Two years removed from their first World Series title in over 100 years, the Chicago Cubs seemed poised to replicate the feat. An Opening Day rotation featuring five-time All-Star Jon Lester, four-time All-Star Yu Darvish and 2016 World Series Game 7 starter Kyle Hendricks, not to mention the always consistent Jose Quintana and newly acquired right-hander Tyler Chatwood made people excited for what they might accomplish.
While Lester, Hendricks and Quintana preformed up to expectations, the remaining 40 percent of the rotation failed to pull much weight. Darvish completed just 40 innings before hitting the disabled list, amassing a 4.95 ERA in the process. Chatwood, who remained healthy except for a short stint on the DL late in the season, did not pitch well outside of Coors Field. The $38 million investment lead the league in walks across 103.2 innings and posted a 5.30 ERA, driving factors in his absence on the mound after September 8.
Under less-than-ideal situations, the Cubs’ rotation still managed to post a 3.84 ERA, the tenth best in the league, while remaining one of the few strong points for a 95-win club in 2018. That is because the Cubs’ offense “broke” down the stretch, leading to an early exit from the postseason picture.
Prior to the All-Star break, Chicago’s offense was among the best in the game, finishing the “half” fifth in runs scored and walk rate (9.7 percent), first in BABIP (.319) and OBP (.345) and seventh in slugging percentage (.426). Those numbers manifested to a 107 wRC-plus (fourth best) while their wOBA followed suit at .332.
A deeper look into the numbers perhaps foreshadowed their downfall in the second half of the season. Before the break, the Cubs ranked 24th in hard contact as a team (33 percent) and perhaps as a result, finished with the fifth highest soft contact rate (19.7 percent) in the league. While those numbers didn’t seem to faze a team that completed the first half leading their division, they can be largely blamed on the team’s struggles later in the year.
What was a top-tier offense sunk to 19th in runs scored following the All-Star Game festivities while at the same time ranking 18th in walk rate (8.1 percent), 17th in batting average (.249) and OBP (.316) and 24th in wOBA (.305). The driving force in that lackluster play was, in large part, their inability to drive the baseball. As a team, the Cubs finished the second half of the season with a .389 slugging percentage (27th), .140 team ISO (27th), 89 wRC-plus (24th) and .305 wOBA (24th). Behind those down numbers was an obvious lack of fly-balls. Post-All-Star break, the Cubs hit the fewest amount of balls in the air (30 percent) while also leading the league in ground ball percentage (48.6 percent).
In essence, the Cubs put the ball on the ground too much in the second half, without making enough hard contact (29th in baseball at 29.9 percent) or getting much lift on the baseball. What resulted was an offense that scored a combined two runs in the final, and most important, games of the season, the latter of which eliminated the club from contention in 2018.
Because of their “broken” offense (to use Theo Epstein’s own words in his end-of-season press conference), the Cubs will likely be in the market for an impact hitter this off-season. While there are two obvious choices available in Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, those names will likely carry a price tag upwards and exceeding $300 million. As things currently stand, the Cubs are slated to field a payroll somewhere around $220 million after arbitration hearings are finalized in the coming weeks.
That figure does not include the fixes for gaping holes in the roster that include, but are not limited to, a veteran back-up catcher, a lineup-changing hitter (likely an outfielder), possible middle infield depth and a left-handed reliever. These needs will require Theo’s craftiness and the likely jettisoning of dead contracts like Chatwood’s remaining two years, Addison Russell‘s roughly $4 million contract and the rest of Brian Duensing‘s $7 million.
Here are four possible free agent targets for the Cubs this off-season not named Bryce Harper, remember we have to be fiscally responsible.
Andrew McCutchen, OF
Prior to the 2016 season, Jason Heyward and the Cubs agreed to a franchise record eight-year, $184 million deal that will keep the outfielder on the North Side through 2023. Unfortunately for the Cubs, Heyward has failed to produce much offensively, slashing .252/.322/.367 with an 81 OPS-plus in his three seasons with the club.
What Heyward has provided is Gold Glove-caliber defense in right-field, winning the award in two of his three years with the Cubs. That, combined with the fact no team would be willing to take on the remaining money and years left on his deal, and it seems likely the Cubs are stuck with Heyward.
That is only the beginning of the Cubs’ problem as they have three additional outfielders (Albert Almora, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ) who all under-produced in 2018 and have yet to live up to their first-round pedigree. For that reason, trading one of those players, or perhaps two, would help the Cubs fill voids elsewhere on the roster.
Such a deal would then free Chicago up to add that impact bat we discussed earlier, a role that could be filled by Andrew McCutchen. Defensively, McCutchen is nowhere near the caliber of Almora or Heyward as the former Gold Glover’s ability in the field has diminished recently.
A lackluster 2016 puts McCutchen’s career defensive numbers well below average in center field while he remains an average right fielder. With that being said, the 32-year-old turned in a good year defensively split between the San Francisco Giants and New York Yankees, posting a plus-two in the defensive runs saved department.
Overall, the former MVP’s defense leaves much to be desired, but he more than makes up for that at the plate. For his career, McCutchen owns four Sliver Slugger Awards, honors won in consecutive years (2012-2015).
As a team, the Cubs sported a walk rate around nine percent in 2018 and struck out around 21 percent of the time. McCutchen, a right-handed batter, would help to improve both of those numbers as he owns career numbers of 12 percent and 18.2 percent respectively. When he’s not reaching base via the free pass, the veteran is punishing the baseball. With a career .287/.378/.481 slash line, McCutchen has posted ISO’s of .196, .174, .207 and .169 in 2015, ’16, ’17 and ’18 respectively.
More recently, the outfielder has notched very impressive offensive campaigns following a down season in 2016 in which he posted a 104 OPS-plus. Since then, between three teams, McCutchen has logged 311 games and slashed .267/.366/.455/.820 with a 121 OPS-plus and a 162-game average of 26 home runs and 80 RBI.
A driving influence behind McCutchen’s offensive success in his career has been his ability to hit both left- and right-handed pitching, something the Cubs’ outfielders struggle with. For their careers, Happ, Schwarber and Heyward own wRC-plus’s well below league average (100) when facing southpaw’s, an area the former Pittsburgh Pirate excels at.
Career wise, McCutchen owns a .311/.402/.548/.950 slash line against left-handers with a 158 wRC-plus. Against right-hander’s, those numbers dip to, but remain strong at, .280/.371/.461/.832 with a 129 wRC-plus, or 29 percent better than league average.
While not the $300-plus million man, McCutchen would be a nice fall-back option if the Cubs are indeed out on Harper and Machado. According to Spotrac.com, McCutchen’s market value sits at $18.9 million per year. Their prediction has the veteran earning north of $75 million over four years, something the Cubs would likely be able to afford.
As we saw last year, anything can happen with the free agent market with major league baseball one frozen off-season away from a labor dispute.
McCutchen would fit nicely on the North Side as he possesses the ability to play both center- and right-field while maintaining his offensive capability. For an offense that struggled late in 2018, McCutchen could be just what the doctor ordered this winter. With his 223 career home runs and 322 doubles, the veteran has proven to be a power-hitting outfielder with some gas left in the tank (20 home runs in 2018).
A.J. Pollock, OF
If McCutchen’s contractual wants prove too much for the Cubs, A.J. Pollock represents a nice alternative. At 30 years old, Pollock has battled injuries for the majority of his career. Limited to just 12 games in 2016, Pollock appeared in just 112 and 113 contests in ’17 and ’18 respectively.
Prior to his absence in 2016, Pollock was on the MVP hunt, finishing the 2015 season 14th in balloting. That season, the veteran posted a .315/.367/.498/.865 slash line with 20 home runs and 76 RBI. Pollock also added 39 doubles and a 130 OPS-plus in a career-best 157 games played.
Since then, Pollock has been average at best, logging a 102 OPS-plus across 237 games from 2016 to 2018. His .261/.323/.473/.797 line doesn’t do much for his free agent value. However, Pollock’s 2018 campaign was his best since 2015 as he bested his career mark of 20 home runs (21 in 2018).
Those long-balls were accompanied by an increase in ISO, a mark that has risen each year since 2016, topping out at .228 last year. Precipitated by his uptick in power, Pollock’s slugging percentage followed suit and rose to .484 in 2018, just 18 points below his 2015 mark. Overall, the 30-year-old saw jumps in his wRC-plus (110), hard contact percentage (44.5 percent) and fly ball rate (38.4 percent) from the numbers he recorded in 2017.
All these are very encouraging signs for a player of Pollock’s caliber and offensive potential. Still young, if Pollock can overcome his injury-plagued past, he will be an above average outfielder. Even with his issues, Pollock has earned a reputation for being a solid defensive center fielder. For his career, Pollock is plus-52 in the defensive runs saved metric while also posting better than average range factor numbers.
Primarily a center-fielder, Pollock lacks the experience at multiple positions, something most Cubs players possess. Still, the youngster has the defensive and offensive capability to hold down center field for the Cubs, even if that means shipping Almora to another club. Unlike Almora, Pollock has above average numbers against both left- and right-handed pitching, making him a solid option to split time with someone like Happ in center.
Whereas McCutchen provided durability, Pollock is as injury-prone as they come. Because of that, and the qualifying offer he rejected, Pollock’s market value currently sits at just $11 million with his projected free agent contract consisting of just three years and $33 million.
That, my friends, is a deal the Cubs would likely jump at and place a bet on his health. However, with Chatwood’s flop fresh in their minds, the Cubs’ front office may be reluctant to risk spending money on anything less than a sure-fire asset.
Jed Lowrie, INF
In a breakout season, Javier Baez finished second in the National League MVP voting, winning his first Sliver Slugger Award along the way. At 25 years old, Baez hit 34 home runs and logged 111 RBI while sporting an .881 OPS.
Perhaps more importantly, the youngster held down second base and shortstop, providing Gold Glove-caliber defense. Baez logged significant time at both second base and shortstop due to Addison Russell’s off-field domestic violent issues that landed him a 40-game suspension he’s to serve in 2019.
Russell’s problems, both on and off the field, could lead to the Cubs’ shortstop being non-tendered (not offered a contract) this off-season. If that proves to be the case, Baez would be left to play shortstop, his more natural position, with the aging Ben Zobrist manning second base in the final year of his contract. Outside of those two, the Cubs are extremely thin with middle infielders as Mike Freeman, David Bote and Happ represent their depth.
With Nico Hoerner (the Cubs’ 2018 first round draft pick) not yet ready for the majors, the Cubs may very well be forced to sign some infield depth this winter. Such depth could come in the form of Jed Lowrie.
Lowrie, 34, has spent the last three years of his career with the Oakland Athletics. In a career dating back to 2008, the veteran has maintained his status as a league average hitter. Prior to his last two seasons with Oakland, Lowrie owned an OPS-plus of 98 with a .326 OBP and .726 OPS in 799 games. With just 67 home runs in that span, Lowrie relied less on his power, instead racking up 727 hits, 173 of which went for two bases.
With a largely unimpressive offensive resume, Lowrie signed a three-year, $23 million deal in 2015 while a member of the Houston Astros. Combined, Lowrie earned $12.5 million between the 2017 and ’18 season (option year), which were perhap his best seasons at the plate.
Across 310 games, the veteran slashed .272/.356/.448/.804 with an OPS-plus of 120. In 2018, Lowrie bested his previous career mark of 16 long-balls set back in 2012 by hitting 23 home runs and driving in 99 runs. That effort paid off as Lowrie received his first All-Star Game nod, while at the same time earning MVP consideration.
Behind Lowrie’s uptick in offensive capability has been a noticeable increase in hard contact. Both his 34.5 percent hard contact percentage in 2017 and his 40.1 percent mark in 2018 were better than his career numbers while his line-drive rates (27.1 percent in ’17, 23.4 percent in ’18) followed suit. What resulted was back-to-back years where Lowrie was solidly above league average as he logged wRC-plus’s of 119 and 122. Additionally, Lowrie saw his ISO skyrocket above his career average of .152 while his walk (11.5 percent in ’18) and strikeout rates (18.8 percent in ’18) also sat above normal.
Defensively, Lowrie has carved out a career as a slightly below league average fielder at two different positions. Recently, Lowrie has turned in good seasons in the field, recording plus-one defensive runs saved at second base in 2018 and losing two runs in third base.
It’s at third base that Lowrie has the best numbers, posting in the positives career wise in defensive runs saved while lagging behind at both shortstop and second base in the category.
If the Cubs were to sign Lowrie, the veteran would likely slot in at second base, splitting time with the switch-hitting Zobrist. For his career, Lowrie hits left- and right-handed pitching about the same (110 wRC-plus vs. LHP, 104 wRC-plus vs. RHP) as a switch-hitter himself.
On the money side of things, Lowrie would not command much at all. At just $12.6 million, Lowrie’s market value is right around what Zobrist got to join the Cubs (four years, $56 million — $14 million AAV) at age 34. Lowrie’s projected free agent deal is for two years, $25.3 million, a relative bargain if he continues putting up good offensive numbers.
Andrew Miller, LHP
This last free agent addresses the Cubs’ lack of bullpen depth, especially late in games. Currently, the Cubs have Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards Jr., Pedro Strop and Brandon Morrow as trusted late-inning relievers.
Of those four, not a single one is left-handed, and following the departure of Justin Wilson, the Cubs are left with Brian Duensing, Randy Rosario and Mike Montgomery as their Opening Day southpaw options out of the bullpen. That’s not exactly a feared group outside of Rosario’s lightening-in-a-bottle-type performance in 2018 and Montgomery’s heroics in the starting rotation.
Without Wilson, a void forms. Yes, late-inning relievers need to be able to get both left- and right-handed batters out, but when you are faced with one tough lefty (think Harper), it’s nice to have a shut-down southpaw in your bullpen. That is what Wilson provided to the Cubs in 2018. Against left-handed batters, Wilson was brilliant, holding them to a .188/.301/.342 slash line across 22.1 innings.
Tasked with finding someone to replicate that, the Cubs would be wise to consider Andrew Miller. Miller, 33, is a veteran reliever who has recently come on as one of the best in the game. From 2014-2016, the southpaw went 18-8 with a 1.82 ERA across 198.1 innings pitched. He racked up 49 saves and more than doubled the league average reliever with his 230 ERA-plus. Miller’s 14.8 strikeouts per nine and 0.776 WHIP during that run crippled opposing offenses and made his ability to pitch multiple innings that much more effective.
The left-hander’s heroics in 2016 lead to his trade from the New York Yankees to the Cleveland Indians with his efforts propelling his new club into the seventh game of the World Series with the Cubs.
Now with his second full season in the books for Cleveland, Miller is looking to cash-in on the free agent market. That makes his disappointing 2018 campaign that much harder to swallow.
Perhaps age is finally catching up with Miller. In 2018, the big lefty suffered knee and shoulder problems, limiting him to just 37 appearances and 34 innings. Those innings were the worst for Miller since he transitioned from a starter into the bullpen prior to the 2012 season.
Miller’s 4.24 ERA led to his rather league average 104 ERA-plus while his strikeout rate (29.2 percent) and walk rate (10.4 percent) both trended in the wrong directions last season.
The bad news does not stop there for Miller as he allowed the highest hard contact of his career at 41.4 percent while also experiencing an almost 12 percent dip in his soft contact.
Despite the lackluster numbers, Miller’s numbers do show bright spots. His 3.51 FIP suggests not all of his lofty ERA was his fault while his 95 ERA- was still better than league average (100 — lower is better) and his 11.91 K/9 rate was more than a full strikeout better than his career average.
As for Miller’s success in shutting down left-handed batters, the southpaw has fared well in his career. All told, Miller has held lefty batters to a .223/.319/.338 clip across 217 innings, holding them to a wOBA south of .300.
For grins, I will include Miller’s career numbers against right-handed batters (hint — they’re pretty good too). In 508.1 innings righties have managed a .231/.328/.370 slash line with a .311 wOBA, making Miller an effective weapon against both left- and right-handed batters.
Money wise, Miller’s free agent status comes at just the right time for the Cubs. Following multiple years of success, 2018 was by far the veteran’s worst in a while. That makes his free agent value plummet to a point where a one-year deal may make sense. Jim Bowden writing for The Athletic agrees and suggested Miller will sign a one-year, $10 million deal this winter to re-build his value. If that proves to be the case, the Cubs would be foolish not to jump at the chance of landing a potentially great left-handed reliever.
Other Notable Names
Marwin Gonzalez, INF/OF — .247/.324/.409/.733, 103 OPS-plus in 2018.
Michael Brantley, OF — .309/.364/.468/.832, 123 OPS-plus in 2018.
Zach Britton, LHP — 2-0, 3.10 ERA, 41 games (40.2 innings), 34 K’s, 140 ERA-plus in 2018.
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