The 2019 season was likely Ben Zobrist‘s last, at least with the Cubs. The veteran hasn’t announced anything retirement related, but his relief pitching appearance in the Cubs final game is a pretty big hint he’s hanging it up prior to his age-39 season. Zo’s departure and a likely non-tender of Addison Russell leaves a vacancy at second base and also on the leadership committee. As such, Chicago could use a veteran infielder to either bridge the gap until promising rookie Nico Hoerner is able to take over full time or just provide steady depth.
The Cubs could stick with the internal option of Daniel Descalso, but his very poor performance in 2019 makes that a risky move. That’s why we’re looking at a few intriguing free agent options to fill that role this winter. There is a case to be made for adding each of the availble vets, although one is more appealing than the rest.
Josh Harrison was once part of the Cubs farm system before having several good years in Pittsburgh. Harrison made the 2017 All-Star team for the Pirates with a .771 OPS, a 103 OPS+, and 16 homers in 128 games. Injuries have completely derailed his last two seasons, the last of which came in Detroit, and he only played 133 games total in that time.
Another former Pirate, Jordy Mercer, followed Harrison to the Tigers in 2019 and had a similar lost season. Mercer played only 74 games last season, but he posted a .747 OPS and nine homers in just 256 at-bats. He is an above-average defender who can play both second and short, so the versatility is nice. Perhaps his best selling point is that he mashes lefties to the tune of a career .804 OPS.
Eduardo Nûñez had a huge year between San Francisco and Boston in 2017. The 109 OPS+ performance helped the Red Sox make the playoffs, but the next two years were not nearly as productive. Injuries limited him to just 38 games in 2019, but it might be worth a flyer to try and recapture the 33-year-old’s previous strong performances.
The Cubs, and the rest of baseball for that matter, had a chance to sign José Iglesias in 2019. The Reds eventually added the slick-fielding infielder to a one-year deal for just $1 million, making everyone look silly. He was surprisingly effective for Cincinnati, posting a .288/.318/.407 slash line with 11 homers. His defensive ability makes him an interesting option.
While those players are all low risk and could have some upside, they aren’t likely to be impact pieces. The same can not be said for Howie Kendrick, who had a huge year in Washington with 17 homers and a .966 OPS. He had just a 13% strikeout rate in 370 at-bats and could help with some of the Cubs’ contact issues as well.
The former Angel is going to be 36 years old in 2020, so he’s you figure he’s open to a short-term deal. He could also be rested a couple days a week, a la Zobrist, allowing Hoerner and others to get some playing time as well. Defense will be a weakness for Kendrick and defensive replacements will be likely, but that’s nothing new.
Chicago has a lot of possibilities when comes to adding a veteran infield bat, but Kendrick is clearly the best of the bunch. Adding him would make the lineup more dangerous and help the Cubs offense reach its full potential.