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Lukewarm Stove: McNeil on the Block, Conforto Back to NYM? Schwarber vs. Castellanos, Freeman, Rizzo, More

Chicago Cubs

The week between Christmas and New Years used to bring closure to a few outstanding offseason rumors. Players who didn’t quite get their deals wrapped at the Winter Meetings would take the holidays to think about it and aim to get something done by the new year.

But for one reason or another, we haven’t had a “normal” baseball offseason since about 2015. This winter, of course, is especially atypical. Now, we savor any rumor morsel and hope it can fill our hearts until a new CBA is struck.

The latest, coming at ya.

Jeff McNeil Is Available

With Nico Hoerner, Nick Madrigal, and a handful of borderline starting options for the outfield already in house, I don’t expect the Cubs to phone the Mets on Jeff McNeil this offseason — especially if they’re seeking pitching in return. But he is reportedly available this offseason, and a trade could impact the free agent market.

Sure, McNeil, 29, is coming off an uncharacteristically bad offensive season in 2021 (93 wRC+), but that was after a lofty 140 wRC+ in his 1000+ plate appearances before last year. He’s also capable of playing all over the field, with significant time spent at second base, third base, and both corner outfield spots. Throw in his lefty bat and three more years of fairly cheap team control via arbitration, and, yeah, I can see him netting the Mets a nice return even after 2021 (again, they’re reportedly looking for pitching, starting or relief).

And Jon Heyman sees the Chicago White Sox as a potential fit given their needs at second base. I gotta say, that makes sense.

But what happens if/after the Mets trade McNeil? And what’s the free agent impact I was teasing? Well, the New York media seems eager to fill that void using Steve Cohen’s money and two free agents who’ve crossed paths with the Cubs one way or another:

As for bringing in a big bat, versatile third baseman Kris Bryant is a name that the Mets showed interest in prior to the CBA expiring on Dec. 2. By signing Bryant, Escobar would likely be pushed over to second, forming a new double play partnership with Lindor. And Bryant’s bat would provide a strong presence in the middle of the Mets’ lineup as well.

Shortstop Trevor Story is another highly regarded option that’s available via free agency, and scouts told NJ Advance Media recently that he projects as a future second baseman due to previous elbow strain issues, which could make him a fit defensively. If Story moves to second base, it will diminish the wear and tear on his throwing elbow at short.

The Mets have long been attached to Kris Bryant and they were reportedly open to signing Javy Báez for second base before he signed with the Tigers (which makes Story a realistic target). So considering Cohen’s desire (and ability) to buy himself a winner, I wouldn’t count them out on either in the event of McNeil’s exit.

Michael Conforto Back to the Mets?

Mike Puma (New York Post) backs up the idea that the Mets are looking to trade McNeil this offseason, but only as a setup for their impending need for a left-handed bat. And that left-handed bat could actually turn out to be someone they had last season, Michael Conforto.

One possibility would be circling back to Conforto, whose visions of a long-term contract might be dashed. Could the Mets get him on a shorter deal – perhaps including an opt-out – and add him to the outfield/DH mix? Nimmo’s health history, in particular, leaves you wondering about the Mets outfield depth.

From the perspective of performance, age, and potential future earnings, there might not be a better candidate for a short term deal this offseason than Conforto, 28, who had his worst offensive season in 2021, and some really great offensive seasons before that. However, he’s attached to draft pick compensation, which makes that path murky for most teams out there (you rather not give up the extra value for a guy you’ll get for just one year).

But that’s why the Mets could make some sense here. The cost to them is merely the opportunity cost of not getting the extra pick they would otherwise receive when he signs with someone else. It’s not nothing, but it’s less than every other team out there. At the same time, Conforto already declined their one-year, $18.4M qualifying offer earlier this offseason, and they’ve since added Starling Marte and Mark Canha to the outfield. I’m just not sure I see him returning to New York.

In the meantime, I’ve been pretty open about my desire to see the Cubs pursue Conforto this offseason, and I’d prefer it on a multi-year deal to help spread out the additional cost of signing a qualified free agent. But you know what else would help reduce the cost of adding Conforto? Stacking another qualified free agent.

Schwarber vs. Castellanos

Michael Conforto isn’t the only attractive outfielder available in free agency. There’s also Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Seiya Suzuki, Eddie Rosario, and, two other former Cubs: Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber.

MLB Trade Rumors has a nice comparison between the latter two, including a look at their stats over the last five, three, and one year(s). Relative to Castellanos, who is older, attached to draft pick compensation, and is seeking a longer/more expensive deal, Schwarber kinda looks like a steal. And, hey, the Cubs do need to add some left-handed power ….

I still think my preference of the above – all things considered (especially expected cost) – would be Conforto, but there are still so many quality options. I really hope the Cubs land one of the above. There’s a lot of talent.

Freddie Freeman’s Market

I’ve done the Freddie Freeman bit so many times now, but it bears repeating: I don’t believe he’ll play anywhere other than Atlanta, but when the Dodgers and Yankees are leading the charge to pry him away, all bets are off.

There’s a lengthy conversation about Freeman’s market at MLB Trade Rumors, where Tim Dierkes isn’t quite so convinced the Yankees, Dodgers, or Blue Jays are actually going to go over the top for Freeman. A number of other teams are mentioned as possibilities, and that includes the Cubs, though that comes with a pretty significant dismissal (which, yeah, that is not happening).

Odds and Ends:

•   The Mets could be a darkhorse destination for Anthony Rizzo or (to a lesser extent) Freddie Freeman. As we discussed above, they need a left-handed bat and could always turn Pete Alonso into a designated hitter, assuming that comes to the NL this season.



Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami