Let’s face the facts, the Chicago Cubs were one of the last four teams standing in baseball for the third consecutive season, and a season removed from winning the World Series. While that is a really nice feather in your cap, the way things ended in 2017 showed Cubs fans and the front office a few glaring holes that are left in this team. With some of the team’s pieces leaving in free agency, and the need to just plain get better in certain areas, these five free agents will help to bring the Cubs back to the World Series in 2018.
5. Lorenzo Cain, CF/OF
A lot of fans have pointed to two issues in the Chicago offense, lack of contact hitters and lack of a true leadoff hitter. Lorenzo Cain can answer these questions for the Cubs, the only issue is – where would he play?
He manned centerfield for the Kansas City Royals in 151 games this season, and in 85% of his games as a professional. Albert Almora is lightyears ahead of Cain defensively, which would push him to one of the corners. He has played right field, and although he has two games played in left, could handle that position as well. There are legit ways that an outfield of Kyle Schwarber/Ian Happ, Almora, Cain, and Jason Heyward could co-exist. Cain is a weird case of opposite splits, however, hitting better against right-handers than lefties in 2017, there isn’t much of a case for a platoon with him on the roster. They could earn 130 starts each, or a Cain signing could signal a trade of one or more current Cubs outfielders.
How could Cain help the Cubs?
He is a guy that can do a little of it all. Offensively he has some pop (15 HRs in 2017), he can run (127 SB in 8 seasons), and he makes consistent contact (strikes out in only 20% of his at-bats). He also had a career-high in walks in 2017, with 54 which would have tied him for fourth on the Cubs.
Cain has a winning pedigree. A key cog in the 2015 Royals championship season, he was also the 2014 ALCS MVP after hitting .533 in the romping of the Baltimore Orioles. The guy is tested, a veteran that comes from a winning organization, and knows how to lay the game. These are great attributes that Theo Epstein and company look for in their players (Jon Lester, Anthony Rizzo, Jason Heyward, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber). He would be yet another leader, with a positive demeanor, in a clubhouse full of great guys.
So what’s the issue?
Cain isn’t exactly a leadoff hitter. He has floated around the Kansas City lineup, hitting anywhere from first to ninth. In fact, his most effective spot in a lineup is batting eighth, where he owns a .363/.410/.522 slash line. Batting leadoff he is a career .262/.311/.400 hitter. Also, Theo Epstein was pretty adamant that the Cubs organization thinks a true leadoff hitter is more of a luxury than a necessity, pointing to the odds of a Cain signing less likely.
4. Alex Cobb, SP
There will be a lot of talk about Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, and even Lance Lynn this offseason, and of course, they deserve that recognition. The free agent signing that will likely go under the radar, and pay the most dividends will be Alex Cobb. Alex is the youngest of that group and has been a successful pitcher in this league longer than the aforementioned guys.
Cobb has a career 3.50 ERA pitching in the American League East, a division known for offensive clubs. Put a guy like Cobb on a Cubs team, which flashes more glove than the Tampa Bay Rays (outside of CF and possibly 3B), and his numbers would look even more impressive. I would love to see that 92 MPH sinker with a Gold Glove-caliber infield behind him.
How could Cobb help the Cubs?
It is well documented that both Jake Arrieta and John Lackey are leaving via free agency (and rumors of Lackey retiring). Cobb would slide right into a Cubs rotation that features Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Jose Quintana. These are all guys with underrated pedigrees but have shown that they are on the top of the pitching food chain. Cobb is one more of those guys.
Cobb also features a knuckle-curve, which the league, in general, is shifting towards these big breaking balls. I believe it is a pitch that helps pitchers today get away with balls low in the zone since a lot of hitters are beginning to develop that upper-cut swing to create more loft. The curve has proven to be deadly in the playoffs, especially in two-strike counts, but can also contribute to a higher number of ground balls – which Cobb is loaded with ground ball type stuff.
Lastly, Cobb has a lot of familiarity with Joe Maddon, having played for him until the 2015 season. Maddon coached Cobb at his best, pitching to the tune of a 2.82 ERA in 309 innings pitched. In addition, Cobb has pitched for the new Cubs pitching coach, Jim Hickey his entire big league career, which adds to the familiarity. If anyone can put Cobb into the best situations to succeed, it is Joe and Jim.
So what’s the issue?
For one, the Cubs starting staff will feature guys that aren’t that fast. Lester averages 92 on his heater, Kyle Hendricks sits at 87, and Quintana lives at 93. With each of these guys being, slower, it begins to get tough in a playoff series to get hitters off of pitchers.
The Cubs could benefit by adding a starter that could dial it up to the 95, 96, 97 MPH range. That, or they need to bolster their bullpen with hard-throwing arms which can create that separation for hitters.
3. Brandon Morrow, RP
This is one of those guys that will get hitters off of that slower fastball. A guy that can dial it up to 100 MPH, but also has shown the ability to get in games and throw strikes. This guy is almost a no-brainer for the Cubs to pursue. They have obvious holes in their pen, they allowed WAY TOO MANY walks, and the relievers they have now wouldn’t challenge hitters when guys were on base. Morrow is all of those things.
This guy’s fastball averages 98 MPH, features a cutter at 92, and a devastating slider that often times comes in at 90+ MPH. He is a force in the pen, which could become a setup man, or can be the guy that replaces Wade Davis as the team’s closer.
Something else I love about Morrow, he didn’t allow a single home run in the regular season and has only allowed 7 HRs in the past four seasons. In comparison, Carl Edwards Jr and Wade Davis allowed 6 HRs each in 2017. Additionally, his 9 walks allowed were four times less than Edwards this season.
How could Morrow help the Cubs?
Theo Epstein said it, the Cubs bullpen was 30th out of 30 teams in unintentional walks in 2017. A bullpen cannot be consistently successful while offering free passes to batters. It gives the other team more opportunities to score, it forces their pitchers to throw more, and it causes other guys to pitch in games they otherwise wouldn’t have been needed in.
Putting a guy in there like Morrow has the ability to redefine an entire bullpen. Guys see a pitcher going right at hitters, and that becomes contagious. Brandon could prove to make a guy like Edwards better. He could make Pedro Strop better. He can help Justin Wilson get better.
So what’s the issue?
Relief pitchers are the most unpredictable players in the game. They can be lights out for a season, or even three or four seasons, and then fall off suddenly and very hard. It isn’t exactly surprising either since most relievers are pitchers that were never consistent enough to be starting pitchers.
The other factor here is this season will propel contract demands into crazy levels. Theo has been pretty steadfast in not tossing huge amounts of money at the bullpen, probably for the reason that they are very unpredictable year-over-year. The problem here is, you are always scouring the broken market for surprise arms, expecting young players to come through, or trading prospects mid-season to fix holes. Brandon will most likely ask for money that normally goes to closers, which he has yet to prove he can do.
2. Greg Holland, CL
With Wade Davis leaving it leaves a huge hole at the closer position. While there was some talk about Justin Wilson had the ability to become the Cubs closer in 2018, nothing in his performance since coming to Chicago makes you feel good about that. There was also a ton of talk about Edwards becoming a closer after his 2016 playoffs. The 2017 season, especially the playoffs, shouldn’t make anyone comfortable with that either.
So in comes the free agent class. There are guys like Fernando Rodney or Joe Smith, guys that the Cubs had already taken fliers on. While Rodney was outstanding for the Arizona Diamondbacks this past season, I don’t know if he makes anyone excited when you hear your favorite team signed him.
Really this class of closers comes down to Holland and Davis. Davis, while having a down season, pitched well enough to earn himself a potential four-year deal in the neighborhood of $60 million (see Mark Melancon). Holland was on pace to surpass even that. Then August hit and Holland’s stock dropped.
How can Holland help the Cubs?
For starters, he would present the Cubs with their first legit closer that they didn’t need to trade for since the 2015 season. The Cubs have spent several top 100 prospects on filling their closer’s role, and will enter the 2017 free agency period without an answer to the position, yet again.
When Holland is on, he is one of, if not the best reliever in baseball. Look to his June alone, a WHIP of .522 is unheard of, even if it was a 9 game stretch. But look at the season as a whole, with August truly being an outlier, Greg owned a 1.69 ERA if you remove it from this season. That’s impressive but even more impressive that he accomplished this pitching in Coor’s Field.
So what’s the issue?
That August does give you pause, and it would be very interesting to see how much that month will cost him in free agency. Even with the need, I don’t see the Cubs spending $60 million on a closer, but if he falls into that $45 million range they could make a run.
I am also curious to see if his arm is completely healed and if it can bounce back from Tommy John surgery. He pitched exceptionally well in ’17 after missing all of ’16, but it is that year after the return that becomes sooo important. He will likely opt out of his deal, but there isn’t the certainty that he will get what he is potentially worth. He also isn’t a guarantee to be the pitcher he was pre or post-TJ.
1. Yu Darvish, SP
The top two pitchers in free agency are Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta. With the Cubs getting the first crack at resigning Jake, it is the belief of almost everyone that he will reject any offer and hit the open market. Yu will also give the Los Angeles Dodgers the first crack, but he will certainly look to pursue a six-figure salary and opt for free agency.
Depending on which list you look at, Yu and Jake are 1 or 2 on each, and they are interchangeable. My fear with resigning Jake to a long-term deal is that he has come to the end of his elite status. I am not saying Jake isn’t good, or that he doesn’t have a ton of value. What I am saying is, he has continued to “re-invent” himself, and while he has done so to his benefit, the 2017 version of Jake isn’t the 2015 version which was extremely dominant. Jake can go out there and blow through a lineup at any time, it is just less likely that he will do on a regular basis.
Yu, on the other hand, is very much in the prime of his pitching career. He is a guy that can dial his fastball up over 95 MPH and strikes out more than one an inning. His assortment of pitches is a starters dream repertoire, offering strong sliders, sinkers, and cutters with a dash of curves (two types), change-ups, and a mean splitter.
How can Yu help the Cubs?
He, like Jake, is the only free agent pitcher that can help the Cubs rotation from the top down as opposed to fitting in somewhere in the middle. I don’t know if he is a true “ace” but he is a guy that can shut down a lineup every time he goes out.
He would also be the only Cubs starter that can reliably go out and get outs from striking out the opponents on a regular basis. The power-pitcher might be a bit overrated in the game today, but every team needs a guy that can get outs by dominating a hitter rather than allowing contact. This isn’t to say Lester or Quintana or Hendricks can’t produce strikeouts, it is just Darvish has a high probability to do so.
He also helps retain some of the Cubs young talents and will be able to be signed without the fear of losing a first-round pick due to the new collective bargaining agreement. This deal would on;y cost the Cubs dollars, which they will have some $80 million to spend and still be under the luxury tax.
So what’s the issue?
He is going to ask for a lot of money, and there will likely be a lot of teams interested in him. MLB’s Jim Duquette believes that there will be at least six teams looking to sign Darvish, including all of the richest names in the game. The Cubs will likely need to offer Darvish a Lester-like deal to get him, but teams like the New York Yankees, Dodgers, and Texas Rangers will have pockets big enough to match.
Another real question is health. Yu has missed time in all but one season since coming to the states and recently spent 10-days on the DL for a back issue. Certainly, injuries have contributed to his performance slipping a bit in the last two seasons, which throws a question mark in how durable he will be if you sign him to a six-year pact.
Let us know what you think in the comments below. Would you be happy with the Cubs signing these guys? Are there others on the market that would fit in better? We want to hear from you!