Last winter, although there were some stray rumors here or there, the Chicago Cubs never seemed to achieve any kind of real heat in the Lorenzo Cain sweepstakes, allowing him instead to sign a five-year, $80 million deal with the Milwaukee Brewers. Cain, of course, went on to post the second-best season of his career – at age 32 – earning 5.7 WAR, playing stellar defense, swiping 30 bags, all while slashing .308/.395/.417 (124 wRC+). The rest is history. Painful. Annoying. History.
But I’m not digging this up to ruin your mood on an otherwise lovely Thursday. Instead, I want to think back on the decision to pursue or not pursue Cain aggressively as a possible lesson, and one that could theoretically be applied as soon as this offseason.
I know there were some calls for the Cubs to target Cain in free agency last winter, but I think most of us, myself admittedly included, were probably (1) too attached to the outfield talent already in the Cubs organization (and not focused enough on production, as Theo Epstein might say), and (2) under the assumption that a player of Cain’s age wouldn’t have this much left in the tank – at least not enough to give him the sort of huge deal the Brewers offered. But if we could go back in time, I think we’d all probably want a do-over, right?
The purpose of this post and that lesson isn’t exactly about Cain, the Brewers, or what the Cubs should’ve done last offseason. It’s really about Andrew McCutchen and what the Cubs might want to consider this winter.
The parallels and the players are not a perfect overlap, but there’s a lot to think about here.
McCutchen, who is almost exactly six months younger than Cain is right now, is scheduled to be a free agent after the World Series ends. Should the Cubs consider going after him? If you wish the Cubs could have a do-over on Cain, you should probably at least consider McCutchen, regardless of his age, the positional fit, etc. This is the real lesson of Cain: sometimes you just have to consider signing good players. Period.
After a down season in 2016, McCutchen bounced back at the plate in 2017 and 2018. This season, for example, McCutchen (120 wRC+) hit nearly as well as Cain (124 wRC+), which feels a bit surprising, right? If any of us could go back in time, we’d lock down that level of production for the Cubs 2018 outfield/leadoff hitter(?) in a heartbeat. But there’s more to it than that. McCutchen also outhit Cain in 2017 (123 wRC+ to 115 wRC+), 2016 (105 wRC+ to 99 wRC+), and every single season before that in their respective careers. In other words, McCutchen is younger than Cain is right now and has been at least as good offensively since 2009.
Of course, McCutchen will be about six months older at the start of next season than Cain was when he started his first season with the Brewers. Maybe that makes a big difference to you, maybe it doesn’t. What does make a big difference, if we’re doing a straight up player comparison, is that McCutchen doesn’t play defense nearly as well as Cain, and probably isn’t nearly as good of a baserunner, either.
But I’m not sure that’s enough to tip the scales totally against pursuing McCutchen. After all, Wrigley is far from the hardest place to play center field (ask Dexter Fowler), and maybe McCutchen wouldn’t be in center field anyway most of the time (the Cubs have Jason Heyward and Albert Almora, for example). Playing right field regularly for the first time in his career (most of it in that crazy right field in San Francisco), McCutchen had a positive DRS figure and an only slightly negative UZR/150. Maybe he’s just fine out there. Also, it’s not like McCutchen is a horrible baserunner (he’s had positive baserunning value as recently as 2017).
So, again, if you wish you could go back in time and get the Cubs to sign Cain, perhaps McCutchen is your second chance.
At The Athletic, Sahadev Sharma floated the idea of the Cubs bringing in McCutchen, before adding an interesting wrinkle to the idea: “He had a 115 wRC+ in 130 games with the Giants this year and then in 25 with the Yankees, he posted a 149. If he hit anything in between there, it would be perfect for the Cubs. He also has hit .310/.416/.484 at Wrigley Field ….”
Obviously, bringing in McCutchen would make bringing in Bryce Harper a bit more challenging (for positioning, if not for the purse, necessarily), but Sharma suggests this can be done in conjunction with bringing in Manny Machado to the infield … and you have to admit that combo is pretty enticing if the Cubs were really gonna spend big.
Aside from the fact that we think – in a vacuum – McCutchen could be good for this Cubs team, adding him and Machado adds two new elements/hitters to the fold, shaking up the Cubs offense in the way everyone seems to want. This all, of course, can be caveated to heck with questions about his own interest in coming to Chicago, and trying to find out what sort of deal he’s hoping to land. But even if McCutchen is looking to get something in the 4-5 year/$80-$90M range, like Cain, I think you at least have to consider it. (That’s partly why we’re belaboring this Cain comparison a bit throughout this post, as that’s probably where McCutchen will look for a comparison when he starts talking to teams about a contract.)
In fact, depending on how things shake out, it’s entirely possible that you might be able to get Machado and Cain for just a little (that’s a very relative term) more than Harper by himself, right? If we’re extremely generous to all three players, would it be fair to say that Harper by himself might cost $300M while Machado+McCutchen might cost you $325-$350M? If that were true, would it change your mind? It’s early in the offseason. We’re just spitballing here on the numbers, but you can see the gist of the question I’m asking.
I know this is all very theoretical and self-dependent right now, but the broader point remains: If the Cubs could address their leadoff problem while adding to the outfield (McCutchen), replacing Addison Russell, and adding a thumper to the middle of the lineup (Machado), I might prefer that to just adding Harper.
Or maybe the Cubs won’t land any of them … who knows? You can never COUNT on landing precisely the MULTIPLE free agents that you want, even if you aggressively pursue them. But I like thinking out of the box and I really like second chances. If the Cubs are really going to stop thinking in terms of talent and start thinking in terms of production, maybe adding McCutchen makes some sense.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.