The short answer to the titular question is that Jed Hoyer can upgrade the Cubs’ roster by signing or trading for better players. However, the reality of the situation is that there are 29 other teams vying for the services of those same players. We also have to consider the fact that for all their flaws, the Cubs really only have three positions in the field up for grabs.
We can stretch that to four by including a middling rotation that isn’t built to shut opponents down on a consistent basis, especially if Hoyer ends up running it back next season. The bullpen certainly qualifies as a fifth spot, but that’s a little more of a crapshoot when it comes to the limitations of this little exercise. Besides, the Cubs have typically been successful when it comes to scavenging for their relief corps.
Even if this season’s late collapse should scare the front office away from relying too heavily on such tactics moving forward, I think the pursuit of specific impact players for the ‘pen will be lower on this winter’s honey-do list. With that in mind, I put together a look at how the Cubs can address their needs in center and at the corner infield spots.
This exercise assumes they’ll pick up the $6 million option on Yan Gomes while keeping Miguel Amaya in a backup role for 2024. It also assumes the Cubs will target a starting pitcher even though both Marcus Stroman and Kyle Hendricks could be back, at least temporarily. Please note that these are not being presented as the only options, just one possibility in each category to spur a little conversation.
Let’s get to it, shall we?
Trade for José Ramírez
The 31-year-old is coming off a “down” season in which he hit just 24 homers with a 123 wRC+, both of which were his lowest full-season totals since 2016. One of the best hitters in the game, Ramirez combines excellent pop with an incredible plate approach and he’s a solid defender at the hot corner. He also happens to be under contract through 2028 on a deal worth $20.1 million AAV.
That kind of cost certainty over the next five years will extract quite a bit of prospect capital, so this move would likely prevent the Cubs from doing much else of note in the trade market. It would also assure them of having three-quarters of their infield locked in with known commodities over the next several seasons, which is huge foundationally.
If this were to happen, and we’re talking about an incredibly low likelihood, I just hope there would be a greater appreciation for this guy than there was for the last Ramírez to hold down third base at Wrigley.
Sign Matt Chapman
This seemed like Option No. 1 through the first half of the season, after which Chapman kind of fell apart and raised all kinds of questions about the wisdom — pun intended — of giving him a big free-agent deal. The 30-year-old still finished with a 110 wRC+ and his .240 average matched his career mark, but his 17 homers were the fewest of his career in a full season and his .185 ISO was lower than ever.
Chapman has always been very strong with the glove and his 3.5 fWAR was still respectable even if was based largely on his much better first-half production. The Cubs had just 2.6 fWAR as a team from the hot corner, with only Nick Madrigal (1.3) boasting more than half a win of value. Maybe the rough finish and questions about his hit tool bring his cost down enough to make the risk more palatable, though I imagine some team(s) could bank on a resurgence.
Is he an upgrade over what the Cubs have or just a more expensive version of Patrick Wisdom with a few more walks and better defense?
Trust Christopher Morel
This idea has been gaining traction as Hoyer commented during his end-of-season presser that the Cubs need to find an everyday spot for Morel. Unless they plan to try him at first base, which more than one fan has suggested lately, third is really the only option. Having him work there during the offseason and then giving him everyday reps could allow Morel to harness his elite athleticism and make him less like a hyperactive puppy when it comes to his footwork and throws across the diamond.
Trade for Pete Alonso
I’ll keep this one very brief because we’ve already covered it quite a bit in separate pieces. If the Mets decide to move on from Alonso, something they’ve publicly denied is happening, Hoyer could look to make a short-term upgrade with what figures to be a reduced prospect cost.
Sign Cody Bellinger
This kind of goes hand in hand with Alonso now that the two share the same agent in Scott Boras, though I am not insinuating the two would actually be a package deal. Hoyer doesn’t seem to be as bullish on re-signing Bellinger as we heard earlier in the season, some of which may simply be timing and the exec’s nature. The recruiting is already done, so this could come down to just how much other teams are willing to throw at the former MVP and Rookie of the Year following a big rebound season.
Trust Matt Mervis
Easily the least expensive option here, Mervis offers plenty of left-handed pop if the Cubs opt not to get super splashy with one or both of the options above. Mash could also serve as the DH if first base is addressed in a big way and Morel is at third. Many will look to the disappointing numbers during his stint in Chicago, but the underlying data suggests better results were on the horizon.
Trade for Daulton Varsho
I don’t see this as much of a possibility, I’m just a sucker for random former Cubs and their kids. It was kind of a surprise when the Diamondbacks shipped Varsho to the Blue Jays, who also have a very strong affinity for the progeny of former players. It’s like they just wanted to complete a set that already included Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio, and Bo Bichette.
While Varsho put up the worst offensive numbers of his young career, his 18 DRS tied him for second among all center fielders and his 10 OAA tied for sixth. That’s in spite of playing just 462.1 innings there, at least 200 fewer than anyone in the top 15 for the latter category. This probably doesn’t make much sense for the Cubs due to their glut of young outfielders, but I had to come up with an option for this spot.
Trust Pete Crow-Armstrong
If you thought people were wringing their hands unnecessarily over Mervis, they were going full-on Survivor Type over PCA’s results in 19 plate appearances. That’s a dual Stephen King reference, just in case you were wondering. The glove will play even if the bat still needs time to adjust, so the kid will provide value as long as he can get to anything approaching league-average offense.
Trade for Tyler Glasnow
This was also covered more comprehensively in another piece, so I’ll let that do the heavy lifting if you will do me the favor of clicking. The injury risk is very real, but Glasnow would provide the velocity and ability to miss bats the rotation has sorely missed for far too long. Between his $25 million price tag and his health issues, the Rays can’t really ask for much.
The biggest fear isn’t as much that Glasnow will only be good for 70-80 innings, it’s that the prospect(s) the Rays acquire will immediately become superstars.
Sign Yoshinobu Yamamoto
Yamamoto is only 25 years old and he’s easily the best pitcher in NPB, having won pretty much every award and topped every important statistical category over there. He’s got a mid-90’s fastball, a nasty splitter, and a big curve, all of which he throws for strikes at a very high rate. This dude has ace written all over him and he’s going to be paid accordingly.
East Coast teams seem to be the most likely suitors at this point and the bidding is likely to push or even exceed $200 million, but that’s no reason for the Cubs to shy away. Yamamoto would add dynamism to a rotation that lacks it right now.
Trust Cade Horton
The best pitcher in the system probably won’t be ready for the bigs out of camp, but Horton is the real deal and should be in Chicago at some point next year. That could be in the bullpen, much like the way the Cubs brought Justin Steele along in the early going. Going with this internal option might be the preference if pursuits like those above fall through and the Cubs indeed have both Stroman and Hendricks back when the season starts.
Honorable Mention, DH, Bullpen
Bullpen: Sign Josh Hader
Rotation: Sign Aaron Nola
3B: Sign Candelario