The Cubs announced a series of minor league deals with invitations to Major League Spring Training on Friday, signing infielder Dixon Machado, infielder Ildemaro Vargas, righty Jonathan Holder, catcher P.J. Higgins and lefty Locke St. John. The Cubs also confirmed previously reported minor league deals with lefty Stephen Gonsalves and righty Mark Leiter Jr.
Machado, 30 in February, spent parts of four seasons as a backup infielder with the Tigers from 2015-18 before spending the 2019 season with the Cubs’ Triple-A affiliate in Iowa. From there, he signed on with the Lotte Giants of the Korea Baseball Organization, serving as their primary shortstop in 2020-21 and hitting a combined .280/.358/.393 with 17 home runs, 52 doubles, two triples and 23 steals (in 29 tries) over the life of 1095 plate appearances. Regarded as a quality defender, Machado hit just .227/.285/.295 in 505 Major League plate appearances in Detroit, though he posted a .261/.371/.480 slash in 102 games/393 plate appearances with the Cubs’ Iowa affiliate in 2019.
The 30-year-old Vargas spent nine game with the Cubs in 2021 — a season he split between Chicago, Arizona and Pittsburgh. A versatile defender who’s appeared at all four infield positions and both outfield corners in the big leagues, Vargas is a switch-hitter with a .233/.268/.355 batting line in parts of five MLB seasons with four teams. (He’s also been with the Twins, in addition to three already-listed clubs.) He’s had much more success in Triple-A, where he’s a .324/.368/.472 batter in 1736 plate appearances.
Holder, 28, looked to be on the path toward cementing himself in the Yankees’ bullpen as recently as 2017-18, when he logged a combined 105 1/3 innings of 3.42 ERA ball with a 22.6% strikeout rate and a tiny 6.1% walk rate. Holder had a pair of IL stints for shoulder troubles in 2019, however, the second of which ended his season in early August. He finished that year with an ugly 6.31 ERA, and he managed just a 4.98 mark in 21 2/3 innings with the Yankees a year later, posting career-worst walk and strikeout rates along the way.
This will actually be Holder’s second season in the Cubs organization. He signed a non-guaranteed, $750K Major League deal with Chicago last winter after being non-tendered by the Yankees, but recurred shoulder woes wiped out the year for him. Holder opened the season on the 10-day IL with a shoulder strain, moved to the 60-day on April 26, and never returned. He ended the season on the Major League injured list and would’ve been considered a big league free agent who was ineligible to sign, but it seems (based on Holder’s transaction log at MLB.com) that this deal was actually finalized on Nov. 19 but simply not announced until today.
It’s a similar story for the 28-year-old Higgins, who was on the Cubs’ Major League injured list at season’s end but became a free agent after being outrighted in early November. Like Holder, his player page at MLB.com indicates that this deal came together on Nov. 19 but wasn’t immediately announced. (It should be noted that it’s commonplace for teams to hold off on announcing minor league deals/Spring Training invites individually and instead announce them in batches like this.)
Higgins made his big league debut with the Cubs this past season, appearing in nine games and going 1-for-23 at the plate. A 12th-rounder back in the Cubs’ 2015 draft, Higgins has spent his entire career in the organization, batting .273/.359/.370 in just over 2000 minor league plate appearances.
As for St. John, who’ll turn 29 in January, he was a 32nd-round pick by the Tigers back in 2014 and briefly appeared in the Majors with the 2019 Rangers. He yielded four runs in 6 2/3 innings during that brief cup of coffee but has a solid minor league track record, with a 3.44 ERA, a 22.6% strikeout rate and an 8.7% walk rate in 483 1/3 innings (including 79 innings of 4.10 ERA ball with a 28.5% strikeout rate in Triple-A).