Hindsight is always more clear, but the Cubs are going need excellent vision when it comes to the keystone spot in 2020. They kind of took the Brewers’ volume-based approach this past season, loading the roster with 27 different players who can play the position. But if all goes well, 27 will be gone and the Cubs will have an everyday answer rather than a perpetual series of questions.
Instead of dragging this out to the end, I’ll go ahead and put it right out there: Nico Hoerner taking over as the full-time second baseman next season would be the best possible outcome. There’s a lot of nuance in there and we’ll get into all of that in a moment, but staying in-house with Hoerner gives the Cubs a great deal more flexibility when it comes to addressing other spots. At least I think it does.
Mark Gonzales noted in his recent piece for the Tribune that Hoerner’s emergence makes Addison Russell expendable, writing that “a parting is imminent.” Russell’s abhorrent behavior wasn’t enough for the Cubs to have parted ways with him last season, but his poor play and utter lack of accountability run contrary to everything this team needs to improve. Even if you prefer the redemptive angle, you have to admit that a change of scenery will do him good.
Though Russell’s past and performance mean the Cubs will have to sell low on him, Hoerner makes that a much more palatable prospect. It’s also entirely possible that Theo Epstein will be looking to package one or more players, particularly if second base is settled, to sweeten the deal. One such option is David Bote, who Gonzo believes will be gonezo next season.
While I have no doubt any public conversation of Bote’s as a trade chip will be met with a fair bit of “But he sucks” comments from the peanut gallery, there’s a good deal of value in a 1.5 WAR player making $3 million annually. Bote’s defense took an unexpected downturn last season, but he offers a plus glove — he should, anyway — at two infield spots while providing a little pop and solid OBP.
Wait, that sounds like the kind of guy the Cubs would like to keep around. I mean, it’s not like them to trade away a cheap depth infielder with a good bat. The issue with Bote is that his offensive profile offers nothing different from the model the Cubs are trying to move away from. He’s got a lot of swing-and-miss, so he’s going to be streaky. What they need is a replacement player with contact skills to balance things out.
While it’s entirely possible that Gonzalez is just guessing at things, his confident appraisal of Bote’s future leads us to believe he may know something. Or, again, it’s just a matter of connecting dots. So if Bote and Russell are traded/non-tendered and Ben Zobrist isn’t re-signed, the glut at second is pretty much cleared up. Well, except for Daniel Descalso, who is still under contract for next season.
Oh, stop cringing, he was decent before he tried to play through an ankle injury and completely tanked his season. If healthy, the 33-year-old should be perfectly acceptable as a bench bat who can spell Hoerner and pinch hit on occasion.
But let’s say the Cubs are really intent on making a big change and don’t want to have Hoerner developing at the MLB level. The most obvious upgrade comes in the form of Whit Merrifield, to whom they’ve been connected for the past two years or so. Entering his age-31 season coming off of a relatively pedestrian second half, the Royals star might not command quite as astronomical a price as once reported.
Even assuming age-related erosion in production over the next three seasons, Merrifield’s incredibly low $4 million AAV means his value will blow away his cost. The Royals are obviously aware of that and they also have an attachment to him as one of their few players with any real cachet, so this really is a matter of having to pry him loose.
That’s the biggest downside to acquiring a player whose career .296/.344/.445 slash represents a massive upgrade over what the Cubs have gotten from the leadoff spot these last few seasons. As far as a fit on paper, they don’t get better than Merrifield. The issue, though, is whether the net value of Merrifield minus acquisition cost is greater than Hoerner. After all, trading for a guy with several years of control effectively makes the rookie superfluous.
Unless it’s not, since Merrifield actually played almost as many innings in the outfield last season (631.1) as he did at second base (670). Hoerner was also flexed to the outfield from time to time, mainly in the minors, so the Cubs could look to keep both while moving on from one or both of Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ. That’d be one way for the Cubs to give up a big package without surrendering much in terms of player capital.
Not that I’m advancing the idea that Merrifield can be acquired via the dopey fantasy baseball trope of trading a flotilla of mediocre players for one good one, mind you. Rather than proposing that the Cubs try to send all the aforementioned players to KC, it’s more a matter of them clearing out some of the fringes of the roster should they make the move.
One player likely to be moved one way or the other is Zack Short, a Triple-A shortstop who’s got decent potential but would be blocked by Hoerner and/or Merrifield and Javy Báez. Or, you know, none of those guys will be moved and the Cubs maintain the status quo.
In the end, I do believe they’re more likely to roll with Hoerner at second while looking to upgrade the bench in a couple spots. As good as Merrifield is, the Royals are going to ask for so much that it could end up as a zero-sum game for the Cubs. So while dropping 10 of their last 12 games and missing the playoffs may have the front office looking to get a little frisky this winter, I don’t think they swing that monster deal.
What say you about second base, Dear Reader: Is it Hoerner, Merrifield, both, or neither?