The Cubs are closing in on a deal with free agent outfielder Steven Souza Jr., per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic (via Twitter). If completed, it’ll be the Chicago organization’s first MLB contract of the offseason.
Souza was previously cut loose by the Diamondbacks. The Arizona organization decided against tendering him and paying a projected $4.125MM salary in Souza’s final year of arbitration eligibility.
This news helps explain the Cubs’ decision to open a 40-man spot today. Adding Souza will not really change the pitch of the austerity-themed offseason, but it does represent a notable commitment that could potentially have an intriguing butterfly effect.
Souza, who’s looking to bounce back following a 2019 season lost to injury, has played almost exclusively in right field during his five seasons in the majors. That has been the primary domain of high-proced Cubs veteran Jason Heyward, who could also appear in center.
There’s now a bit of a crowd in the outfield picture. Kyle Schwarber has spent most of his time in left and figures to do so again. Ian Happ has been seen as an option up the middle but could be utilized in a variety of manners (including in the infield). Albert Almora is a possible platoon partner for Heyward or Happ. Star third baseman Kris Bryant has also spent time in the corner outfield in recent seasons.
At a minimum, the addition of Souza makes it tougher than ever to envision Nicholas Castellanos returning. Even sans Castellanos, the roster may yet be pared through trade — with Bryant still the most intriguing possibility.
Souza won’t necessarily be assured of a significant role — or even a roster spot out of camp. He’s not only working back from a serious knee injury, but needs to prove he can rebound at the plate. Souza managed only a .220/.309/.369 batting line in 272 plate appearances in 2018, another injury-limited campaign.
The Cubs obviously hope that Souza can rediscovery the form he showed back in 2017, when he was an effective performer for the Rays. He turned in .239/.351/.459 slash with thirty long balls and 16 steals over 617 trips to the plate, easily representing his best season in the bigs. Souza was even then prone to strike out in about three of every ten plate appearances, but drew walks at a healthy 13.6% clip and made plenty of good contact.
Souza has also graded as a plus defender and baserunner at times. When he put it all together in ’17, he was a 3.8 fWAR / 4.1 rWAR performer. Anything approaching that level of production would make this signing a slam dunk for the Cubs, though that’s probably also a low-likelihood outcome given Souza’s more recent track record.