Now that the biggest contract in professional sports history has been agreed to — pending an official announcement, anyway — we can finally move on with the rest of the offseason. The whole Shohei Ohtani saga became like a star that had collapsed in on itself, creating a black hole that consumed almost all manner of solid journalism and rational thought. USA Today’s Bob Nightengale fell on his own sword and even took several hacks at his colleagues in calling out the way media members covered the proceedings.
I speak from experience in saying that it’s very easy to get caught up in the desire to chase rumors and post bits of sourced info. As we’ve seen all too clearly over the past few weeks, there are times when the desire to be first overrides any semblance of common sense or confirmation. Will this teach us all something about how to conduct ourselves in the future? Perhaps, though I feel part of it may simply come down to Ohtani being such a unicorn that we’ll never see another free agency like his again.
With all that out of the way, let’s get to what the Cubs are going to do. We know they’re looking for help at first base and that they’ve engaged the Guardians in talks about a possible trade for righty starter Shane Bieber. It has also been reported that Cleveland is willing to listen to offers on reigning two-time AL saves leader Emmanuel Clase, someone who might interest Jed Hoyer as he looks to rebuild his bullpen.
Now comes a report from Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the Cubs “showed interest” in first baseman Josh Naylor during the Winter Meetings. The 26-year-old Naylor has a fiery demeanor on the field and is built like a fire hydrant, listed at 5-foot-11 and 250 pounds. He’s also coming off the best season of his career so far and has two years of club control remaining with an estimated salary of just over $7 million through arbitration in 2024.
The left-handed hitter slashed .308/.354/.489 with 17 homers and 97 RBI last season despite missing the entire month of August with a right oblique strain. That home run total is a little low considering his 70-grade raw power, but he sprays the ball around and puts it on the ground a fair bit as well. Naylor’s batted-ball results aren’t eye-opening and his expected stats don’t speak to an offensive surge at Wrigley, unlike, say, Matt Chapman (more on that here if you’re interested).
That said, he’s got one of the lowest chase rates in the game and his 13.7% strikeout rate last season was in the 94th percentile. Coupled with solid play at first base, he represents exactly the kind of balanced ballplayer the Cubs like to target. The one area in which Naylor isn’t going to offer much help is on the basepaths, though what he lacks in speed he makes up for in tenacity.
Sounds like the kind of guy a smaller-market team like Cleveland would want to hold onto given their desire to compete with a lower budget. They may be looking to trim payroll down to the bone, however, as their broadcast contract with Bally could vanish any day now. Moving controllable low-cost players like Naylor, Bieber, and Clase would allow the Guardians to restock the farm system while insulating themselves against a potential $60 million revenue loss.
The Cubs could be the beneficiaries of such a strategy, though it’ll obviously come at a steep cost in terms of prospects. Bieber’s performance and velocity have trended down and he might be pried loose for less than what you’d think it would take to get a former Cy Young winner. Clase won’t be cheap largely because his contract very much is, though he too has experienced some hiccups. Depending on what the Mets choose to do with Pete Alonso, and there’s a growing sense that they may indeed be willing to move him, Naylor could be the next-best first base trade target.
He’ll also be far less expensive than the Polar Bear in terms of both salary and acquisition, which is why even the Pirates have inquired about him. The Mariners have as well, and there are surely other interested teams out there. Given the Cubs’ myriad needs and strong farm system, it would make sense for them to explore a deal that includes both Naylor and one of the pitchers.
At this point, it’s starting to feel like trading for core players is far more likely than signing them as free agents. Ohtani is obviously out of the question and Yoshinobu Yamamoto is now expected to command $300 million or more, so the Cubs are out there as well. Shota Imanaga and Jordan Montgomery are still possibilities, especially since trades for either Bieber or Tyler Glasnow would yield just one year of control.
It’s seemed all offseason as though Ohtani’s decision would trigger a market tsunami, so let’s just hope all the quiet is a matter of the water being sucked back before the big splashes take place.