It’s shaping up as a busy off-season for the Cubs as they look to push on with their rebuild and improve on their 74-88 record in 2022. According to remarks made by president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer to Maddie Lee of the Chicago Sun-Times, the Cubs are expecting to add a starting center fielder, while Jon Morosi of MLB Network reports that the team has been one of the most active early on in the shortstop market.
“We have guys internally that will certainly play out there [in center],” Hoyer said, “but I think the lion’s share might come from external.”
Rafael Ortega and Christopher Morel had the bulk of the playing time in center this past season, but while both are under club control for next season, Hoyer’s comments make it pretty clear that neither are seen as their center fielder moving forward. Ortega hit .241/.331/.358 with seven home runs, while Morel posted a .235/.308/.433 line with 16 home runs in his rookie campaign. Morel bounced around the infield positions as well, but neither posted positive defensive marks for their work in center.
A number of the Cubs top prospects are outfielders, but they’re at varying stages of their development. Their top prospect, according to Fangraphs, Pete Crowe-Armstrong is at High-A while Kevin Alcantara (third) is at Single-A. Brennen Davis and Alexander Canario are their best outfield prospects at Triple-A, but both are injured and uncertain timelines.
“Certainly with [Alexander] Canario’s injury and Brennen [Davis’] setback, it made that just that much more obvious,” Hoyer said.
As far as center field options go in free agency, the options aren’t particularly plentiful. Aaron Judge is the biggest name available, but while he played a significant amount of center this season for the Yankees, it seems unlikely the Cubs would be prepared to make the sort of splash needed to land him. Brandon Nimmo’s blend of elite on-base skills, solid power, and adequate defense would make him a strong candidate, but even though he’ll be much cheaper than Judge, he’ll still likely command a deal north of $100MM and there’ll be plenty of suitors to drive his price up.
Two less high profile names to consider are Kevin Kiermaier and Cody Bellinger, and Gordon Wittenmyer of NBC Sports reports that both are n the Cubs’ radar. Kiermaier, 33, is a free agent after the Rays declined his team option for 2023. While his previously elite defensive numbers have dropped off as he’s aged, he’s still a strong defender and would be a cheaper stopgap option until one of the Cubs’ prospects are ready. Bellinger could well become a free agent shortly if the Dodgers opt to non-tender him. He’s dropped off considerably since his 47-homer MVP year in 2019, posting a wRC+ of 47 and 83 the past two seasons, but is still a solid defender in center, and at 27, he’s young enough that a change of scenery might allow him to rediscover some of his offensive talent.
While a big splash in center doesn’t appear likely, it could come at shortstop where the team is active in the market for the top four options available – Trea Turner, Carlos Correa, Dansby Swanson and Xander Bogaerts. Wittenmyer’s report adds that the Cubs apparently “love” Correa, something that dates back to the 2012 draft when they were eyeing him up with the sixth pick before he went first overall to the Astros. The 28-year-old had a strong platform year with the Twins, where he signed on a short term deal after no adequate long term deals materialized last winter. He’ll look to cash in this winter though, and it’s certainly possible that his contract lands in the $300MM range over nine or ten years.
The Cubs used Nico Hoerner at shortstop this year to great effect. Hoerner was worth 11 Defensive Runs Saved and 13 Outs Above Average at the position, but he could easily slide over to second base in the event the Cubs do sign one of the aforementioned shortstops, and take over at shortstop again if a new signing begins to decline and needs to switch position.
Ultimately, it’s going to be a busy winter for the Cubs, and it won’t just stop at shortstop and center field. As Wittenmyer adds, the Cubs have explored upgrading at first base and have checked in with Josh Bell and Trey Mancini, while they’re also looking to beef up their rotation and showing interest in Koudai Senga and a reunion with lefty Drew Smyly. The Cubs payroll is currently projected at $126MM, according to RosterResource. That’s well short of the sort of spending they made during their championship years last decade, so as they begin to show progress in their rebuild, it’s not surprising to see them willing to flex their financial muscle again.