I can see the eyes rolling from here about that headline, but stay with me for a moment. The time for big league free agency will come! And the Cubs should hit it up quite aggressively! It’s just that I want to talk about something else this afternoon.
Next week, when the World Series ends and MLB free agency opens up, another thing happens, too: minor league free agency opens up. Just like the guys you typically think of as big league free agents, there are a whole bunch of guys who’ve either reached enough minor league service time to achieve free agency, or who were on minor league deals that expired, or who are already expected (for one reason or another) to be looking at minor league deals this offseason, rather than big league deals.
While that isn’t ever as sexy as big league free agency, I could craft an argument why the early part of the offseason this year could be as much about minor league free agency as big league free agency.
Consider that we have the specter of the Collective Bargaining Agreement expiration looming on December 1, and no one knows for sure what’s going to happen to the transaction market if that expiration comes. Indeed, there’s already a significant expectation around the league that the big league free agent market is going to be extraordinarily slow before a new CBA is reached, if not frozen altogether.
Well, then, if that’s the case on the big league side, isn’t it possible that the most active sphere in early November will actually be among the best-of-the-best minor league free agents? The guys who you already know won’t be signing big league deals, and thus have no real reason to wait for, or be impacted by, the CBA talks?
Each year, there are priority minor league signings in early November, though it’s usually just one or two per organization. It’s a relatively recent phenomenon for guys to get more than the standard rate when signing minor league deals, but these priority free agents? They can get a little more. And I suspect that this year, there could be more of these signings than usual.
If I’m right about that, then I certainly hope the Cubs have been making preparations over the last couple months to aggressively target preferred minor league candidates right out of the chute, hoping they can convince a few guys who just barely didn’t make a 40-man roster that they’re best path going forward is signing a minor league deal with the Cubs, and getting to work revamping their game in a new organization. It won’t hurt that the Cubs can point to notable recent success stories, but I’m thinking it’ll mostly take a little extra scratch.
Again, the kinds of signings I’m talking about are always low probability to become impact types, and they are going to come with obvious warts. Big league free agency is where most of the 2022 impact will come. But the best organizations find a variety of ways to get contributions, and I suspect that the first area where a team can make real hay this offseason is going to come on the minor league side.
As for names, well, it’s unbelievably hard to come up with them as an outsider. Consider the Cubs organization, alone – they not only have upwards of 50 impending minor league (and fringe minor league) free agents, they also have a whole lotta edge case guys on the 40-man roster who might get bounced. And that’s not even counting other guys who wind up getting released at the end of the year throughout the organization. In total, the Cubs might have something like 15 to 20 guys that at least a few other organizations would think, “Oh, yeah, we would definitely like to have that guy on a minor league deal for 2022.” Now multiply that by 30 teams. It’s just a lot, lot, lot of players. That’s why the Cubs’ scouting and front office crew have the jobs they have, right?
I will give you one name now, just to provide an example of the TYPE of priority minor league free agent the Cubs should be targeting.
Remember Shed Long, by chance? He was a big-time prospect in the Reds organization a few years ago when he was traded as part of the three-team Sonny Gray deal. That took him to Seattle, where he wound up making his (successful) big league debut for a half-season in 2019. He played all over the field, hit .263/.333/.454 (112 wRC+), had solid peripherals, and was only 23.
Unfortunately he struggled badly in 2020, and then again in a partial 2021 season. The Mariners’ crowded 40-man situation led to his release, and now he’s a free agent, highly likely to sign a minor league deal for 2022. Maybe the league adjusted and that was that.
HOWEVER, the thing you kinda like to look for in these situations is some other explanation for the struggles that could possibly be very different going forward, either by virtue of a new organization, some kind of fix, or … simple health:
A statement from Shed Long Jr.’s agent — Nate Heisler pic.twitter.com/XM1vYQoqzM
— Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) October 22, 2021
Now, then. It’s entirely possible that, even if Long’s underperformance in 2020-21 was because of the shin issues, he won’t come back successfully from the injuries and he’s done. That’s part of the risk you take when you otherwise have an opportunity to sign a 26-year-old utility man with past big league success and top prospect pedigree to a minor league deal. It’s actually rather low risk!
Again, this post is MOSTLY about the concept of targeting priority minor league free agents early, early, early in the offseason. I think it’s going to be a particularly good idea this time around. But since we were on the topic, I thought I’d mention Long as the type of guy I’d love to see the Cubs go after aggressively.