I was really hoping I wouldn’t get a chance to write this.
Spring training should’ve been well underway, the Cubs should’ve been down in Mesa, Ariz., getting preseason games in and any talk of losing regular-season games should’ve been over. Instead, here we are, with Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association still far apart on CBA talks and the first two regular-season series officially canceled by commissioner Rob Manfred.
It sucks. It really, really sucks. But with no Cubs news to follow for the time being, that gives me time to take a crack at this, the top five things the Cubs need to address when the lockout finally ends.
1. Get Willson Contreras a contract
These aren’t listed in order, necessarily, but this one does feel like the most important one to get figured out over the course of spring training.
Free agency will get hectic as soon as the lockout is over, and it’ll take at least a few days before the Cubs can get their full roster to Mesa to kick off a very condensed preseason. While that is all happening, president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer and Co. need to get cracking on what’s next with Contreras in Chicago.
Contreras is in his last year of club control, and MLB Trade Rumors projects him to get paid $8.7 million through arbitration. After this season, the 29-year-old hits free agency and the Cubs could lose him for nothing (especially if draft-pick compensation is gone with the new CBA).
There should be some innate desire by the team to keep Contreras in town. He’s one of the better hitting catchers in baseball and has improved tremendously on the defensive side, not to mention his role as the soul of the North Siders. Parting ways with him might not feel quite as heart-breaking as the deals that shipped Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Báez out of town, but the effects felt on the clubhouse would be just as tough.
Contreras said last season that he’s open to an extension but also doesn’t want to go through an extended rebuild, and the sell-off made extending Contreras seem less likely. However, the post-World Series, pre-lockout additions the Cubs made – including the buzzer-beater signing of Marcus Stroman – might be the part of the plan Chicago’s All-Star catcher wanted to see before agreeing to a new contract.
Do the right thing, Cubs. Get that man a contract.
2. Set the back of the rotation
I mentioned Stroman as part of the plan that could help Contreras stay in Chicago, and that’s because as far as competing in the near future, Stroman is a part of that plan.
He’ll join Kyle Hendricks at the top of the Cubs’ rotation, with Hendricks probably getting the ball on Opening Day (whenever that is) followed by Stroman on Day 2. Wade Miley, who comes over from the Reds after being claimed off waivers in November, should be a solid No. 3. So where does that leave the last two starting spots?
Assuming the Cubs go with in-house options, they’ll probably fill out the rotation with a combination of Adbert Alzolay, Alec Mills, Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson. All four have their positives and negatives.
Alzolay has a mid-90s fastball and an incredible slider, but his splits when pitching to righties versus lefties were way too large to just give him a rotation spot without clear improvement. Mills had better numbers as a starter than as a reliever last year, but he would be the fourth contact-oriented Cubs starter. Steele and Thompson both faced their share of struggles as rookies making the jump to big-league starters, but both also showed plenty of flashes and finished the year on respective high-notes.
Barring any other free agent signings, I’d expect Alzolay and Steele to get the last two starting jobs but be on thinner ice than Hendricks, Stroman and Miley. There’s also always the chance David Ross implements more of a six-man rotation.
Whichever way it goes, making those decisions needs to be high on the priority list.
3. Sign a shortstop
This subhead would’ve said “sign Carlos Correa” if this story came out two months ago, but since Correa hired Scott Boras as his agent, the Cubs might have to widen the search.
This isn’t really a knock on Nico Hoerner, the incumbent shortstop who could’ve made a case to be the starter had he stayed healthy after the trade deadline. But that’s essentially why Chicago has to be looking to bring in a shortstop. With Hoerner managing to make only 44 more plate appearances in last year’s 162-game season than in 2020’s 60-game sprint, the jury is still out on whether Hoerner should be the Cubs’ everyday shortstop.
Which leads us to free agency, where Correa and Trevor Story top the list of available shortstops.
Correa is arguably the top player on the market, as the 27-year-old brings with him an All-Star caliber bat and an upper-echelon glove at short. He’s already been linked to the Cubs as the club reached out to his camp prior to the lockout. Signing Correa this season would prove Chicago is committed to competing now. However, Boras can likely net Correa a 10-year deal (also likely to be above $300 million), and it’s unclear whether the Cubs would even entertain a contract that long.
That leaves Story, the only other high-profile shortstop left on the market after Báez, Corey Seager and Marcus Semien signed prior to the lockout. Story has two Silver Sluggers to his name (though he did have the luxury of hitting at Coors Field) as well as a plus glove at the position, and he likely won’t command the deal Correa will once the free agent frenzy begins.
If Chicago decides it doesn’t want to take on a contract like the one Correa should get, Story would be a great “consolation prize” to step into the Cubs’ infield.
4. Figure out the DH
Manfred announced on Feb. 10 that the universal designated hitter was coming to baseball, meaning all 15 National League teams need to find another bat to fill their lineups every game.
The Cubs could go a more traditional route and use an everyday DH like some of their American League counterparts. With the way the roster is set up right now, Clint Frazier could be an everyday DH option if Ross tries to keep a consistent, daily lineup. The Cubs could also take a look at some of their former players in free agency like Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos (though signing any of the three doesn’t seem all that likely).
What seems likely is that Ross goes with more of a committee approach to the DH. Say the Cubs do bring in a free agent shortstop. That frees up Ross to utilize Hoerner’s versatility, moving him around the field to give a player like Nick Madrigal a breather while keeping his bat in the lineup. The same goes with keeping Contreras fresh, as Ross could put Yan Gomes behind the plate and move Contreras to DH every once in a while. And just for fun, let’s say Chicago does bring Rizzo back. To keep his glove in the field consistently while also keeping his back issues in check, Ross could make a first base/DH platoon with Rizzo and Frank Schwindel.
The 2020 season was the only time in the Cubs’ history that the club has had to deal with finding a DH, which will make it interesting to see how Ross goes about plugging that spot in the batting order.
5. Take a good, hard look at Brennen Davis
OK, I’m cheating a little bit with this one, since it won’t take an end to the lockout to get done. This is, though, the one that might impact the Cubs’ future most.
Davis is fortunately one of the few prospects who isn’t on Chicago’s 40-man roster, meaning he isn’t affected by MLB’s lockout. He’s been in Mesa since Minor League spring training started, and he’ll start the season with Triple-A Iowa where he put up a .933 OPS in a 15-game stint in September. After moving quickly through the Minor League ranks last year, it wasn’t outside of the imagination that the Cubs’ top prospect could be a mid-season call up.
But the current lack of a big-league spring training means Davis won’t get to show off his offseason work surrounded by big leaguers. That hurts Davis because a killer spring training with the Cubs would’ve made it tough for the club to justify not giving Davis a shot at all in 2022. Even with Davis being unable to train with the big leaguers for now, Chicago’s brass still needs to keep an eye on what the 22-year-old is doing while MLB and the players work out a new CBA.
How is Davis looking at the plate? Is he showing some improvement in center? And honestly, does the eye-test show you he’s getting close to Major League ready?
There’s no real shot Davis is with the Cubs on Opening Day (whenever that happens), but if he shows out in spring training, there’s definitely a chance he’ll be in Chicago before the year is over.