Moving on to the league championships, we continue our series in which we look at how each 2015 playoff team can go about the offseason in order to chase a ring in 2016. For more of an introduction, see the first piece in the series about the Yankees. We will continue here with a team that made great strides in 2015 and has their fans believing that the end of a long drought may be coming soon in the Chicago Cubs.
Since so much has already happened in the offseason, I will be looking at the deals each team has already made and giving my input. I will keep the mostly inconsequential ones, but for the most part I will be making my moves as though the offseason has not yet started and all of the free agents are still out there and all the traded players are put back on their original teams.
1. Signed John Lackey to a two-year contract
The Cubs needed a veteran pitcher who could eat some innings to replace Dan Haren and Lackey certainly fits that bill. He is 37 years old and as I have mentioned in the past two articles, the Cubs should not count on him sustaining his recent success. On the other hand, they will take 200 innings and an ERA right around 4.00. They have a good enough offense to support a pitcher like that once, maybe even twice, every five days, so Lackey was a nice, cheap option to fill out the back end of their rotation.
2. Signed Ben Zobrist to a four-year contract
3. Traded Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees for Adam Warren and Brendan Ryan
After the signing of Zobrist, Castro was put on the trade block and it didn’t take long for the Yankees get him. Warren has pitched both in the rotation and out of the bullpen, but he is much better as a relief pitcher. While home runs have been a concern at times, Warren keeps his walk rate down and maintains a strikeout rate around a batter per inning when used out of the bullpen. The Cubs had a few of their relief pitchers hitting free agency, so this is a good pickup for them, as Warren has shown that he is more than capable of handling a middle relief role. The other piece they got, though, is the one that I think will make more of a difference throughout the season. I should warn you that Brendan Ryan is towards the top of my “players I like more than I should” list, but he can play third base, shortstop, and second base as well as any other major league infielder. From 2009 to 2012 he never had less than 18 runs saved at shortstop. In that same span, the lowest DWAR he recorded was 2.5. He is 33 years old now, but his glove has produced at only a slightly reduced rate given how many games he has played. The Cubs are starting two young infielders on the left side and having an incredible defensive replacement with some postseason experience could be a valuable asset for this team.
4. Released Brendan Ryan
Let’s just say that I liked the trade a lot better for the Cubs after the third move of the offseason. Getting Warren in return for Castro is not getting enough in return.
5. Re-signed Trevor Cahill to a one-year contract
There isn’t much to report here other than the fact that Cahill pitched really well after being moved to the bullpen. That being said, it was a very small sample size so we have no idea if he can continue that or not. The Cubs have some pitchers in AAA that they could turn to, so it was smart to take a chance on Cahill while they can still move on pretty easily if he shows 2015 was a fluke.
6. Signed Jason Heyward to an eight-year contract
I have no problem with the player. I don’t even mind the money that much. The problem with this contract is the length. This was exactly the type of contract that the Cubs needed to avoid this offseason. When there are a lot of young players on your roster that you plan on keeping for a long time, you always have to be aware of when you will need to pay them. The end of Heyward’s deal runs right into the beginning of when the Cubs’ young core will be getting their first huge contracts and this deal may prevent Chicago from retaining all of its young superstars. If they choose to keep all of them, I can’t figure out a way in which Chicago’s payroll is under $300 million in 2022. For next season, Heyward gives the Cubs a much better chance of winning the World Series, but this move seems a bit financially irresponsible for future years.
Just as a reminder, here are the cutoffs we are looking at:
Last Year's Recap:
Lost in National League Championship Series in 4 games to the New York Mets
Total WAR: 41.7
Top 12 WAR: 40.5
Top 16 WAR: 43.4
Most baseball fans are pretty familiar with the Cubs’ narrative. Their fans have been tortured in what continues as the longest drought in postseason history but there appears to be a better chance now for the Cubs than there has been in a long time. With Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Schwarber performing at high levels on inexpensive contracts, it makes sense for the Cubs to go all-in now. That being said, they can’t spend money on deals that are too long. All of those players will get expensive in arbitration and given how much players are going for, it isn’t unreasonable to expect that those four players will average around $200 million when they first hit free agency. If the Cubs want to plan for the future in addition to now, they can’t spend big money on long contracts or they won’t be able to re-sign any of these guys. What makes the most sense for the Cubs is to overpay on short contracts for effective players while they have all of these great young players taking up so little of their payroll. Think more Zobrist type deals instead of Heyward-like ones.
1. Sign Denard Span to a three-year deal
Yes, this will create a problem when both Billy McKinney and Albert Almora are ready for the major leagues, but why not worry about the surplus then and enjoy the good player now? I think Span is getting a bad rap because of his injuries but until the Giants gave him a respectable contract teams were treating him like he isn’t productive when he is on the field. Let’s start with the fact that if we prorate his 61 games in 2015 to a full season, it was by far his worst year since 2010. In that “bad year,” he hit .301 with an on-base percentage of .365. We’re used to talking about a .300 batting average as something that represents a good hitter but we sometimes forget how rare that is now. Span did not qualify for the batting title but only 20 players who did qualify had an average above .300. Couple that with the fact that less than half of the teams in Major League Baseball had a .300 hitter last season and Span would seem like a leadoff hitter in a league where few exist. He also maintains a very low strikeout rate so he has a pretty high floor as a hitter. His defense did decline last season but he battled core muscle and back injuries all season before finally being placed on the disabled list for good with a hip problem. Anyone who has had back problems before will tell you that everything you do is done so much slower than normal, which is why his batting average is even more incredible. Span has been a very good fielder in his career, but he was trending more towards average in the last few years so he is more likely to end up around a 0 DWAR. Given what he can provide offensively and on the base paths, he will still be a very useful player if he is just average defensively. The Cubs were using Dexter Fowler, Chris Coghlan, and Austin Jackson in center field at various times last season so Span is bound to be an improvement over that trio. If the Cubs don’t like what they see in year two or three, they will be able to get out of the deal easily by eating some of his salary in a trade so that he is not a budget problem for another team. I don’t think they would have to do that and wouldn’t want to, either, but this is a move that should improve the team in the short term as they wait for long term solutions and one that will not become a huge problem if it doesn’t work out.
2. Sign Scott Kazmir to a three-year contract
This isn’t the first short term contract in which the Cubs would have to spend a decent sum of money and it won’t be the last. Their plan should be to spend money that will come off the books before their young stars reach arbitration and then free agency. Unlike some of the other starting pitchers, Kazmir was not asking for a long-term contract. As he continues to shock the baseball world with his comeback from major injuries, Kazmir hit a bit of a rough patch last season after getting traded to the Astros. It’s hard to gauge exactly what Kazmir is since he isn’t as good as he looked in Oakland (few pitchers are) and he isn’t as bad as he looked in Houston. Usually when we see a player split between first and second halves like this he most resembles the totals at the end of the season. That total was 183 innings where he managed to strike out more than 7.5 batters per nine while walking less than a batter every three innings. After giving up just seven home runs in Oakland in 109.2 innings, he gave up 13 in 73.1 innings in Houston. His total of 20 is right in line with what he usually does in his career, so it is pretty likely that he ends up pitching like the average of his time in Oakland and Houston going forward. If he does that he will be better than Lackey, who the Cubs went for instead (although that was not a bad signing.) The point is that there is no reason to assume that Kazmir won’t continue what he has been doing the past few seasons at the age of 32. He’s been putting up solid seasons that make him a useful back end starter, which would make him a good pitcher behind Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, and Kyle Hendricks.
3. Trade Javier Baez plus a mid-level prospect to the New York Mets for Kevin Plawecki
Although Plawecki was a good hitter in the minor leagues, there are concerns about his ability to hit major league pitching after he managed just a .218/.280/.296 slash line in his first 233 at bats. Before we give the Cubs a sub-par hitting catcher, let’s check something: Schwarber, Rizzo, Bryant, Russell … yeah, they don’t need a great hitter behind the plate. There is no way this deal would get done now since the Cubs have traded away Starlin Castro and the Mets have acquired Neil Walker and Asdrubal Cabrera but it would have been interesting when the offseason started. With Russell and Castro up the middle, this is a deal that the Cubs probably would not have made since they like Miguel Montero enough as the starter but one they should have made. On the other hand, the Mets probably would have made this deal since they desperately needed starting middle infielders and already had two above average catchers but definitely should not have. It took Plawecki all of 70 games for Baseball Info Solutions to suggest that he was tied for the most runs saved of all catchers in the major leagues with 17. His pitch framing and blocking skills are off the charts as pitchers posted a 2.78 ERA when he was behind the plate. Montero isn’t necessarily a bad defensive catcher as he actually rated as the sixth best pitch framer per StatCorner and he has added value on that end overall, but his defense is declining and that was on clear display in the NLCS. In game one he had Juan Lagares dead to rights on a steal of third base but double pumped and lost the out. One play later, he should have tagged Lagares out on a sacrifice fly but inexplicably ran out to catch a throw that would have reached the plate on the fly, and watched the speedy runner go by him in the process. The Cubs offense is so great that it would serve them better to find a catcher who takes care of everything defensively. Plawecki does all of that and he is available at a point where a team could buy low on him. If 2015 is any indication, he has the ability to be as good as Yadier Molina was behind the plate for a long time which is something that every team should covet. The Cubs are one of the few teams who started the offseason with a surplus of middle infielders, which is what the Mets were looking for and would have made out like bandits had they attempted this deal.
4. Trade Miguel Montero and Jeimer Candelario to the Miami Marlins for Carter Capps
Since we just traded for Plawecki, there is no need to keep Montero on the roster, so he’ll be sent to the Marlins for the guy who is most well-known for his jump-step delivery but is also one of the best relief pitchers in the game. I was among those last season who believed that the Marlins were ready to contend for a playoff spot. Instead, the Marlins finished 29th in runs scored in all of baseball. The pitching staff recorded an ERA that ranked 15th and they get stud Jose Fernandez back for the full season in 2016, so it is clear where they need to concentrate their efforts if they want to get back to the playoffs. Aside from half of a season out of Giancarlo Stanton and the BABIP-fueled breakout year from Dee Gordon, the Marlins have a bunch of average players that they need to move on from soon. J.T. Realmuto provided solid glove work last season with a 1.4 DWAR but was the fourth worst pitch framer in the league. Although he was rated as a decent prospect, he only showed flashes of potential in the minors without consistently putting together good full year numbers. Montero may not field his position as well as Realmuto, but his pitch framing pushed him ahead of the rookie in terms of defensive runs saved. Add in the fact that Montero has hit double digit home runs in each of the past five seasons and maintains a solid .340 on-base percentage and he could be a big help to the Marlins’ lineup. After Realmuto posted just a .290 on-base percentage, it is reasonable to expect that Montero will give them a significant boost on the offensive end even if Realmuto improves from his ten home run mark in 2015. As for Candelario, he is here to even out the value both in terms of play and money but he is a prospect who should intrigue Miami. The Marlins’ top third base prospect hit just .235 last season while Candelario sat at .277 and reached Double-A. He hit 35 doubles and improved his walk rate significantly in the second half of last season so he could be a good young piece for the Marlins in a couple of years.
Going back to the Cubs in this trade is perhaps the most fun pitcher to watch in Carter Capps. I mentioned that most of his headlines are about his odd delivery, but perhaps they should be about his fastball that averaged 98 miles per hour. Just when you think that is hard to hit, he drops fourteen miles per hour off by going to his slider one-third of the time. His season was limited due to injury but he nearly struck out seventeen batters per nine innings last season while only surrendering two long balls in 31 innings. I suppose it’s tough to hit one out if you’re walking back to the dugout. He’s not a pitcher who can’t find the plate either; he has walked just twelve batters in his last 51 innings. With six potential relief pitchers hitting free agency from the Cubs’ roster last season, they are going to need to find replacements quickly. Capps is a dominant force out of the bullpen and would be great to add to the duo of Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop at the back of the ‘pen. Having those three hold leads or keep the game close as Rizzo, Schwarber, and Bryant blast 450-foot home runs is going to be tough to beat once the starting pitchers leave the game.
5. Sign Darren O’Day to a four-year contract
Speaking of that bullpen, with money to spend and a great relief pitcher on the market, why stop at Capps? O’Day would be a bit of a luxury signing, since they wouldn’t need him to have a really good bullpen, but they don’t have a better way to spend all of the cash sitting in their pockets. This team is ready to contend now, so they should go after any pieces that can help them now without limiting their flexibility down the road. A four-year contract worth about $32 million may be high for a relief pitcher but O’Day would be worth it. He has played in eight seasons and posted a WAR above two in six of those seasons. Those two that he missed? His rookie year in 2008 and his injury-shortened 2011 in which he only threw 16.2 innings. There is some concern over his age (33), but he has never relied on speed. His fastball averages around 87 miles per hour in the past three seasons so it’s not like a drop in velocity should hurt him. His submarine delivery has caused enough deception to get the strikeouts he needs. He is unlikely to repeat his eleven strikeouts per nine from last season but going back to his career average of around nine per nine is probable. He walks a little more than two batters per nine innings and keeps his home runs in check so he is as safe as a 33-year old pitcher can be. Given that O’Day is a reliever, this one will cause a problem if it doesn’t work out. $8 million annually is not something many teams will want on the books for even just a good reliever. However, the Cubs can eat that money and not have a problem and it is unlikely that he doesn’t perform well for at least two seasons given his track record. The Cubs showed last season that they have a real shot at winning the World Series and O’Day would give them four relief pitchers that nobody would want to face. The question would be how to use Strop, Capps, Rondon, and O’Day. I would probably have Rondon close with O’Day pitching the eighth since those are the two who performed the best over larger sample sizes last season. I would have Capps go after the best hitter on every team and use his jump-step and fireball to shut down the middle of the order whenever it comes up with Strop being relegated to a middle relief role. Strop would be the weakest of the four but you really can’t go wrong arranging the other three in any format. It’s also scary just imagining the timing issues facing Capps’ high 90’s heat, going to O’Day’s junk and back to Rondon’s mid-90’s fastball. With the financial flexibility to pull this deal off, the Cubs should do it and go for baseball’s best bullpen.
6. Sign Cliff Pennington to a one-year contract
Pennington has been overlooked because of his inability to provide much on the offensive end. In 2404 at-bats he only has 30 home runs and hits at a .245 clip so its easy to see why there isn’t a huge market for him. On the other hand, he has saved runs at three infield positions throughout the course of his career. Last year he tried a new position, left field. In just 45 innings there he saved his teams three runs. Across four positions and two teams, he registered a .8 DWAR while playing less than 500 innings in the field. The point is, while most teams opt for .250 hitting players who can’t field on their bench, Pennington provides more value defensively than those players do at the plate. I realize that his offensive WAR was negative, but that doesn’t make him a bad player, it just means he can only help in one aspect of the game. The Cubs already have their infield set, but they could use some versatile backups who can fill in well at multiple positions. Pennington brings just that as he can spell Bryant, Russell, Castro, or even Schwarber in the field. Also, once those guys have built a comfortable lead, putting Pennington in as a defensive replacement for someone other than Russell would be a very effective way to end the game. Pennington won’t help at the plate, but his defensive impact is great enough that the Cubs should consider him as a backup infielder.
7. Re-sign one of Dexter Fowler or Austin Jackson
Given the year that Jorge Soler had in 2015, the Cubs need to at least have a viable plan B if he doesn’t work out. Neither one of these two would take a long-term deal to re-sign and would be good backups or third outfielders. With Schwarber and Span manning left and center, the Cubs don’t necessarily need a huge year out of their right fielder. I think they would prefer to have Fowler back, so when doing the projections I will use him, but there isn’t much of a difference between these two. Both of them have their flaws; for Fowler it’s defense and for Jackson it’s strikeouts, but if they could have one of these two splitting time with Soler and Chris Coghlan then they could figure out a serviceable solution combining them throughout the course of the year. Neither of these players is perfect and they don’t represent an ideal backup but both would make for a good player to have in a role in which they are not being asked too much.
8. Promote Christian Villanueva to the major league roster as a backup infielder
There aren’t many good options for corner infielders in free agency, even for backups. It would make much more sense for the Cubs to turn to the farm system for a backup corner infielder. Villanueva is not a top prospect, nor should he be. He hit 20 home runs last season and drove in 95 runs with a .257 average. That batting average is not a problem as it is right in line with the league average but he rarely walks. His on-base percentage sat at a lowly .314 as he walked just 39 times in over 500 plate appearances. If he walked more, he probably would be thought of pretty highly as he has shown the ability to hit 20 home runs throughout the minor leagues and is an above average fielder. His power will make him a good player to have on the bench and his defense will provide some value when he is asked to play even if he doesn’t get on base. Villanueva is at the point where more time in the minor leagues is unlikely to help him, so bringing him up now when he can contribute as a backup has little downside. Unless they find a more suitable option via trades, Villanueva looks like he should have every shot at getting a roster spot out of the Spring.
The Final Team and Projections
Kevin Plawecki (2.3) – He is a phenomenal defensive catcher. It won’t matter what he does at the plate.
David Ross (.2) – Still adds a bit on the defensive end, but mostly remains on the team due to familiarity.
Anthony Rizzo (5.9) – He added stealing bases to his repertoire last season which makes him a good hitter, fielder, and baserunner.
Starlin Castro (1.4) – He puts the ball in play a lot, so his production is tied to BABIP, which is usually not a great thing.
Kris Bryant (5.7) – In addition to his home run hitting, Bryant can actually field pretty well, too.
Addison Russell (4.5) – He should probably start batting first instead of ninth.
Christian Villanueva (.6) – Good fielder with some pop.
Cliff Pennington (.4) – He doesn’t strike out much and saves runs everywhere on defense.
Kyle Schwarber (2.9) – They’re wasting their time if he is at catcher. He might hit 40 home runs soon.
Denard Span (2.7) – He was having a nice year until the injuries hit.
Dexter Fowler (2.0) – If you look at his numbers, you’ll notice that he is almost the same player every year.
Chris Coghlan (1.3) – Joe Maddon moves him around a lot, but he is only average defensively wherever you put him.
Jorge Soler (.4) – His biggest chance for a bounce back season comes from his high line drive rate.
Jake Arrieta (5.8) – He’s shown that he is a good pitcher, but he is not going to sustain his second half performance from 2015.
Jon Lester (3.2) – He has been a very consistent, number two starter for his career.
Kyle Hendricks (3.7) – He gave up more runs than he should have based on walks and home runs. That will change at some point.
Scott Kazmir (2.6) – He has now put together two really good years in a row.
Jason Hammel (2.0) – Doesn’t get much better than this for a number five starter.
Hector Rondon (2.3) – Even if they don’t add to the bullpen, he will keep nailing down the ninth.
Pedro Strop (1.2) – Walks are his only issue.
Carter Capps (2.1) – He has become nearly unhittable.
Neil Ramirez (1.1) – He maintains a good strikeout rate, over a batter per inning.
Travis Wood (.9) – His strikeout rate took a huge leap forward when he was converted to a relief pitcher.
Justin Grimm (.5) – He can get batters to whiff, but he walked more than one for every two innings last season.
Darren O’Day (2.2) – There has not been a more consistently great relief pitcher over the past four seasons.
Here are the numbers for the Cubs: