The 2021 World Series is in the books, many option decisions are behind us, with plenty of interesting new names officially hitting the market (Nick Castellanos chief among them), and unrestricted free agency begins in just 3 days. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we’re not likely to get a new CBA before the old one expires on December 1st, which will likely lead to a lockout and the total pause of big league free agency, among other implications.
Obviously, that all stinks for us with respect to the Cubs, who have a TON of payroll flexibility, and even more vacancies to fill, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get the conversation started with a couple of MLB free agent rankings from The Athletic (Keith Law) and CBS Sports (R.J. Anderson). And you’ll be interested to note that the general consensus is that this free agent class is “one of the strongest” in recent memory, with uniquely large volumes of talent at shortstop and pitching (two areas that should come of particular interest to the Cubs this winter).
The Consensus Top Free Agents
Both lists begin with Carlos Correa on top and Corey Seager right behind him. Both also expect Correa to get the sort of 10+year deal that’s become the norm for young(ish) middle infield free agents, which Jon Heyman expects should exceed $300M. Law was especially high on Correa, believing that his elevated exit velocities this past season could lead to “another gear of BABIP” and some 8-9 WAR, MVP-like individual seasons in his future. As for Seager, the story is close in terms of overall upside, but greater injury concerns and the expectation that he’s going to move over to third base leave him behind Correa.
For the Cubs part, I don’t see them being the top bidder on either of these two shortstops, despite their need and despite the fact that they are reportedly doing their homework on the elite free agent class, but I do think they should remain engaged in case the value falls on one of them. For a hypothetical example, if you can get Carlos Correa at 10 years and $250 million, I think you have to do that regardless of your other plans.
Marcus Semien and Freddie Freeman are the only two other consensus top-5 free agents, but neither figures to factor into the Cubs plans. Unless he comes on a deal too good to pass up, Semien is going to be too old/expensive for a team as far away as the Cubs. I think it’ll be *very* hard to get Freeman out of Atlanta, and I don’t think he’d really be the best use of the Cubs money, for however good he is.
There’s a little bit of divergence between the two rankings here, with Anderson believing Robbie Ray (5th) and Max Scherzer (7th) are the top two available starters, but Law gives the honor to Marcus Stroman (5th) and Ray (7th). Though their relative positioning is not quite the point.
For law, Stroman’s floor – thanks, in part, to the addition of a sinker this year – gives him the nod as the best overall bet, which might make more sense for a team like the Cubs than a guy with possibly a higher ceiling like Ray, especially if Ray is going to get a five-year deal like Law suspects. The Cubs need to cover so many starter innings next season and I think if you’re going to spend big, it’ll have to be a safer play like Stroman. (We’ve discussed the fit before.)
Meanwhile, you can cross the older starters like Scherzer, Justin Verlander, and probably Clayton Kershaw off the list for the Cubs. The timing doesn’t add up for either side, and those guys will be chasing rings and maybe a final huge contract.
Instead, the sweet spot for the Cubs, I suspect/hope, is in that 15-30 range of free agent starting pitchers. Guys like Eduardo Rodriguez (16th to Law, 17th to Anderson), Carlos Rodon (17th, 29th), Noah Syndergaard (18th, 16th), Jon Gray (19th, 22nd), Anthony DeSclafani (24th, 40th), Steven Matz (28th, 28th).
There are just SO many interesting types in this range, and this is where the Cubs NEED to flex their financial might. I’ll understand if they don’t out-bid the market for Carlos Correa or Marcus Stroman, but you have to get your No. 1 targets in this 2-4 year starting pitcher market if you want ANY chance at competing next year.
The frustrating part, however, is how much the Qualifying Offer could mess this up for the Cubs. They’re not the only team in this position, but there is an annoyingly good reason to slow-play things and it mostly has to do with the unknowns of the CBA. If they wanted to be a little gutsy, they might have to roll the dice blind on a couple of their top targets, but remember, it takes two to tango.
Carlos Rodon, Jon Gray, Eduardo Rodriguez, Noah Syndergaard, and Anthony Desclafani are among the top free agent starting pitcher targets for the Cubs in this range that are plausibly going to get a qualifying offer and thus cost the Cubs a high second round pick, the associated draft pool space, and $500K in IFA spending ability. That’s not nothing.
But, hey, Marcus Stroman can’t be attached to an offer, so ….
Be That Team for Once, Cubs
I’m not going to spill too much from either list, but suffice it to say, both Law and Anderson are understandably, but in my opinion, disproportionately, low on Trevor Story. Both have questions about the glove falling off and the bat outside of Coors, which is all fair, but his case reminds me a lot of Marcus Semien and D.J. LeMahieu, two guys I urged the Cubs to target in the past because the market was undervaluing them, who went on to sign cheap short terms deals before dominating and scoring big later on (Semien’s big score comes this winter).
As a personal preference, I like to target guys who HAVE had monster seasons in the past and who are being undervalued because of a very poor, more recent season. That’s the model for extracting the highest value. And for what it’s worth, the Cubs are reportedly a “likely suitor” for Trevor Story.
And to carry that over to the outfield, I think something similar about Michael Conforto (ranked 21st). He’s just 29 years old next season with a ton of high-level offensive success before this year:
2015 (194 PAs): 133 wRC+
2016 (348 PAs): 97 wRC+
2017 (440 PAs): 147 wRC+
2018 (638 PAs): 119 wRC+
2019 (648 PAs): 127 wRC+
2020 (233 PAs): 158 wRC+
2021 (479 PAs): 106 wRC+
Is this really a guy we’re not willing to take a gamble on? Yes, this was his worst offensive season in a while, but he missed time with COVID and a hamstring injury, which could help explain some of that. The issue with Conforto, however, is that he’s likely to be seeking a one-year deal, but will also likely come attached to a qualifying offer/draft pick compensation.
The goal, then, would be to see if you can maybe overpay him a bit on a two or three year deal (or maybe include some lofty incentives) and hope for the best. But again, hitting on guys like Conforto or Story is going to be the only way the Cubs are true contenders next year (and that’s with everything else going exactly according to plan).
Some Former Cubs
Kris Bryant (6th, 3rd), Javy Báez (9th, 13th), Kyle Schwarber (20th, 24th), Anthony Rizzo (34th, 20th), Jorge Soler (36th, 37th), Ryan Tepera (45th, not listed), Matt Duffy (47th, not listed), and Joc Pederson (not listed, 44th) all make the lists at relatively appropriate spots.
And while Anthony Rizzo’s market may have cratered to a level that could wind up making sense for the Cubs, it seems like Javy Báez is going to be the better bet at returning to Chicago.