubt he’ll get as many dollars or years as Lester. If there is some value to be had, Cueto could potentially be a dark horse Cubs target … even if it remains unlikely, especially when you factor in any potential arm concerns. In his walk year, Cueto has pitched to a 3.45 ERA (3.47 FIP) over 201.0 IP. He is just 29, though.
Jordan Zimmermann has been loosely connected to the Cubs in the past, and remains on the radar heading into the 2016 offseason. Having just turned 29 this season, Zimmermann remains an attractive free agent pitcher, demonstrating once again that he is still healthy and strong despite being a Tommy John surgery recipient in the past (though that subject and certain velocity trends will be among the discussion points this offseason). While 2015 hasn’t been as good as his 5.3 WAR 2014 campaign, Zimmermann appears set to receive a contract above $100M dollars. Depending on the structure and total value, Zimmermann may still be a very nice, young option. In his walk year, Zimmermann has pitched to a 3.68 ERA, a 3.78 FIP, and a 3.80 xFIP over 195.2 IP.
Mike Leake may not have anywhere near the track record of the other pitchers in this post, but he has one thing on all of them: age. At just 27 years old, Leake is young enough to warrant hanging a longer, cheaper deal on. While he doesn’t offer a huge amount of upside, he is relatively consistent and could be a very good, not as pricey mid-rotation option. It might not be sexy, but it might be valuable. In his walk year, Leake has pitched to a 3.89 ERA (4.22 FIP) over 183.0 IP.
The Cubs reportedly targeted Ben Zobrist last offseason and at the 2015 deadline, but he has yet to reunite with former manager Joe Maddon. While he has turned in yet another fantastic offensive performance to match his defensive versatility, I’m not quite sure the Cubs will target him as heavily this offseason, as they did in the months prior. At 34 years old, Zobrist appears to still have plenty of life in the tank, but I’m not sold that the Cubs couldn’t find better use for the money he’d require. According to Passan, Zobrist is likely looking at more than $50M over roughly four years. Dierkes doesn’t mention a contract amount, but agrees that Zobrist is likely headed towards a four-year deal. With a suddenly more complete bench – thanks to Javier Baez, Starlin Castro, Chris Coghlan, Jorge Soler, and Tommy La Stella, among others – I’m not sure that paying Zobrist will be entirely necessary. In his walk year, Zobrist has hit .282/.367/.466 (130 wRC+) over 501 PAs.