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With only Dansby Swanson left, should Cubs fans brace for a shortstop-less free agent haul?

Ryan Herrera Avatar
December 14, 2022

The fit seemed so perfect that maybe we were all too quick to convince ourselves the Cubs were bound to sign a free agent shortstop.

The market had the supply (Carlos Correa, Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts and Dansby Swanson), and the Cubs had the demand. At the height of their interest, a report said they could potentially sign two of them. As farfetched as that seemed, considering how much sense it made for them to bring in one of those “Big Four” shortstops, it was always just a matter of time until it happened… right?

Well, thus far, it’s been more “wrong” than anything.

The Cubs weren’t expected to set the market heading into the offseason, but there were scenarios in which they could reach an agreement with one of those four. Almost a month ago, I took a look at the shortstop market and asked whether the Cubs would make that kind of splash. Of course, at the time, the projected contracts seemed a lot more reasonable. They seemed like contracts that were out of the Cubs’ comfort zone but were still ones they could come to grips with.

However, the shortstop market exploded over the last nine days, culminating with the reported agreement between Correa and the Giants on a 13-year, $350 million deal late Tuesday night. That followed the extremely surprising 11-year, $280 million contract given to Bogaerts by the Padres and the market-setting 11-year, $300 million deal between Turner and the Phillies that both came out during the Winter Meetings last week.

Granted, those contracts went beyond what anyone could’ve predicted, and who knows whether they work out. A few years from now, we may sit here and talk about how Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer dodged a bullet. Hoyer has talked about “intelligent spending” multiple times over the past couple of years, spending that helps the team now while also limiting the possibility that the spending could hinder the team in the future. Maybe he’ll be proven right for not giving out those kinds of deals in the long run.

But that’s besides the point. Regardless of what happens with those contracts, the Cubs are left with only one of those shortstops to negotiate with and plenty of other teams who are interested.

Just take a look at those other four teams reportedly still in the Swanson sweepstakes along with the Cubs: the Dodgers lost Turner; the Twins lost Correa; the Red Sox lost Bogaerts; the Braves likely don’t want to lose their own shortstop fresh off a season in which he was named to his first All-Star team and took home his first Gold Glove. Reports have said the Cubs are among the favorites to land Swanson, who turns 29 in February, but are they any more motivated to get him than the other four teams?

At the same time, you have to take into account how the Cubs interest in the other three shortstops played out. They didn’t do enough to bring either Correa, Turner or Bogaerts into the fold when rival suitors drove their prices higher than expected — which probably links back to the idea of “intelligent spending” — so they missed out on the shortstops seen as the top three in this free agent class. Swanson had a breakout year and deserves the praise he has gotten, but he was generally considered to be at least slightly below the level of the other three, whether that was fair or not.

So, if the Cubs weren’t willing to go above and beyond what it took to get the other three, would they do so to get Swanson? And when it inevitably comes down to money and years, will this new market have priced the Cubs out of the Swanson sweepstakes?

From the story linked earlier, here were some of the early-offseason predictions made for the four shortstops from across the baseball media landscape:

MLB Trade Rumors: Correa (9 years, $288 million); Turner (8 years, $268 million); Bogaerts (7 years, $189 million); Swanson (7 years, $154 million)

The Athletic: Correa (8 years, $260 million); Turner (8 years, $296 million); Bogaerts (7 years, $175 million); Swanson (7 years, $168 million)

ESPN: Correa (8 years, $265 million); Turner (8 years, $272 million); Bogaerts (6 years, $168 million); Swanson (6 years, $150 million)

Clearly, not everyone really agrees. But if the average of these numbers provides a good indication, for Correa, it’ll take 8-9 years and roughly $271 million; for Turner, eight years and roughly $278 million; for Bogaerts, 6-7 years and roughly $177 million; and for Swanson, 6-7 years and roughly $157 million.

Each of those predictions so far have undershot the actual contracts by a wide margin in years, dollars or both. If that happened for Correa, Turner and Bogaerts, there’s absolutely reason to believe the same will happen for Swanson.

Would the Cubs be willing to add a couple more years and something like another $45-50 million to those predictions for Swanson? Or would that feel like an overpay? Only those in the front office know for sure, but there’s certainly a case to be made that it could be too much.

Swanson rated better defensively than each of the other three, which matches up with the Cubs desire to improve the middle-infield defense. However, Correa, Turner and Bogaerts still provide steady gloves while bringing proven big league bats with them. Meanwhile, Swanson’s 2022 produced a 116 wRC+ that would’ve only been tied for third on a poor Cubs lineup. It was also just his third season finishing with a wRC+ above 100 despite being in the majors since 2016 (and one of those was that 38-game rookie campaign), so he’s less of a proven commodity offensively despite back-to-back years of 25-plus homers.

At his end-of-season press conference, Hoyer discussed focusing on adding impact bats to eliminate randomness, because “the best teams in baseball blow people out.” Swanson would add more pop than the Cubs had last season, but would he be enough of an impact bat to convince them to give out the type of deal he could command?

That’s not to take away from Swanson as a player. He’s an elite shortstop, he’d be a big upgrade in multiple areas of need, and the Cubs should absolutely be in on him until the very end.

But it’s certainly not a done deal that the Cubs will exit this offseason with a free agent shortstop in tow. Three potential targets are gone, and the Cubs will be fighting with multiple other teams for the services of the best shortstop available. And after Swanson, none of those still on the shortstop market would be better options than letting Nico Hoerner continue to build upon his own breakout season at shortstop.

This team is in a messy situation with three of the top four shortstops gone. Despite the fact that those contracts would’ve seemed absurd a month ago, Hoyer and company are now drawing the ire of a large portion of the fanbase for not being the ones to give them out. If that’s the case for deals that won’t end for 11 years at the earliest, imagine the reaction if the Cubs don’t get Swanson on a contract that will surely be smaller than the other three.

“I think we’re actively involved in the market,” general manager Carter Hawkins said at the Winter Meetings last Tuesday, when Correa and Bogaerts were still on the board. “Whether or not we’re going to get one of those shortstops, TBD, but certainly actively involved, and we’ll see where everything lands.”

“TBD” was a good way to put it when multiple options remained, but now that Swanson is at the top of the shortstop market with a number of suitors to choose from, the Cubs are starting to look more like underdogs in this race — and it might be time for fans to come to terms with that.

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