After six straight winning seasons from 2015 to 2020, which included five postseason berths and a World Series title, the Cubs have entered a rebuild and finished below .500 the past two years. As the fans hope for better days ahead, club chairman Tom Ricketts released a statement as the team switches gears from the season to the offseason.
“We will be active in free agency and have the necessary resources available to substantially supplement our current roster,” Ricketts says, as relayed by Tim Stebbins of NBC Sports Chicago. “As [president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer] has demonstrated, we will be driven by intelligent decision-making as we build a roster that can win games in the postseason – year in and year out.”
The word “active” in that statement is likely attractive to some, though it’s worth pointing that it can mean many different things. The Cubs were certainly active in free agency last year, giving out 12 deals to players who were on the open market. However, Seiya Suzuki was a special case since he was 27 years old at the time and coming over from playing in Japan. Marcus Stroman got a substantial deal, but on a shorter-than-expected three-year term with an opt out after year two. Apart from that, the deals for veterans were all on the modest side, both in terms of dollars and years.
Hoyer talked about spending money “intelligently” last year and Rickets echoed that in his statement. Hoyer, too, doubled down on his own comments from a year ago. “I think last year we talked a lot about intelligent spending, and I think we’ll certainly look to do that again.”
The shape of that spending remains to be seen, but the club should have some money to work with. The club had an Opening Day payroll of $143MM this year, in the estimation of Cot’s Baseball Contracts, a far cry from their previous high of $203MM in 2019. For next year, their commitments are currently around $109MM without factoring in arbitration-eligible players, per Jason Martinez of Roster Resource. Looking at the arbitration projections from MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz, retaining the entire class would cost the Cubs around $25MM, though not all of those players will be tendered contracts.
Even if the club plans to roll out a similar payroll in 2023 as they did this year, they would have some room to work with, though it’s possible that number could go up. “If we get to a place where we ask for a significant amount of money to sign one player or several players, I have no doubt that we’ll have his blessing,” Hoyer said during a recent conference, per Maddie Lee of the Chicago Sun-Times. “And I have no doubt the resources will be there.”
It’s been previously reported that the Cubs have interest in pursuing this winter’s crop of marquee free agent shortstops, though it’s unclear how aggressive they will be in that pursuit. Dansby Swanson and Trea Turner are slated for free agency, with Xander Bogaerts and Carlos Correa widely expected to join them by opting out of their respective contracts. Each of those four will require a significant investment, of course, with all of them likely to earn nine-figure deals. The Cubs haven’t given out a contract of that size since the Yu Darvish deal back in 2018, when they were much more firmly in win-now mode. If they don’t shop in the expensive aisle, there’s a significant drop to the next-best available shortstops, with Jose Iglesias and Elvis Andrus highlighting the second tier.
Of course, it’s also possible that the club uses its resources on players already on the roster, locking them up for future seasons via extension. Two players who could be candidates are outfielder Ian Happ and infielder Nico Hoerner. When asked about whether the club has talked to those players about new contracts, Hoyer tells Lee that they have “taken the first steps.”
In the case of Happ, he has just a single year of team control remaining and is projected to earn a salary of about $10.6MM next season. Due to his approaching free agency, he was often mentioned in trade rumors this summer but ended up sticking with the Cubs beyond the deadline. 2022 was his sixth season in the big leagues, with Happ posting above-average offense in each of them. This year, his .271/.342/.440 batting line was 20% above league average, by measure of wRC+. His work in the outfield was also graded positively, leading to him producing 3.5 wins above replacement this year, in the eyes of FanGraphs. He just turned 28 and will therefore be heading into free agency shortly after his 29th birthday, meaning the Cubs would likely have to cut a decent check to get him to forgo that opportunity.
In Hoerner’s case, he’s just 25 and heading into his first arbitration season, projected to get a salary of $2.2MM next year. Given his extra control, it’s more likely that he will be playing for the next competitive Cubs team and could theoretically be a higher priority for the team. He had a very nice all-around season here in 2022, hitting 10 home runs and stealing 20 bases. He hit .281/.327/.410 for a wRC+ of 106 and also provided excellent shortstop defense, leading to a tally of 4.0 fWAR for the year.
Of course, if the Cubs succeed in convincing a free agent shortstop to join the club, they would have to figure out how to get that player into the lineup next to Hoerner. It seems the most likely path would be Hoerner moving over to second base, a position he has played before. Patrick Mooney of The Athletic relays that Hoyer doesn’t see a problem with moving Hoerner to the other side of the bag, especially with the new anti-shift rules that go into place next year. With less shifting, it’s possible teams will look to have an extra level of athleticism at the keystone to provide greater range, something that is less necessary with shifting.
“We have total confidence in Nico’s ability to play shortstop,” Hoyer says. “But, yes, the way the game is trending, athleticism in the middle infield will make a big difference.” It doesn’t seem like Hoerner would put up a fight if the club asked him to make the switch. “He actually gets mad when you talk about him, which is pretty amazing,” Hoyer said. “He wants to talk about the Cubs. He wants to talk about winning. He wants to talk about the culture. So it was pretty easy with him. As long as you’re talking about winning and what can make us great, Nico’s totally on board.”
There are still many directions the offseason can go for Chicago, and there are reasons to be slightly more optimistic than a year ago. Despite another losing season, the club finished strong, going 33-28 from the start of August until the end of the schedule. “We certainly want next season to look a lot more like our second half than our first half,” Hoyer says, per Lee. “And if it does, we do have a chance to be in the race and play meaningful games throughout the entire season. And, hopefully, that means competing in October.” How aggressive they are in bolstering their roster for next year will be determined in the months to come.