Cubs’ Owners Says Team Will Be “Active” In Free Agency

After a confounding trade deadline in which the Cubs held onto catcher Willson Contreras and (less surprisingly) outfielder Ian Happ, they’re currently 15 games out of first place in the NL Central 19 games under .500 and 23rd in the Majors with a -74 run differential. It’s a 67-win pace that puts them on course for an even worse finish than in 2021, when they went 71-91.

Despite the poor results and a farm system ranked 18th by ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel in his post-trade-deadline update, Cubs owner Tom Ricketts declared in a statement to the Chicago Tribune that the Cubs are “making progress” on their “plan to return to championship contention.”

As one would expect, Ricketts’ comments were vague and lacking in detail. He praised manager David Ross’ ability to keep the roster “playing hard,” lamented some injuries on the pitching staff that have rendered the rotation less competitive than hoped, and cited the number of one- and two-run games in which the Cubs have been involved as evidence of how close his club is to competing. Of course, Ricketts did not address the lack of pitching depth that made those rotation injuries so problematic (and necessitated the glut of one-year stopgaps in the first place), nor did he make mention of the 19 times the Cubs have lost by five or more runs this season.

More broadly, Ricketts vowed to be “very active again” with regard to the free-agent market. There’s no denying that the Cubs, who inked a dozen players to Major League contracts last winter, were indeed “active” in free agency, but the vast majority of their signings were small-scale transactions that hardly moved the needle for the organization. The Cubs opportunistically signed Marcus Stroman to a deal that fell shy of expectations after his market didn’t develop as strongly as hoped and, in a more aggressive play, outbid the field for Nippon Professional Baseball star Seiya Suzuki.

Faced with other needs up and down the roster, however, the Cubs went with placeholders. There were plenty of rumors regarding Carlos Correa, but Correa told Gordon Wittenmyer of NBC Sports Chicago last month that the Cubs never made an actual offer and that their purported interest amounted to little more than “checking in” on his status. “They were more in that rebuilding process,” Correa told Wittenmyer. The Cubs ultimately signed Andrelton Simmons for a year and $4MM, pairing him with Jonathan Villar (one year, $6MM) in the infield.

Beyond Stroman’s three-year deal, which allows him to opt out after the 2023 season, the Cubs addressed their pitching staff by claiming Wade Miley off waivers from the payroll-slashing Reds and signing Drew Smyly to a one-year, $4.25MM deal. Relievers David Robertson, Mychal Givens, Chris Martin and Daniel Norris were signed to one-year deals with the clear intent of flipping them at the deadline, and to the credit of president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer, the Cubs succeeded in three of those four endeavors. (Norris struggled and was released last month.)

The Cubs’ only other moves of real note were a one-year, $1.5MM deal with former Yankees prospect Clint Frazier and a two-year, $13MM pact with veteran catcher Yan Gomes, the latter spurring speculation about an offseason deal involving Contreras. However, it’s mid-August and Contreras is still in Chicago, likely to net the team a compensatory draft pick in the 75 to 80 range once he rejects a qualifying offer and signs elsewhere. Frazier, meanwhile, went unclaimed on waivers back in June.

Unless Ricketts’ use of “very active again” is a reference to several years ago, when the Cubs routinely flexed their big-market muscle, it’s a bit misleading. The Cubs took a quantity-over-quality approach to the market last year, and even their big-ticket items, Stroman and Suzuki, were value plays to an extent — Stroman because of the unexpectedly short-term nature of his deal and Suzuki because the price for a potentially prime-aged, high-end right fielder was weighed down by the inherent uncertainty tied to all NPB/KBO stars who’ve yet to face MLB opposition.

There has again been speculation about the Cubs diving headlong into this offseason’s market and signing one of the premier free-agent shortstops available: Correa, Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts or Dansby Swanson. The last time the Cubs spent anywhere near that level was when they inked the since-traded Yu Darvish for $126MM, however, and it’d be more accurate to say they haven’t truly gone to that level for a free agent since the ill-fated Jason Heyward signing.

Obviously, no team is going to be constructed primarily through free agency. History will tell us that efforts to do so are generally a fool’s errand. But the the Cubs also don’t have much in the way of locked in, long-term core pieces under club control. There’s been no indication they’ve made serious efforts to extend Contreras, who appears likely to sign elsewhere this winter. That leaves Nico Hoerner, Christopher Morel, Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson and (if he pans out) Suzuki as the closest things resembling long-term options on the roster. Happ will be a free agent after the 2023 season. Nick Madrigal has struggled immensely since returning from last year’s season-ending hamstring tear. Much of the remaining roster is comprised of journeymen already in their 30s (e.g. Patrick Wisdom, Rafael Ortega, Adrian Sampson, Mark Leiter Jr.).

Hoyer, by all accounts, did well at the 2021 trade deadline working to move short-term rentals everyone expected to move. Outfielder Pete Crow-Armstrong, in particular, was a nice pull from the Mets organization and now ranks prominently among the sport’s top 50 prospects at Baseball America and at FanGraphs. The attrition rate among prospects is enormous, however, and the Cubs don’t have the type of bustling farm system that affords them too many opportunities to miss. The system is also thin on high-end pitching prospects, which is problematic — particularly when considering the organization’s general struggles to develop pitchers; in the past decade, the only pitchers drafted by the Cubs with at least 1 WAR in the Majors are Zack Godley (1.4), Dylan Cease (7.4), Steele (1.9) and Thompson (2.5). Steele and Thompson are the only ones to find success wearing a Cubs uniform.

None of this is to say the Cubs are somehow doomed. The front office and player development staff has turned over, to varying extents, following Hoyer’s ascension to head of baseball operations. The farm system is undeniably better off than when the Cubs set out into this rebuild. Hoyer and his staff deserve credit for the prospects reeled in at the ’21 trade deadline, and the recent decision to deal Scott Effross with another five years of club control remaining netted them a pitcher (Hayden Wesneski) who is arguably the organization’s top arm now.

Ownership talk of “progress” and being “very active,” however, is undoubtedly an effort to boost fan interest for the 2023 season, but with so much work yet to be done, it’s hard to imagine the Cubs turning things around and competing as early as next season. Even if they were to add a marquee shortstop this winter, they’d likely be doing so while simultaneously bidding farewell to one of the game’s better catchers, rendering a theoretical new addition closer to a break-even proposition than it’d appear at first glance (from an overall team value perspective).

If anything, the biggest factor in the Cubs’ “progress” seems to just be the passing of time. They’re one year closer to being out from under Heyward’s contract and shedding smaller but unpalatable contractual commitments (e.g. David Bote, the money being paid to the Padres under the Darvish trade). By the time the 2023-24 offseason rolls around, the Cubs will be down to $50MM in guaranteed money on the following season’s books — or just $29MM if Stroman opts out. That 2024 season feels like a more realistic target for a truly competitive roster.

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