The Chicago Cubs have made four minor league signings here in the early part of the offseason, per the transaction wire: outfielder Rafael Ortega, catcher Taylor Gushue, righty Jake Jewell, and lefty Jerry Vasto (re-signing).
It’s not ALWAYS the case, but historically, the signings that come through in the first half of November tend to be priority minor league signings – true minor leaguers who have reached free agency, maybe for the first time, and outside orgs are excited to get a chance at them. But with no minor league season this past year, it’s pretty difficult to make assumptions about why certain guys are being signed. We kinda have no idea where some of these guys are in their development or progression. We don’t even know to what extent the Cubs were able to scout them. So the shots in the dark might be even shot-in-the-dark’er, especially if their previous organization (the one that DID have opportunities to scout) is letting them go.
Outfielder Rafael Ortega
The Cubs are extraordinarily thin in the outfield throughout their farm system, and the upper levels just have no depth whatsoever right now. So you can expect a few minor league signings for the outfield as we go along, and Ortega is only the first.
Now 29, Ortega has actually had a taste of big league action for four different organizations since 2012 (Rockies, Angels, Marlins, and Braves), and has been a member of another two orgs along the way (Cardinals, Padres). And when it comes to a guy with that profile, you probably know it before I even say it: he pretty much always hits really well at AAA, and has yet to hit in the big leagues. Just scouting the stat sheet and his size (5’11”, 160), it’s not too hard to see why – Ortega appears to be an extreme contact guy with no power whatsoever. He’s been good enough that it plays at AAA, but when he gets to the big leagues (447 PAs now), the stuff you’d expect against better pitching happens: the strikeout rate ticks up, the walk rate slips, and the BABIP (which was supporting the whole thing) gets crushed. You add that up, and you go from a guy who is consistently posting wRC+ at 110 or better to a guy whose big league wRC+ is a dreadful 59.
Still, the lefty bat keeps getting opportunities for a reason, and he’s also hit really well in Venezuela the last couple years. With so much experience, you figure he probably is what he is at this point, but these guys right at the cusp of being useful in the big leagues are sometimes just a tweak away from being a quality bench guy.
Catcher Taylor Gushue
Excellent upper-level catching depth right here, with some potential to actually be a big league contributor eventually. I am guessing Gushue was probably prioritized by a number of organizations, and the Cubs may even have had to sign him to a little pricier minor league deal than usual.
Once a fourth round pick by the Pirates and then a legit prospect in the Nationals system, Gushue reached AAA in 2019, posting a .312/.358/.517 line (108 wRC+ (remember, the ball was VERY juiced at AAA that year)), taking his walks, not striking out, and pretty much where you’d expect a former college catcher’s progression to be at age 25 if he were going to become a plausible future big leaguer. Gushue was in the Nationals’ player pool this past year, but did not ultimately get called up. I can’t say with even the tiniest confidence that I have a clue where he will be developmentally next year, but he’ll have just turned 27, which is far from old for a AAA catcher.
Just seems like excellent catching depth to pair with PJ Higgins at Iowa, and maybe eventually Miguel Amaya, too. And if his glove is solid and the bat remains where it’s at? That’s a possible big league back-up right there, as soon as next year. With minor league options, too.
Righty Reliever Jake Jewell
A long-time Angels prospect, Jewell became a full-time reliever at AAA/MLB in 2018-19, but without a whole lot of success. But he throws hard, and he started to phase out a sinker in favor of a 95-ish MPH four-seamer in 2019, and I wonder if this is just a pure scouting play by the Cubs. Get the 27-year-old in the system, and see if you can tweak a couple things. Might as well add potential relief velocity where you can, and there’s some under-the-hood stuff at Statcast that suggests he might also be able to hone a decent slider.
Lefty Reliever Jerry Vasto
In and out of the Cubs organization over the last couple years despite never actually throwing a pitch for them, Vasto, 28, has pitched in the big leagues for the Royals and Rockies, but did not pitch at any level in 2019 or 2020. I’m wondering if it was an injury/surgery situation in 2019, and then pandemic-ball in 2020? As best I can tell, he was still affiliated with the Cubs organization until hitting free agency earlier this month, so they may have been in the best position to know how he was doing this year. Now the Cubs have signed him back. My presumption is that he’ll come to Spring Training to compete for a bullpen spot, but otherwise serve as optionable depth at AAA.