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SAN DIEGO — Back when Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts met with a group of reporters at Wrigley Field in September, he said the “ball is in Jed’s court” in terms of how team president Jed Hoyer could use the team’s resources this winter.
He said Hoyer had the flexibility, freedom and support to sign a player if it was “the right person and the right time.”
Essentially, either the praises for a successful offseason or the blame for a winter that didn’t move the needle and didn’t make the Cubs more competitive in 2023 were all going to land at Hoyer’s feet.
It was understandable for Cubs fans to have been skeptical that they would be praising Hoyer this offseason. His talk about “intelligent spending” didn’t inspire confidence that he’d shell out the years or money for one of the star players on the market. And considering the last few years featured more gutting of the roster than bringing in pricey free agents, fans needed to see that the Cubs were committed to spending and trying to compete in 2023.
Hoyer made it clear Monday at the Winter Meetings that the Cubs’ intention was to be active in the free-agent market.
“Certainly, we have a lot of offers out there, and we’ll continue to make offers,” he said. “Whether things come to fruition or not, you never quite know, but it won’t be through sort of a lack of putting offers out there and trying. But you never know. Getting deals done is complicated, obviously, but we’ll certainly try.”
And on Tuesday, that work turned into results for Hoyer and company.
The Cubs reportedly reached agreements with both Cody Bellinger and Jameson Taillon during Day 2 of the Winter Meetings, with multiple reports stating Bellinger is receiving $17.5 million guaranteed ($12 million in 2023, mutual option for 2024 with a $5.5 million buyout) while Taillon is signing for four years and $68 million.
As agent Scott Boras said earlier in the day Tuesday that he believed “the Tom Tom drum is beating again,” and these two deals are the first signs of that.
No, the moves likely don’t make the Cubs contenders on their own. Taillon was solid in the Yankees’ rotation in 2022 (14-5, 3.91 ERA) but ultimately finished with less fWAR than first-time full-year starting pitcher Justin Steele (2.3 and 2.6, respectively). Meanwhile, Bellinger continued to underwhelm at the plate as he posted just an 83 wRC+, his second straight season with that number sitting below league average.
But still, the Cubs’ willingness to spend this winter has become clear after hitting the market and filling a couple of holes on the roster.
In 2022, the Cubs recorded -18 defensive runs saved and -7 outs above average as a group in center field, which both fell at the bottom of all major league teams. In Bellinger, they’re getting a steady glove at the position who finished 2022 with six OAA. He did end up with zero DRS, but considering where the Cubs were at in that department when the season ended, that’d still be an improvement.
“With Cody and his defense, the talent that he has, I think he’s the type of guy that potentially could be a good fit for us,” general manager Carter Hawkins said.
Considering the deal only guarantees one year, it’ll pay for itself if the Cubs just get positive production on the defensive side of the ball from Bellinger. Anything that comes with the bat would be a bonus.
Bellinger is of course a former National League MVP who recorded an astounding 161 wRC+ in that 2019 season, so maybe a change of scenery could actually help him rediscover some of what he’s last over the last three seasons.
“Sometimes, when you’re doing things over and over again, it can get a little bit stale,” Hawkins said. “I think oftentimes, it’s just that one new voice, that one new idea that can really click something for you. I think you see that not only in baseball but throughout life, and it’s something that we’re definitely looking at when we’re considering a free agent or trade acquisitions.”
In Taillon, the Cubs are getting a workhorse pitcher who’s made at least 29 starts in each of the past two seasons after missing most of 2019 and all 2020 due to Tommy John surgery. They’ll also be getting a pitcher who finished this past season in the 94th percentile in walk rate (per Baseball Savant), which is necessary for a pitcher who doesn’t miss a ton of bats (26th percentile in whiff rate in 2022).
“You can never have enough pitching,” Hawkins said Tuesday before the move was reported. “That’s a pretty tried and true heuristic there. We would absolutely look to add as many [pitchers] as we can. I think we do have great internal options already that are guys that we want to continue to give innings to, but there are other guys out there that we’d be interested in bringing on board and continue to supplement that staff. Definitely, we’re engaged in that market.”
Again, the Cubs aren’t going to become contenders off the backs of Bellinger and Taillon alone. The former feels like more of a bounce-back candidate, while the latter probably won’t become an ace-like starting pitcher.
So this shouldn’t be where the Cubs’ spending spree ends.
And if the rumors are true, it won’t.
The Cubs remain connected to the top-three free-agent shortstops left on the board (Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts and Dansby Swanson) after Trea Turner signed with the Phillies on Monday. They’re still looking to add another catcher, another starting pitcher and maybe even a first baseman.
The Cubs still have money to spend this offseason, and they’re already proving that they’re ready to do that. And with the two moves they already made Tuesday, there’s certainly hope that they’ll bring in the pieces to truly compete in 2023 and beyond.
“I’m very confident that we’re moving in the right direction, for sure,” manager David Ross said Tuesday. “I definitely think we’re going to continue to add talented pieces. Got a chance to back off and just look at some of the stuff that was going on in the minor leagues that’s coming. Going back to being in these meetings, you walk through the dynamic of how things have been done in the past and what that took and what trajectory we’re on. You’re trying to line those things up. So yeah, I think there’s a bright future ahead.”
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