From the moment the Chicago Cubs signed Marcus Stroman, our attentions turned to the Cubs’ infield. Folks were tweeting about it that night, and I even saved a draft of this very post for myself as a reminder to dig into the topic during the lockout. Stroman is one of the most elite groundball pitchers in the game, and in a rotation that already figured to rely so heavily on weak contact in the infield (Kyle Hendricks and Wade Miley also butter their bread that way), it was clear that, no matter what else the Cubs do in the rotation this offseason, the infield defense was going to be critical to their 2022 success.
That isn’t to say Correa to the Cubs is impossible, it’s just unlikely, as all guesses at ONE top free agent going to ONE particular team are. And that’s the case even if the Cubs were definitely ready to go $300+ million balls out for Correa, which I’m not yet convinced they are.
Here’s how Sharma, who acknowledges that Correa is a possibility, frames the alternative approach:
Despite the addition of Stroman, the overall plan hasn’t changed. The Cubs aren’t afraid to spend money, but they are hesitant to commit a lot of years as they want to remain financially flexible when they have top prospects knocking on the door to the bigs. That isn’t their current reality, but one they hope to be living soon enough. They view it similarly to when an NFL team has a top quarterback on a rookie contract — at that point, spend big to surround that player with talent.
There are plenty of arguments to be made for why Correa could still fit that plan. He’s 27; the free-agent market doesn’t look particularly intriguing next winter; even as he ages, he could shift to third and still be a plus defender, etc. The bottom line is he’s an option, but not the only one and perhaps not the most likely one.
The Cubs could sign a no-doubt shortstop or they could sign a versatile infielder who can really pick it defensively. They’ll also monitor the trade market for the right fit. Think someone like Joey Wendle, who was traded from Tampa Bay to Miami, and can play a really good third base and also shift to second and occasionally shortstop. That would allow Nico Hoerner, an elite defensive second baseman, to roam around as well, while Nick Madrigal shifts from second to designated hitter (assuming that comes to the National League in the new collective bargaining agreement).
Ideally, the Cubs would add a sure-fire, no-doubt, defensive-plus shortstop, who would start 140 or whatever games. That would not only provide premium defense at shortstop, but would allow Hoerner to start far more often at second base, where he has already shown the penchant to be a top-tier defender. Adding a great defensive shortstop improves the club’s defense at the two most important infield spots in one fell swoop.
So, then, if we set aside Correa, who was arguably the best defensive shortstop in baseball last year, what are the other elite defensive options available to the Cubs?
Finding the best options relies on data, but there are tons of necessary caveats there: (1) advanced defensive metrics can be wildly different from each other, (2) single-year stats are rarely enough to really make much of a conclusion, and/but (3) you don’t want to go too far back in the data because players do decline as they get older, and the most recent year might tell you the most.
Basically, I just did some perusing at the Outs Above Average leaderboard at Statcast, the Defensive Runs Saved leaderboard at FanGraphs, and the UZR/150 leaderboard at FanGraphs. I’m just looking to develop a sense of who is out there, and what the range of possibilities looks like.
Among the players who are available as free agents or realistically available in trade, and who rated as above-average defensively at shortstop in all three metrics in 2021 (with some notes on each):
⇒ Nick Ahmed, 31 (has historically been elite defensively, but DRS and UZR/150 took a step back this year; bat was also abysmal in 2021; is owed over $18 million between the next two seasons)
⇒ Ha-Seong Kim, 26 (the bat didn’t translate to the big leagues (yet?), but the glove rated out as very good at shortstop; owed $7 million each of the next three years)
⇒ Isiah Kiner-Falefa, 26 (the Rangers were right to move him to shortstop last year, because he rated as a stud defensively; two more years of arbitration left, and could conceivably be a trade piece given the Corey Seager and Marcus Semien signings; bat won’t give you much, but he could be a high-contact, slightly-below-league-average guy)
⇒ Kevin Newman, 28 (the glove is fantastic, though the bat is pretty much a non-entity; three years of arbitration remaining; intradivisional trades are obviously tricky)
⇒ Jonathan Villar, 30 (free agent; rated as just barely above-average defensively at shortstop in the three metrics in 2021, in a very small sample, after historically being slightly below average; around a league-average bat, though)
It’s not a long list!
You’ll notice that Trevor Story didn’t make the cut. Although DRS and UZR/150 both thought he was his typically solid defensive self in 2021, OAA was waaaaaay down on him. We know that the arm had some injury concerns in 2021, but on the balance, he’s probably still pretty darn good defensively. Gonna be quite pricey, though.
Also off the list was Andrelton Simmons, 32, who was seen as elite by DRS and OAA, but below average by UZR/150. I’m thinking he’s probably still excellent with the glove, though. The rubs with him are the fact that the bat has been brutal since 2019 (especially last year with a 56(!) wRC+), and he has been pretty vocally anti-vax in a way that I can’t see being helpful in a 2022 clubhouse in the current environment.
Another name I didn’t mention is Sergio Alcantara, but not because he didn’t make the metric cut – all three metrics had him solidly above average at shortstop in 2021, which squares with the scouting reports of his days as a prospect. I simply didn’t include him because he’s already on the Cubs. I doubt the Cubs would simply turn the position over to him on the bases of scouting and one year of limited data, especially given that we have no idea if he can hit at all in the big leagues. But, I’m just saying: if defense at shortstop is all you care about, he’s probably a pretty good internal fall-back.
There are unquestionably other options available who are plus defenders at shortstop, but for whom the metrics are a bit wonky right now. Jose Iglesias, for example, has always been held up as a defensive stud, but his one year numbers for 2021 were ABYSMAL. Not sure what’s up with that.
So, anyway: let the discussion begin about the shortstop spot.