Boy howdy, this year’s free agent class is about as top-heavy as they come. The top three, all of whom are represented by Scott Boras, are projected by FanGraphs to earn somewhere in the neighborhood of $550-600 million combined. That’s as much as the next 10 men on the list, three more of whom also employ Boras, though said group was lightened significantly by the news that J.D. Martinez — also a Boras client — will not opt out of his Red Sox contract.
From there, you’ve got to add up the next 30 or so available players in the top 50 to equal something in the neighborhood of $550 million. Even bearing in mind that this is all very subjective and based on my own rough averaging of salary figures from FanGraphs’ Kiley McDaniel and the site’s crowdsourcing efforts, the fact remains that Team Boras is going to hold a ton of sway this winter.
That means we’re likely to see more of the same sluggishness as in the two previous offseasons, though there should be a lot more brisk activity when it comes to the players the Cubs are likely to target. Because unless they operate counter to everything they’ve said, a possibility some are still holding out hope for, Theo Epstein will need to have this year’s bargain pickups work out a helluva lot better than Daniel Descalso and Brad Brach.
So while it’s more fun to dream of a rotation with either Cole or Strasburg as the ace, I wanted to look at some more realistic possibilities from among the less expensive options.
Dellin Betances, $7-12 million AAV
The “value” in this signing is really all over the map, depending on what you believe he’ll get. At 6-foot-8 and well over a deuce and a half, ol’ dude is a hoss whose domineering mound presence is matched by a high-90’s fastball. Thing is, he made just one appearance in 2019 because of a shoulder injury, then suffered a partial tear of his left Achilles after striking out the only two batters he faced.
The potential is there for Betances, who’ll turn 32 in March, to once again become an elite reliever. And make no mistake, he was one of the top 3-5 in the game from 2014-18 with the Yankees. McDaniel has him ranked No. 22 in the class and getting a $12 million deal for 2020, while MLB Trade Rumors thinks he’s only worth $7 million. Crowdsourcing has him at $9 million per for two years.
It’s hard to see the Cubs putting that kind of investment into big bullpen arm with a checkered injury history, especially after what happened with Brandon Morrow. But since it’s not my money, I think it’d be great simply for what Betances has shown he can be. Also, it’d be hilarious to see fans go apeshit over the signing.
Drew Pomeranz, $6-8 million AAV
This one is all about how the lefty’s market develops and whether or not he’s cool with a swingman role. Think of him like Mike Montgomery, only with a lot more velocity and experience. Pomeranz washed out with the Giants as a starter last season, but was lights-out in a bullpen role after being traded to Milwaukee.
It’s easy to look at the disparity between his performances with the Giants and Brewers and say that the uptick was just a function of small samples and luck, but there are legitimate reasons to like Pomeranz. He’s what Monty wanted to be, but the disgruntled former Cub was never able to get his velo back up to 96 like Pomeranz did.
With the projections all around the same area, he could be a decent option to provide overall pitching depth. Though his skills appear to play much better out of the bullpen, the Cubs don’t seem to be willing to spend big on a legit rotation piece and may need some help there along the line.
Howie Kendrick, $6-7 million AAV
This is not just a matter of his offense, since you can’t count on a 36-year-old to maintain career-best numbers. Kendrick was one of the emotional leaders of the Nationals’ title team, sort of like Dexter Fowler was for the Cubs. And hey, they both hit pretty significant Game 7 homers for their respective teams. Kendrick’s ability to play two or three infield positions makes him something of a Ben Zobrist replacement and he adds value from a chemistry standpoint.
As a bonus, this probably means parting ways with Descalso, though that technically means Kendrick is a little more expensive than his own contract alone.
Rick Porcello, $8-12 million AAV
If the crowdsourcing is right and Porcello gets $36 million over three years staring with his age-32 season, the Cubs should stay far away. But if McDaniel is correct about two years at $9 million apiece, or if MLBTR has it right at $11 for one year, the roller-coaster righty could be a more cost-effective replacement for Cole Hamels.
Though not as much of an innings-eater as he once was, Porcello will make 30+ starts like clockwork and doesn’t walk many batters. The big concern with pitching at Wrigley is his propensity for giving up lots of fly balls and homers, but we saw with Hamels how getting out of a more dinger-friendly ballpark — not to mention the AL in general — aided his performance.
Chris Martin, $4-6 million AAV
This is a guy I really wanted the Cubs to get from Texas at the deadline because he throws hard, puts up reverse splits, and doesn’t walk anyone. Seriously, he’s only issued 20 free passes over 133.2 innings over his entire career, including just five walks in 55.2 innings last season.
There’s a little concern that the 96 mph fastball could dip in his age-34 season, but Martin’s unique journey means he’s got way less mileage on his arm than even a much younger pitcher. A shoulder injury in college pushed him out of baseball for a while until he realized everything felt fine and could return to the game, so he should age very well.
Josh Lindblom, $4-8 million AAV
After an unspectacular MLB tenure, Lindblom revived his career in Korea and is looking to give things another go stateside. While it’s hard to predict exactly how his success abroad will translate, he could be a nice option for depth in either the rotation or the ‘pen if he commands something close to the low end of the estimates.
Daniel Hudson, $6 million AAV
Hudson closed the year out strong, literally, by serving as a stopper for the Nationals. He’s a great fit for the Cubs because he’s had two Tommy John surgeries and he’ll be 33 in March, and we know how they love guys with that kind of pedigree. The elbow surgeries are well behind him at this point, though, and he’s maintained his mid-90’s velocity for the past few seasons. It was actually up in 2019, so there’s no reason to think he’ll suddenly drop off.
The big issue here is whether he rides that late-season notoriety to a bidding war. Given the losses they’ve taken in the back end of their bullpen, the Cubs could do much worse than to bring in the hard-throwing Hudson as a setup man.
Eric Sogard, $4-6 million AAV
Another one of those players I was in favor of the Cubs targeting at the deadline, Sogard is coming off of a career year that no one should expect him to come close to repeating in 2020. That could make him Descalso Pt. 2, so he’s really only an option if the Cubs move on from their premier position-player signing of last winter.
That said, Sogard is a veteran contact hitter who can man several defensive positions and is comfortable in a utility role. Should the Cubs choose to roll with Nico Hoerner at second base, which I am very much in favor of them doing, Sogard would serve as a good tutor.
Shogo Akiyama, $3 million AAV
Whether because of the uncertainty that his skills can carry over to MLB, or perhaps because of the more pressing fear that a broken bone in his foot will hamper the 32-year-old’s athleticism, Akiyama did not appear on FanGraphs’ list. He did come in at No. 45 with MLB Trade Rumors, however, and the paltry prediction of $6 million over two years would eliminate pretty much any risk.
Though reports are understandably sparse when it comes to exact nature and expected recovery timeline of Akiyama’s injury, it seems reasonable to expect that he’d be able to return to baseball activities within two months. A contact hitter with a decent glove, MLBTR called Akiyama “the best free-agent bet to give a big league team a regular center fielder.”
That perfectly describes the Cubs, who need to find ways to fill gaps on the roster without adding much to the bottom line. In addition to his baseball skillset, Akiyama was recently named winner of NPB’s Golden Spirit Award, which recognizes a professional baseball players’ social contribution activities. It would be irresponsibly stupid for a team with a need in center not to pursue this guy at such a low cost, but I’ll be shocked if he only gets the projected amount.
So there you have it, the definitive list of which players the Cubs absolutely must target this winter. Or, you know, it’s just an arbitrary sampling of a few guys whose value could fall within the confluence of the Cubs’ needs and their ability to address them given their budgetary limitations. Tom Ricketts may have downplayed the relationship of spending to winning, but the Cubs are going to have to spend something to fill out the roster.
And remember, these are only the players listed among the top 50 or so free agents. That means there are much cheaper and riskier options out there over which we’ll get to shake our fists and gnash our teeth. Ain’t free agency fun?