Although there’s likely a little bit more to come (a top-shelf lefty reliever? and/or just some relief depth?), I’m generally pleased with the offseason the Chicago Cubs have had so far. They’ve signed the second most free agents in MLB (8), have committed the fifth most dollars overall ($305.5M), and are already getting credit for a “sneaky” good offseason.
Whether or not it’s enough is a different question entirely. I’m just saying what they have done has been pretty solid.
THAT SAID, I don’t want us to forget what the Cubs haven’t done. That still stands out to me as part of the offseason discussion, and I just want to lay it out there for posterity. Hopefully, this isn’t something we have to return to three months into 2023 MLB season, but I want it written down somewhere just in case the choices they made – the things they didn’t do – wind up looking like mistakes, and we do have to come back for some further thought.
The Chicago Cubs signed free agent shortstop Dansby Swanson to a seven-year, $177 million deal. That was the cheapest of the four free agent shortstop deals signed this offseason, largely because Swanson was considered number four in the group of the four big free agent shortstops. The Cubs never seemed like a true threat to sign Trea Turner (11-years, $300M), so I’m not losing too much sleep over that one. And the Carlos Correa saga (six-years, $200M) was complicated enough that I can kinda brush it off, as well. So really this comes down to Xander Bogaerts (11-years, $280M).
The Cubs were seriously in on Bogaerts this offseason, including a recruiting attempt from Jon Lester, and were even considering signing both him *and* Swanson. So their decision that $280M was too rich for their blood was a legitimate inflection point. The Cubs seem serious about prioritizing defense this offseason, and Swanson certainly helps more on that front, but their offense is lacking thump and Bogaerts is a better bet for much more impact with the bat.
We won’t know right away whether this was the right or wrong choice, but this is something I’ll be watching (and potentially judging the front office on) throughout this and the next few seasons.
The Starting Pitchers
The Chicago Cubs signed two starting pitchers this offseason. Their big addition was Jameson Taillon (four-years, $68M). Taillon got the fifth biggest overall commitment among all free agent starters this offseason. And his three biggest/most realistic alternatives were Chris Bassitt (three-years, $63M), Taijuan Walker (four-years, $72M), and Kodai Senga (five-years, $75M).
Each of Walker, Bassitt, and Senga were reportedly on the Cubs’ radar at various points, with Senga the one who stands out the most. It’s possible Senga always wanted only a sure-fire contender, and he definitely comes with risk, but $75 million isn’t a terribly expensive deal. If he winds up being an absolute stud, the Cubs should probably be kicking themselves for not offering more. Playing for a contender is great and all, but an extra $10-15M might tilt the scales. Ultimately, at this level, it feels like the Cubs had their target and they specifically wanted Taillon. In other words, it doesn’t feel like they cheaped out. I think they got the guy they wanted most.
The Cubs also re-signed Drew Smyly (two-years, $19M). There were a number of free agent alternatives in this range, but some came with risk (Noah Syndergaard), others were never really an option (Clayton Kershaw), and others were never ever going to happen (Jose Quintana). By contrast, I do think Sean Manaea (two-years, $25M), Andrew Heaney (two-years, $25M), and Nathan Eovaldi (two-years, $34M) offered some legitimate upside for slightly more expensive price tags. So we’ll have to watch out on they may have whiffed at this level.
With that said, I think the familiarity and potential upside with Smyly was a little too obvious to overlook. The Cubs may have even gotten a slight discount if this was where he wanted to be.
Catcher is arguably the biggest potentially missed opportunity of the offseason for the Cubs. They could have re-signed Willson Contreras, who left for the Cardinals (five-years, $85M), they could have tried harder to trade for A’s catcher Sean Murphy, who was dealt to the Braves for … barely anything and immediately signed a team-friendly extension. And they made an identical offer to the one Christian Vázquez ultimately signed with the Twins (3-years, $30M).
I don’t think they ever wanted to re-sign Contreras for differences in catching philosophy. So whatever. But their unwillingness to up the offer over what the Twins gave Vázquez feels eerily like those oft-repeated concerns about identical offers being generated from homogenous player-value systems.
Instead, they signed Tucker Barnhart (two-years, $6.5M), who can offer the defense and the soft factors (together with Yan Gomes), but mostly signals an abandoning of hope for any offensive contributions from the catcher spot. This one bugs me, because they clearly wanted Vázquez but did not do what they needed to do to get it done.
The Cubs signed both Eric Hosmer (one-year, MLB minimum) and Trey Mancini (two-years, $14M) to extremely affordable deals this offseason. And both make sense given what was left on the market and the presence of Matt Mervis. However, the Cubs did reportedly make a significant offer to Jose Abreu, who eventually signed with the Astros (three-years, $60M).
Abreu is a MUCH better shot at delivering the sort of power and overall offensive production the Cubs lineup is still lacking even after signing Hosmer and Mancini. Though I do understand that he got a lot more than people were expecting.
Then again, the Cubs reportedly offered $20M AAV over two years and Abreu wound up getting $19.5M AAV over three years, so it’s not like there was THAT much more to go. Given his connection to Chicago, you’d like to think they had a shot, even as a not-so-obvious contender. But this one just feels like a darn more than a massive mistake.
Unless you were willing to spend a BOATLOAD of money for Brandon Nimmo (8-years, $162M), there’s not too much regret in the center field market for the Cubs. I’m not sure that deal was particularly wise, even though I do like Nimmo in general.
Instead, Chicago signed Cody Bellinger (one-year, $17.5M) to a pretty expensive deal, albeit over just one year. Given his speed, quality center field defense, left-handed bat, and ability to play first base, I think the Cubs actually made the right call here. If he bounces way back (unlikely), great! The Cubs hit a grand slam. If not, his floor will still be valuable and he’ll be gone in time for some of the Cubs prospects (Brennen Davis, Alexander Canario, Pete Crow-Armstrong) to emerge.
Other options include Kevin Kiermaier (one-year, $9M) or Kevin Pillar (1-year, $3M minor league deal). It was an exceptionally thin market. I like the route the Cubs took.
Like I said, I don’t think the Cubs are done here yet. But so far, the big addition to the Cubs bullpen is right-hander Brad Boxberger (one-year, $2.8M). There are/were a DOZEN potential alternatives, but I actually trust the Cubs’ judgement on bullpen building. If they liked Boxberger, I believe there was a good reason. And the guys they’ve signed to minor league deals could wind up contributors, too. Still more work to be done, but I don’t think I’ll sweat this one quite so much.
Signed: Dansby Swanson, Jameson Taillon, Drew Smyly, Tucker Barnhart, Eric Hosmer, Trey Mancini, Cody Bellinger, Brad Boxberger
Passed Over/Missed Out: Xander Bogaerts, Kodai Senga, Chris Bassitt, Andrew Heaney, Sean Manaea, Nathan Eovaldi, Christian Vázquez, Jose Abreu, Kevin Kiermaier, Kevin Pillar, and a dozen potential relievers.
Including the price tags, I think I’m happy where the Cubs landed with Swanson, Smyly, Bellinger, and Boxberger. But I think they might have some regret skipping over Kodai Senga, and especially Christian Vázquez. Jury is out on Abreu, Heaney, and Bogaerts. It’s possible those look like massive whiffs, but there’s plenty of risk there, as well.
While we always remember to judge the moves the Cubs have made in a particular offseason, it’s just as important to remember everything they didn’t do. And this offseason, the Cubs made a lot of moves, but there were also a lot of potential moves they didn’t make.