Early in the offseason, what I heard most from folks about the Cubs’ roster when discussing the addition of a top shortstop were questions about what happens to Nico Hoerner. For the most part, I think people understood the plan by the time Dansby Swanson agreed to a deal this weekend: Hoerner moves back to second base, where he has previously shown elite defensive ability. Easy enough. And good.
But what we haven’t talked about much is the follow-up question: so what happens, then, to all those second base options the Cubs had been building up on the roster, and particularly Nick Madrigal?
Well, let me dispense with the discussion of some of the other second base options first (and also note that you cannot assume Hoerner will start 162 games at second base, so you’re going to have to have some back-ups). There are sooo many of them, but it’s not necessarily a glut when you look at each of their situations:
- Christopher Morel is expected to move all around, and may wind up drawing more starts at third base than anywhere else.
- David Bote is off the 40-man roster and will be at Iowa until/unless there’s a need.
- Miles Mastrobuoni can move all around, and has minor league options remaining. Like Morel, he’s more of a true utility guy than a dedicated second base option.
- Zach McKinstry can also move all around, and it remains to be seen whether he makes the team out of Spring Training. Would be nice to have a lefty bat available to coordinate (him or Mastrobuoni).
- Esteban Quiroz is also off the 40-man roster and will be at Iowa until/unless there’s a need.
- Rylan Bannon … was already lost on waivers. The Cubs had so many second base-type options at once that you may have missed he was briefly among them and then gone. So no worries?
- Chase Strumpf was not added to the 40-man roster in advance of the Rule 5 Draft, was not selected, and has not yet played at Triple-A. He could eventually become a 2B/3B option, but not likely this season.
OK. So that more or less dispenses with those guys, in terms of how Hoerner’s move to second base would impact them. Mostly, it wouldn’t really impact what they were expected to be or do in 2023.
But for Nick Madrigal, that’s a lot harder to say. Because as a very specific type of hitter who can only play at second base, Hoerner’s move to second base is going to present a fundamental block to Madrigal’s playing time.
Sure, Madrigal could get occasional starts at second and at DH, but as a contact-oriented bat, whose role in an offense is to provide such a different look from the rest of your crew, I’m not so sure he’s what you think of as a traditional bench guy. Moreover, as a former top draft pick and top prospect who has hit at every level (until last year), you could understand why Madrigal might see himself as a starter right now – and who might need those regular at bats to get himself back on rhythm.
I’m not saying you couldn’t make it work in a part-time role. I’m not saying you couldn’t option him to Iowa (you’d have to get buy-in, though … ). I’m just saying that, with Nico Hoerner the crystal clear starter at second base now, the situation with Madrigal, specifically, is going to be challenging.
So, yes, people are going to talk about trades.
You know the problem there. Because Madrigal’s possible role is so specific and limited, the pool of trade partners will also be limited. Moreover, even though he comes with the pedigree and unique upside that made him attractive to the Cubs last year, his first season back after the hamstring tear was not exactly inspiring. Madrigal struggled in so many ways, from contact quality to whiffs to health, and it was only very late in the year that he started to maybe look like himself. If you’re a trade partner, how much are you giving up for that?
Then again …
Jesse Rogers was on ESPN 1000 talking about the Cubs’ offseason so far, and while discussing catcher additions for the Cubs, spontaneously brought up Madrigal:
“The glaring hole behind the plate is a tough one to answer, because they have missed out on some guys …. I’m not sure. There’s no great answer behind the plate to pair with Yan Gomes, that certainly is going to be something they have to deal with in future years more than this one. UNLESS they make a trade.
You have to think this: Nick Madrigal might be available, and the Blue Jays kinda are on the record that they have more catchers than they can play. So who knows. Maybe there’s a trade to be had …. And now that (the Cubs) have signed up (Dansby) Swanson, they kind of have an extra infielder in Nick Madrigal. Could he be part of a package that brings you back a catcher? That’s something I’m looking for. Otherwise, it’s really working their way down the free agent list.”
Given everything we’ve discussed above, I don’t think there’s any question that the Cubs would SPRINT to acquire a catcher from the Blue Jays with Madrigal as a key component of the trade. It feels like extremely wishful thinking (right down to the fact that the Blue Jays have something of an overload of second base options, themselves). But maybe it’s an indication that Madrigal trade chatter in general picked up quickly in the wake of the Swanson deal?
From where I sit, trading Madrigal probably is the right approach, even if I tend toward conservative when it comes to keeping as many pieces as possible in case of injury or underperformance issues. If Madrigal could buy in, the best outcome seems to me to have him start the year at Iowa (he’s not that old, and remember, has so little upper-level minors experience!). I’m not sure how realistic that is, though.
So, if it’s a trade, then, I think you probably have to look at either picking up a very modest non-40-man type prospect return, or picking up a similar questions-but-upside big leaguer. Maybe a relief arm? An up-down 4th outfielder? I just don’t think you’re going to get an OBVIOUS contributor for Madrigal right now in trade, especially if partners know the Cubs just squeezed him out of a job.
As I mentioned this morning, though, the Cubs are going to have to open up at least one 40-man spot soon in order to add Swanson and Drew Smyly, so I wonder if these talks are ongoing right now. Yes, the Cubs can – and more likely will – open up a spot by way of the traditional DFA, but if you could make a trade first, that’d probably be preferable.