the Chicago Cubs are still waiting for the first domino to fall in what could be a transformative offseason at Wrigley Field, which is currently set up as a winter wonderland with kiddie rides, holiday lights and an ice skating rink. Black Friday, however, is traditionally not the time to find the best deals in Major League Baseball. Jed Hoyer’s front office also follows data-driven strategies that prioritize surplus value and long-term flexibility over big names and making a splash in the moment. This could be a long winter, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the Cubs, because this big-market franchise is finally repositioned to pounce and make huge moves again.
The Cubs are continuing to monitor a group of starting pitchers that includes Kodai Senga, according to sources familiar with the club’s planning. Senga is represented by the same Wasserman agency that negotiated Yu Darvish‘s six-year, $126 million deal and Seiya Suzuki‘s five-year, $85 million contract. Through those recruiting pitches, the Cubs enhanced their reputation as an organization that is welcoming for Japanese players and attuned to soft factors that resonate with players’ families. Darvish raved about the Wrigley Field experience and recommended Chicago to Suzuki, even though the Cubs traded Darvish to the San Diego Padres in the middle of that contract.
The Cubs will not be frozen out of this process, but they don’t control it, either. Senga will have options as his known visits already include at least San Diego, New York and Texas. The right-hander appeals to a wide range of teams because of his age (30 next season), long track record with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks (1.94 ERA in 22 starts this year), the potential acquisition cost (no posting fee or draft pick ), and a repertoire that includes a nasty splitter and a curveball with a lot of depth. The spectrum of breaking balls and the chance to optimize Senga’s stuff would be an intriguing challenge for the Cubs’ pitching infrastructure.
But, again, this is a competitive environment and multiple teams view Senga at or near the top of that next tier beneath Justin Verlander and Jacob deGrom. At this stage of the rebuild, the Cubs aren’t going to jump out and totally reset the market for a World Series-winning pitcher nearing his 40th birthday (Verlander) or a two-time Cy Young Award winner who made 11 starts this year (deGrom) or a Scott Boras client coming off the best season of his life (Carlos Rodón). At this early point in the offseason, though, it doesn’t make much sense to totally rule anything out, either.
Without the threat of a lockout looming — and with far more clarity on the baseball industry’s financial picture regarding the COVID-19 pandemic — it wouldn’t be surprising if good free agents are still out there by the time the Cubs Convention returns in mid-January . The Cubs also didn’t necessarily expect the Los Angeles Angels — a team that is up for sale — to sign a pitcher who rejected the qualifying offer (Tyler Anderson) to a three-year, $39 million contract.
Kodai Senga, 99mph Fastball and 84mph Slider, Individual Pitches + Overlay. pic.twitter.com/nF60sUBvED
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) November 2, 2022
The Cubs can be opportunistic as they evaluate multiple starters with mid-to-upper 90s velocity, multiple secondary pitches and swing-and-miss stuff. Ideally, those pitchers would not be attached to a qualifying offer and the associated penalties in the draft and the international market. Jameson Taillon and Taijuan Walker are among the pitchers who would fit the criteria. Andrew Heaney is another name to file away as the Cubs were involved in the negotiations before the left-handed pitcher signed a one-year, $8.5 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Heaney managed to stay on the field for just 16 outings (14 starts) and 72 2/3 innings, but the raw ingredients for an impressive starter were on display as he posted a strong 3.10 ERA with peripherals (35.5 percent strikeout rate and 6.1 percent walk rate) to back it up.
The 2022 season disintegrated so quickly at Wrigley Field that the playoffs were all but an afterthought by May. Hoyer focused on pitching last offseason as well, but injuries piled up and the depth didn’t develop until later in the year, knocking the Cubs out of contention before the ivy had turned green. Even with a growing group of young pitchers, Hoyer doesn’t seem content with relying on them to try and turn this team into a contender.
“We need to add a lot of arms,” Hoyer said. “You saw what happens when you run out. I don’t think we’re going to sort of stop loading up on arms.”
Approximately 90 minutes after a game ended at Wrigley Field this year, a Cubs official approached the batting tunnels and saw Suzuki still hitting baseballs, trying to refine his right-handed swing. That determination is certainly admirable. A focused routine is essential for any professional athlete. But practicing to that degree can also push a hitter toward the point of diminishing returns, especially given all the dimensions of a foreign player transitioning to his first season in the majors.
Consistently finding healthy Japanese food can be an issue. Travel is easier in Japan, which is comparable in land mass to California and has just one time zone. Suzuki never played more than 140 games in a season in Nippon Professional Baseball, which customarily makes Monday a regular off-day in the schedule. The Cubs have no concerns about Suzuki’s ability to hit major-league pitching. The Cubs do have questions and ideas about how to put Suzuki in the best position to succeed, making sure that he doesn’t wear down physically over the course of a 162-game schedule.
A less-is-more message is hard enough to convey culturally when there are no language or barriers. It still became part of the exit interview with Suzuki, who posted a 2 WAR season (Baseball Reference) that lined up almost exactly with FanGraphs’ dollars metric ($16.1 million) and the average annual value of his contract ($17 million).
“We expected going into the season that there would be assimilation challenges,” Hoyer said. “New league, new pitching, new ballparks, the language, food, et cetera. I thought he dealt with those things exceptionally well. I thought we saw glimpses of what he could become at different times during the year. And then we also saw struggles, at times, during the year when he made those adjustments. But we have exceptionally high hopes.”
Suzuki is expected to participate in next year’s World Baseball Classic, which could potentially disrupt the “normal” spring training that no one really enjoyed this year after MLB’s lockout. The Cubs staged Suzuki’s”Mike Trout, I love you” introductory news conference on March 18 in Arizona and then featured Suzuki in their Opening Day lineup on April 7 at Wrigley Field. It must have been a dizzying experience for Suzuki, who finished with 14 home runs, 22 doubles, 46 RBIs and a .770 OPS in 111 games. Two hand injuries — the type of freak accidents the Cubs hope to avoid seeing in the World Baseball Classic — limited Suzuki’s availability and production. The Cubs understand how important the international event is to Suzuki, who won a gold medal with Team Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.
“It’s a great honor to be able to represent your country,” Hoyer said. “What I want is the best of both worlds. I want him to be able to represent his country, and I want him to have a really smooth spring training and get ready for the season. Hopefully, we can accomplish both.”
It’s been no secret that the Cubs are lacking in star power. It’s not just at the big league level, but in the minor leagues as well. Perhaps Pete Crow-Armstrong continues to develop at an exceptional pace, Burn Davis stays healthy and lives up to his once-lofty prospect status and Kevin Alcantara grows into the star some see the still-raw 20-year-old becoming. But for now, the best path for impact is through free agency and the slow-moving market for shortstops.
The Cubs engaged in extensive talks with Carlos Correa’s agent prior to the lockout last winter, but Correa subsequently changed representation. With Boras now running the show, the Cubs will have to be both patient and aggressive to meet those demands for a megadeal.
What is clear is that Hoyer understands just how valuable it can be to have elite defense up the middle. The Cubs have prioritized finding a defense-first catcher to pair with Yan Gomes. Someday soon, Crow-Armstrong, who recently won a minor-league Gold Glove, will be manning center field. The hope is to find a short-term solution for that position in 2023, trying to bolster a defense that noticeably slipped in recent seasons.
The Cubs went to three straight National League Championship Series — and won the 2016 World Series — with great pitching and defense. Javier Baez and Addison Russell became a big part of that successful formula. With restrictions on defensive shifts coming, the game is trending back toward middle infielders with superior range and athleticism. moving Nico Horner to second base and adding an equivalent or better defender at shortstop — one who is an impact hitter as well — would make all the sense in the world.
“The best defenders usually play shortstop,” Hoyer said. “The best athletes often play shortstop. Those are guys you can move around. Nico was one of the top defensive shortstops in the league last year. We’re totally comfortable with him playing there. But he also has the ability to play second base and probably many other positions as well. It’s a position where you can have multiple guys that can do it.
“One of our real strengths — if you go back to ’15, ’16, ’17 — was we had Addie and we had Javy. We had two elite defensive shortstops. We can move those guys around. When one guy did get hurt, we weren’t running out a utility guy that shouldn’t be playing at shortstop. I do think we saw early in the year when Nico was hurt just how destabilizing bad defense can be at shortstop.”
There was once a time when some wondered what the Cubs were going to do with all their short-stop prospects. In the end, as Hoyer points out, having “too many” at one of the most important positions on the field is never a bad thing. It increases the overall athleticism of the team, and as those players age and move off a premium defensive spot, they can still be hugely valuable by sticking on the dirt.
Adding star power — whether it’s Correa or Trea Turner or to a certain extent Xander Bogaerts or Dansby Swanson — is a must to turn this team into a contender. Adding another shortstop helps the Cubs with their depth. It helps their pitching. It helps them become a more dynamic and resilient team. There are four options and each one comes with individual strengths and weaknesses. The Cubs probably won’t be stepping up to set the market on any of them. But if Hoyer’s baseball operations group can land one of those shortstops while building up the pitching staff, it will go a long way in trying to make the team relevant next year.
(Photo of Seiya Suzuki: Jeff Hanisch / USA Today)