Last winter, before the Cubs signed Seiya Suzuki, before Ian Happ broke out into a Gold Glove-winning All-Star left fielder, and before Michael Conforto had shoulder surgery to correct an injury sustained while training during the lockout, I really wanted the Cubs to sign free agent outfielder Michael Conforto.
Obviously, they did not. No team did (we’ll get to that). But he’s available again this winter, and the Cubs are reportedly “among the teams considering” the free agent outfielder. That raises a whole lot of questions for us, so start at the beginning.
Last offseason, a 29-year-old Conforto was coming off a down year offensively, but had otherwise been great for four straight seasons: .265/.369/.495 (133 wRC+). That’s better than Kris Bryant (132 wRC+) and Anthony Rizzo (130 wRC+) over that same period of time.
Given that track record, and the fact that I still don’t think his 2021 season was as bad under the hood* as it looked on the surface, you could understand why I’d be interested on behalf of the Cubs.
Conforto’s 2021 Season:
In 2021, Conforto’s walk rate (12.3%) and strikeout rate (21.7%) were both better than his career averages, while his average exit velocity, launch angle, barrel rate, hard%, and plate discipline data were all generally in line with his career marks. By contrast, and perhaps doing a lot of the heavy lifting here, his career .305 BABIP, set in over 2,500 plate appearances before the 2021 season, dropped all the way down to .276 in 2021. That’s a big difference. And I was willing to bet on that normalizing while he was still south of 30.
Unfortunately, the unlucky combination/timing of that performance, plus the impending lockout and draft pick compensation necessary to sign him scared enough teams away from a pre-lockout deal. And then he injured his shoulder during the lockout, requiring surgery and delaying a signing indefinitely.
But if you’re willing to believe 2021 was a fluke (I am) and that the shoulder won’t be an issue going forward (we’ll see …), then maybe you’re open to the Conforto lottery ticket, especially now that he’s detached from draft pick compensation and his price tag should be even lower.
Does Conforto Fit the Cubs?
Unfortunately, I just don’t see a fit for the Cubs, who have two corner outfielders coming off really solid seasons, both of whom are younger and healthier than Conforto.
Don’t forget, Happ was an All-Star and Gold Glove winner in 2022, while Suzuki finished the season slashing .289/.368/.467 (136 wRC+) over his final 171 plate appearances. You’d be willing to displace one of those guys for a sure-fire upgrade, but Conforto is not a sure-fire upgrade.
Now, theoretically, you could play Conforto in center, which isn’t particularly difficult to cover at Wrigley Field, but he hasn’t started a game there since 2019. And he also just underwent shoulder surgery on his throwing arm, which doesn’t help his cause. So I guess I’ll say center field is not inconceivable, but it’s iffy.
On the flip side, if you’re Conforto, are you really itching to commit your platform season to a team with two existing, big-league corner outfielders and two more center field prospects already at the Triple-A level (Brennen Davis and Alexander Canario)? Probably not, I’d guess.
And I haven’t even gotten to the complicated part.
According to Jon Heyman, Conforto is seeking a deal for TWO YEARS *with* an opt-out. Which, what? No. A one-year deal at a healthy price tag? Sure, I get it. A two-year deal with a CLUB option for the second year? Why not. Let’s see you earn it. But Conforto is not going to get a deal that sticks his new team with all the risk (covering two years if he doesn’t bounce back at all) and none of the reward (he gets to leave after one year if he breaks out), coming off an entirely missed season and a poor one before that. It just doesn’t work that way for players of his caliber.
Ultimately, I still like Conforto as a player and think he has plenty of good baseball ahead of him. But for the Cubs, I just don’t see how this works absent some unlikely combination of moves that frees up a corner outfield spot.
For what it’s worth, Conforto has also been connected to the Yankees, Mets, and Blue Jays this offseason. And the Cubs are known to be seeking a center fielder, with the most recent/strongest connections to Cody Bellinger.