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Commentary: Don't be frustrated by minor Cubs free agent deals

Ryan Herrera Avatar
January 10, 2023

When Tucker Barnhart was a free agent looking for a new home, he turned to a friend and former Cubs pitcher who assured him Wrigley Field is a good place to try and rebound after a down year.

“I leaned on Wade Miley a lot,” Barnhart said via a Zoom call on Wednesday about the veteran southpaw who spent an injury-plagued campaign on the North Side in 2022. “… I mean, he’s a 10-, 11-, 12-year big leaguer. He’s played in multiple organizations, and he couldn’t say enough good things about the Cubs and about the organization. He said, ‘You know, me, man. I’ve been in quite a lot of places, and I played on different sides of the country, for winners, for losers.’ He said, ‘It’s hard for me to choose or pick a different organization that’s done it better.'”

That’s a ringing endorsement from a player who was around the club for less than a year. Along with the proximity to Indiana (where he grew up), it was enough of a selling point to get Barnhart to agree to continue his career in Chicago on a two-year, $6.5 million pact (the second year is included as a player option).

But when news of that signing came out, many Cubs fans were less than enthusiastic. Barnhart had just come off a season he would tell you himself was bad. The highest wRC+ of his career was 90 in 2017, but 2022 saw that mark sink down to 63, his lowest since his debut season in 2014. And on the other side of the ball, the two-time Gold Glove Award winner had arguably his worst season behind the plate, posting a career-low -8 defensive runs saved. So, the signing felt underwhelming to plenty of Cubs fans, even though Barnhart said he’s been putting in the work to be the kind of catcher the Cubs can count on.

“For me, I had a bad year. I’ll be the first one to tell you, and I don’t mind saying that,” Barnhart said. “But I think when you’re in spots where you have to kind of dig yourself out, you learn the most about yourself and you learn how to persevere through those situations. For me, I hit rock bottom in terms of my performance, at least I felt, and I took that into the offseason as motivation. Everybody is gonna say that. I know that, and it’s cliche as hell, but I’ve enjoyed my work more this offseason in looking forward to bouncing back.”

When I think about it, though, I get the feeling that the underwhelming part of it comes not totally from the Barnhart signing itself, but from fans wanting more.

Entering the offseason with a large amount of cap space, with promises to use the resources necessary to make this team competitive again and with a number of holes on the roster to fill, Cubs fans could dream.

Would they bring in Carlos Correa or Trea Turner to be the new shortstop?

Would they make a run at someone like Carlos Rodón to be the new ace of the rotation?

Were José Abreu, Christian Vázquez or anyone else like that going to come to Chicago to play key complementary roles?

In the end, none of that came to fruition.

The Cubs did add Dansby Swanson (seven years, $177 million) to play Gold Glove defense at shortstop alongside Nico Hoerner at second base. They added Jameson Taillon (four years, $68 million) to a rotation lacking in that top tier of pitchers but featuring plenty of good depth. They even took a one-year, $17.5 million flier on Cody Bellinger to see if he can rediscover anything close to his former NL MVP form.

But the reason why Cubs fans may still feel underwhelmed by the offseason is because they had visions for more. Instead, much of the Cubs’ offseason was spent striking more minor deals with veterans players who don’t have the perception “needle movers.”

In addition to Barnhart’s deal, that includes a two-year, $19 million deal to bring back Drew Smyly, which seemed like a no-brainer but is also a move for a back-end starter at best; a one-year, $2.8 million deal with Brad Boxberger, who was reliable in out of Milwaukee’s bullpen the past two years but may not even be the best late-inning option on the Cubs right now); and reportedly a one-year, $720,000 (the major league minimum) with Eric Hosmer, who didn’t quite live up to his big contract in San Diego.

No, these four likely won’t lead the Cubs to the playoffs next year. And after comments made by Cubs brass, fans had a reason to envision an offseason with at least a couple more high-profile signings. So, I see where that side is coming from.

But at the same time, these minor deals should result bring positive value to the team even if it isn’t all shown in the stat sheets:

  • Barnhart said he’s been told he’ll basically be splitting time with incumbent catcher Yan Gomes. At the very least, he’ll provide intangible value as a respected game-caller who can help the pitching staff gel, especially the younger arms still looking to establish themselves at the big league level
  • Smyly won’t have to get used to pitching at Wrigley Field after spending an overall solid 2022 in Chicago, and he’s one of those depth pieces who should help this team overcome any injury issues better than they did last year
  • Boxberger was a big part of a very good Brewers bullpen the last two seasons, and as someone going into his 12th season as a big leaguer, he’ll be a good presence around the team’s young relievers
  • Hosmer is a one-time All-Star, a four-time Gold Glover and a World Series champion. Even if he remains around league average at the plate, he’s a cheap fill-in who can help Matt Mervis acclimate to the majors at his own pace

The frustration that the Cubs didn’t do more or didn’t sign better players is understandable. When team officials say they “absolutely” want to be more competitive in 2023, and most of the moves they make are question marks instead of sure-fire contributors, fan frustration is inevitable. I completely get it.

But if you look at these deals for what they are, you’ll see scenarios in which they at least bring intangible value to the clubhouse that’s necessary to move forward in this rebuild. Barnhart, Hosmer, Smyly and Boxberger won’t lead the Cubs to the promised land, but they can help bring along the players who someday might.

Fans should want their team to go after the best players it can, yes, and they can be frustrated with the front office when that isn’t the outcome. But outside of that context, these minor free agent deals should benefit this team moving forward, even if that isn’t what fans had envisioned heading into this winter.

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