Much of the rumor mill this offseason regarding the Cubs has been tied to the top two positional free agents on the market- two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani and center fielder Cody Bellinger, the latter of whom re-established himself as a star-level player this season after signing with Chicago on a one-year deal last offseason. Per Jon Heyman of the New York Post, the club’s interest in top of the positional free agent market extends beyond those two names, as Chicago is “looking at” third baseman Matt Chapman. Heyman goes on to note that the Cubs are waiting on a decision from Ohtani before engaging with Bellinger and Chapman more substantially.
That the Cubs would have interest in Chapman’s services is hardly a surprise. While the club has a strong middle infield duo of Dansby Swanson and Nico Hoerner providing solid offense paired with elite defense, the club’s production at the corner infield spots was far less impressive in 2023. The club’s 103 wRC+ at first base, which is somewhat inflated by the 59 appearances Bellinger made at the position, ranked just 17th in the majors. The hot corner was even more dire, as Chicago’s mix of third basemen including Nick Madrigal, Patrick Wisdom, and Miles Mastrobuoni combined for a wRC+ of just 92 with just 1.8 fWAR. The latter figure was the eleventh-worst production from third base among all major league clubs last season, despite a late-season boost from deadline addition Jeimer Candelario.
Meanwhile, Chapman is among the league’s premiere third basemen. Only Austin Riley, Jose Ramirez, Gunnar Henderson, and Isaac Paredes posted more fWAR than Chapman’s 3.5 last season among regulars at the hot corner, while only ten third baseman posted a wRC+ better than Chapman’s figure of 110. In addition to improving Chicago’s dismal production at third base, Chapman would provide the club with a much-needed boost in power. While the Cubs’ offense scored the sixth-most runs in the majors last year, they ranked 12th in the majors with a collective wRC+ of just 104 thanks in large part to middling power production, as evidenced by their roughly average ISO (.167) and home run total (196).
That’s not to say Chapman comes without red flags, of course. While the 30-year-old has long been a reliable source of 25-to-30 home runs per season, he suffered something of a power outage in 2023 with just 17 home runs in 581 plate appearances. While his underlying metrics (including a 17.1% barrel rate and a career-best 56.1% Hard-Hit rate) suggest that lack of power production may not have been deserved, it’s still a somewhat worrying sign for a slugger on the wrong side of 30 who regularly posts strikeout rates that approach 30%. Despite those concerns, MLBTR projected Chapman for a six-year, $150MM deal this offseason while ranking him as the winter’s third-best positional free agent and seventh overall on our annual Top 50 MLB Free Agents list. Much of that value comes from the slugger’s glove.
Though he hasn’t posted the elite OAA numbers in recent years that he did earlier in his career, Chapman is still on the shortlist of best defensive third baseman in the game; his +5 OAA in 2023 ranked in the 87th percentile, while his +12 DRS leaves him as the 12th most valuable infielder with the glove in baseball last year. Even if his offense is closer to the 110 wRC+ range than his career mark of 118 or the 130 wRC+ he posted during his peak years of 2018-20, pairing Chapman with Swanson and Hoerner on the infield dirt would put the Cubs in the conversation for the best infield defense in the sport.
Just as the Cubs are looking into other options besides Chapman as they look to add an impact bat in free agency, so too does Chapman have other suitors beyond Chicago. Both the Giants and the incumbent Blue Jays have also been connected to the infield so far this offseason, with Toronto having reportedly offered Chapman an extension north of $100MM in the four-to-five year range before he even hit the open market. An interesting wrinkle in the Chapman sweepstakes is that each of the aforementioned teams he’s been connected to so far this winter are also rumored to be among the remaining suitors for Ohtani.
Though it’s at least feasible that a club could look to sign Chapman this winter even after landing Ohtani, it’s impossible to predict what sort of payroll space any team would have remaining after committing $500MM or more to the offseason’s top free agent. Given that uncertainty and the position of Chapman’s publicly-known suitors as potential players in the Ohtani sweepstakes, it would be a surprise if a signing was imminent for the offseason’s top infielder.