Today is one of those unceremonious offseason deadlines that we need to address: the last chance to retain prospective minor league free agents before they hit the open market. To do so, teams have two options: re-sign the player to a 2021 minor league successor contract (which the player would have to agree to) or add him to your 40-man roster (which the player would not have to agree to). The deadline is 4 p.m. today.
I want to take a look at the class the Cubs are saying goodbye to, as well as some thoughts on where I anticipate the Cubs to be most aggressive in minor league free agency themselves. Thanks to our friend AZ Phil at The Cub Reporter, we know the Cubs eligible for minor league free agency are:
Pitchers: Aneuris Beard, Corey Black, Rex Brothers, Luke Hagerty, Danny Hultzen, Garrett Kelly, Ryan Lawlor, Luis Lugo, Ivan Medina, Jordan Minch, Erling Moreno, Tyler Olson, Josh Osich, Eugenio Palma, Jorge Ramirez, Pedro Strop, Jerrick Suiter, Jerry Vasto, Joe Wieland.
Hitters: Erick Castillo, Eric Gonzalez, Hernan Perez, Juan Vasquez, Vance Vizcaino, Mark Zagunis.
A few notes here at the top. First, this list would normally be longer, but the Cubs released a large number of players that had been set for minor league free agency months ago. Second, there is a good chance a few of the players above have already re-signed for 2021, and we just don’t know it yet. This stuff is rarely reported, so when Baseball America releases their full list of minor league free agents this week, we’ll just cross reference the players above to the guys BA lists, and the ones that don’t match presumably re-signed. It’s actually fairly reasonable to assume Erling Moreno and Jerrick Suiter re-signed, as both have been in minor league Instructional League camp with the Cubs this month.
I want to first highlight Suiter, who has been one of the most talked-about players out of Arizona recently. The Cubs drafted Suiter in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 Draft last December, which at first blush didn’t make sense, as he was a first baseman fresh off a .235/.277/.299 season in Double-A. It turned out, however, that the Cubs drafted Suiter with the intention to move him to the mound, based on pitch data the Cubs R&D team had unearthed from some game where Suiter had been asked to pitch with his team down 14-5.
( (> PLAYER
<) )> PITCHING
/ @jerricksuiter WHIFFS Dante Bichette Jr. to finish a scoreless eighth inning.
Better keep that ⚾️ pic.twitter.com/Y5zmhdKnRz
— Altoona Curve (@AltoonaCurve) September 1, 2019
Suiter has been working his tail off since then, and apparently the results have been excellent. A fastball in the mid (and maybe even upper) 90s, continued good reports on that curveball you see above. He’s a big, strong guy who the Cubs are really pleased with identifying. While I think it’s the longest of longshots he’s added to the 40-man roster today, he’s probably the only guy on that free agent list with a real chance.
Where I want to jump next is talking about just how many left-handed relievers the Cubs are losing from their upper levels now. I count nine on the list above, and we can add free agent Andrew Chafin and a potential non-tender of Kyle Ryan to that list. The Cubs have tried so hard to get that Danny Hultzen comeback to work – even giving him one of the South Bend taxi squad spots all season. But there was never even a rumor that he was in contention for a MLB roster spot; I think we might have seen the last of that experiment. Jordan Minch is a guy whose stuff has really improved during his six years with the organization, but he’s (rightfully) criticized the team’s communication with him in the past on Twitter, and I think it’s safe to assume he’ll try a different team. One guy I hope doesn’t: Ryan Lawlor. Signed out of Independent ball in 2018, Lawlor was absolutely dominant in High-A in 2019, limiting hitters to a .508 OPS and 41.8% strikeout rate. I want to see that curveball in Double-A.
A more recent signing out of Indy ball whose future value also seems to intrigue the Cubs is Joe Wieland. Brett wrote up his signing when the Cubs grabbed him off the Sugar Land Lightning Sloths not even two months ago. I can’t imagine the Cubs made that signing for the purpose of him providing 2020 depth, they were certainly trying to get in the door to have his services for 2021. Let’s hope that intention was realized.
Finally, I want to pour one out for Mark Zagunis, who I’d wager will try out another organization after opting out of the 2020 season. You’ll recall Zagunis earned a spot on the Opening Day roster in 2019 after a big spring, and the front office liked Zagunis as a potential platoon bat for Kyle Schwarber and/or Jason Heyward. But Zagunis had a rough game defensively in Atlanta in his second start, and Joe Maddon lost complete faith. Zagunis eventually made it back to Triple-A Iowa, where he showed more power than ever before (and hit lefties at a .384/.442/.744 clip), but did see his strikeout rate spike to career-high levels.
I think a smart organization is going to poach Zagunis quickly and, with a few development tweaks, possibly be rewarded with a couple seasons of passable MLB depth. I doubt there will be many minor league free agents out there with a better track record against southpaws. Zagunis will leave behind an Iowa Cubs lineup that is, for now, looking rather punch-less.
After yesterday’s moves — Max Schrock claimed, Rex Brothers released — here is the current depth chart at the top 3 levels. Assumes no non-tenders, though I expect there will be 3-5 of those. Will try to update this consistently all offseason. pic.twitter.com/GZQlK8I0Mc
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) October 31, 2020
During the Theo era, the Cubs have always been an extremely hungry buyer of pitchers in the minor league free agent market, rarely afraid to let 30 pitchers compete for the 13 spots in Iowa. This year, I’m hoping that aggressiveness switches to the offensive side. While I can already identify about 18 good pitchers I wouldn’t mind getting a shot in Iowa, I can’t build a nine-person lineup that makes sense yet. The Cubs need depth in the middle infield – which they might have helped alleviate with the Max Schrock waiver claim (if he’s not subsequently lost on waivers) – and they really need some power bats.
While I like all of P.J. Higgins, Trent Giambrone and Alfonso Rivas as potential call-ups to provide depth in 2021, they’re not enough. Especially given the limitations we’ll see with spending on depth at the MLB level, the Cubs need to be quick and swift in building some depth with the Triple-A roster by grabbing the best available bats.