A Pathway for Cubs Contention in 2022: Starting Pitching

Prelude:

The Chicago Cubs took extraordinary measures not to “go halfway” in their trade deadline moves. Jed Hoyer, in his first season as President of Baseball operations, seemingly traded every available player on expiring deals. The returns of those trades are promising, but the question that fans have been asking is “is this another rebuild?”. For his part, Hoyer maintains that the Cubs have plans to compete in the immediacy and they have funds to spend. Scrutiny to that statement is understandable, after all the Cubs just traded all their stars. Are they really going to go all-in? Will they spend the money necessary to compete? There are many roads that lead to the “Next Great Cubs Team”, but this is one possible pathway to compete as early as next season while honoring the future core of the team.

In an ideal world, any contention plans serve two main goals:

  1. Bring in players to help you compete
  2. Don’t jeopardize your future

Disclaimers: I operate on the assumption that all mock trades are bad, including mine. They are. And even though I’ve historically spent a lot of time on them as a fan, I’ll sparingly use them in posts. The larger point is the players acquired. If you’re here from another team’s fanbase, “welcome”.

Part 1: Building the Offense Part 1 with Wisdom, Ortega, and Schwindel
Part 2: Building the Offense Part 2 with an Ian Happ trade
Part 3: Pitching Targets
Part 4: Match-ups and Line-ups

One Small Step… One Giants Leap Forward

The San Francisco Giants were a surprise team this season. After winning percentages of .395, .451, .475 and .483 in the past four seasons, the Giants owned the best record in baseball by winning 107 games. They took the 106 win Dodgers to five games in the NLDS and lost on a questionable check swing. Their current team success was not driven by years of tanking. The top prospects the Giants have acquired with high draft picks are only making a minimal impact in the majors. Rather, their success comes from two important places. First, the Giants’ veteran position players are having a renaissance. That is a difficult path to walk and hard to predict the likelihood of that happening. The Cubs tried to compete with the same core players from 2015-2017 and had inconsistent results. However what the Giants (and other clubs like the Dodgers and Rays) have done is play the match-ups. I detailed that in parts 1 and 2 of the Path to Contention series.

Second, the Giants hit on three key starting pitching acquisitions: Kevin Gausman, Anthony DeScalfani, and Alex Wood. Gausman was originally signed by the Giants in 2020 for a $9 million investment. He pitched well enough to parley that into a qualifying offer of $18.9 million, which he accepted. DeScalfani and Wood signed for a combined $9 million. The trio has combined for 372 1/3 innings of 3.19 ERA with a 26.1 K%. That is how you rebuild a starting staff.

Replicating that for the Cubs will be close to impossible, but even hitting on one or two starting pitchers goes a long way to contention in 2022. Jed Hoyer publicly called out the importance of bringing in power-pitching, which is a substantial departure from the 2021 starting rotation that boasted a 90.5 mph average fastball entering the year.

In order to accomplish the main goals of this exercise, I’ll focus on the two main goals:

  1. Bring in players to help you compete: Pitchers with upside and velocity
  2. Don’t jeopardize your future: Don’t trade away top prospects or sign players who may lose draft picks

Steven Matz, LHP, 30

The Cubs have been tied on and off to the former Mets starter since he made his debut in 2015. After years of battling injuries, Matz had a career breakout for the Blue Jays. In 150 2/3 innings, Matz put up a 14-7 record with a 3.82 ERA (3.79 FIP) with a 22.3% K-rate and 6.6 BB%. The lefthander will only be 30 beginning next season and his years of ineffectiveness should keep his price tag to a reasonable level. What is so exciting is a spike in velocity and multiple pitches (curveball and slider) that appear to have been tremendously unlucky. His curveball led to a .407 weighted on-base average (which accounts for on-base and slugging; the average is about .320) whereas his expected wOBA was .280. Matz’s 94.5 mph average for his 2-seam/sinker is a power offering and he absolutely fits the model that Jed Hoyer discussed in his end-of-season press conference.

Steven Matz’s sinker usage in 2021 via Savant
Brandon Woodruff’s sinker usage in 2021 via Savant

Matz’s sinker should be highly intriguing to Tommy Hottovy and the pitching development infrastructure. Notice the location for his sinker above. Orienting yourself to the image above, this image is from the viewpoint of the catcher where the left side of the plate is the side where a right-handed hitter stands. The Cubs’ pitching infrastructure has embraced elevated sinkers and Matz’s usage indicates he utilizes a similar strategy. Compare that to Brandon Woodruff’s (right) sinker usage.

He is unlikely to receive a qualifying offer. If he does, I would not recommend signing him until the new CBA is signed and it’s known whether the signing club would lose a draft pick.

Yusei Kikuchi

Kikuchi is a top target to bet on this offseason. Averages 95 mph with the fastball. The overall 2021 line is a solid if unspectacular 7-9 record with a 4.41 ERA with 163 Ks in 157 innings pitched (24.5 K%). He was betrayed by his cutter in 2021 with hitters producing a .476 SLG and .382 wOBA against it. The Cubs have proved to be successful in fixing cutters and sliders in recent years. Fixing (or even scrapping) Kikuchi’s cutter could lead to a breakout in 2022 for the 30-year-old lefthander.

One note, Kikuchi’s spin rate didn’t change after the ban on sticky stuff. However, it should be noted that his results did worsen. In particular, his BB% jumped from 8.1% to 10.4% after the June 21 ban. Pitchers spoke about the inability to grip the ball as well after the ban and while egregious substances like Spider-tack need to be removed from the game the next CBA may clarify what can be added to assist with grip (such as the common sunscreen and rosin combo). I have no knowledge if Kikuchi or any other pitcher used any substances. He hardly seems like an obvious candidate in the first place, but it’s worth noting when projecting 2022 and beyond performances for pitchers. Kikuchi is absolutely one of my favorite targets.

Garrett Richards

Richards has a surprisingly solid profile for a player who could fill a number 4 role on the 2022 Cubs. His price tag should be very affordable. The Red Sox possess a $10 million team option (with a $1.5 M buy-out), which they are expected to decline.

Unlike Kikuchi, Richards had a significant spin-rate drop that corresponds to when the foreign substance ban took place. Again, this article makes no claims that any pitcher was using a substance prior to the ban, but the spin-rate drop is something to watch. But diving even deeper, his fastball and curveball averages post-ban still would rate as above-average spin. There are workable pitches with Richards and he’s a classic case of a pitcher who could benefit from decreasing his fastball usage. He threw his 4-seam 40.1% of the time, but it was hit at a .487 SLG and .388 wOBA clip.

Richards is expected to come cheap, shouldn’t block Adbert Alzolay, Justin Steele, or Keegan Thompson from getting starts if they’re throwing it well, and could be an ideal candidate to move mid-season if pitchers like Caleb Kilian, Ryan Jensen, Anderson Espinoza, or even Max Bain and Jordan Wicks are ready to jump into the rotation.

What about Alec Mills?

Mills had a fairly successful season in 2021 and finished the season second in the rotation for fWAR with 1.1 (Kyle Hendricks led the starting pitchers with a 1.3 fWAR). Mills is also cheap and under team control for several more seasons. He also is a divisive player due to his low velocity (88.7 MPH) who succeeds due to very strict reliance on game-planning and pitch-mix. With the Cubs’ stated plan to increase velocity on the starting staff, Mills fits the picture of a player that pitched well on a cheap contract while also being a player that can be moved. Not every team is interested in lower-velocity starters, but a few teams have had more success with players. Seattle, Arizona, and the Los Angeles Angels (along with the Cubs) all targeted lower velocity starters, possibly viewing these pitchers as undervalued assets. I’m inclined to pursue a trade with the Mariners. While I would absolutely LOVE LHP Brandon Williamson, I am skeptical that Alec Mills would be able to bring in the Mariners’ 7th ranked prospect.

But a pitcher that I could see Seattle being possibly more willing to move that also offers intrigue is Levi Stoudt. The nearly 24-year-old righthander fits the mold of older RHP with premium stuff and starter/reliever questions the Cubs targeted heavily at the trade deadline. Alexander Vizcaíno, Daniel Palencia, and Anderson Espinoza all fit that mold. Stoudt would likely have been drafted higher, but it was known he’d need Tommy John surgery after signing. The righthander struggles with command but throws in the mid-90s with a dynamite changeup and an okay slider. With Gilbert, Hancock, Williamson, and Kirby all slotted in ahead of Stoudt, it’s possible they would move him. I’ll admit this trade may border on unrealistic, though the Baseball Trade Values simulator felt it would be accepted.

The trade is accepted! By Baseball Trade Values

The 2022 Rotation

Without worrying about the specific order, the Cubs would enter the 2022 season with Kyle Hendricks, Steven Matz, Yusei Kikuchi slotted into the first three slots. Garrett Richards would have the first crack at number 4 in the rotation, and Adbert Alzolay and Justin Steele both have ample opportunities in the 5th/6th spots in the opening day rotation. Keegan Thompson could fit in anywhere in the above plan if the Cubs feel so inclined. With just the six members of the listed rotation, the 2022 rotation would have an average fastball of 93 MPH, which now sits as the major league average. It is a far cry from the well-below average velocity of 90.5 MPH entering the 2021 season.

Wrap up

None of the above three players should be viewed as better choices than other names like Noah Syndergaard, Kevin Gausman, Marcus Stroman, or other premier pitchers. The Cubs should pursue all of the above and more but with the mindset of bringing in three SPs for 2022, Matz, Kikuchi, and Richards provide three options that are likely affordable, available, and have upside.

A Pathway for Cubs Contention in 2022: Building the Offense Part 1

The Chicago Cubs took extraordinary measures not to “go halfway” in their trade deadline moves. Jed Hoyer, in his first season as President of Baseball operations, seemingly traded every available player on expiring deals. The returns of those trades are promising, but the question that fans have been asking is “is this another rebuild?”. For his part, Hoyer maintains that the Cubs have plans to compete in the immediacy and they have funs to spend. Scrutiny to that statement is understandable, after all the Cubs just traded all their stars. Are they really going to go all in? Will they spend the money necessary to compete? There are many roads that lead to the “Next Great Cubs Team”, but this is one possible pathway to compete as early as next season while honoring the future core of the team.

In an ideal world, any contention plans serve two main goals:

  1. Bring in players to help you compete
  2. Don’t jeopardize your future

Disclaimers: I operate on the assumption that all mock trades are bad, including mine. They are. And even though I’ve historically spent a lot of time on them as a fan, I’ll sparingly use them in posts. The larger point is the players acquired. If you’re here from another team’s fanbase, “welcome”.

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One Small Step… One Giants Leap Forward

The San Francisco Giants were a surprise team this season. After winning percentages of .395, .451, .475 and .483 in the past four seasons, the Giants owned the best record in baseball by winning 107 games. They took the 106 win Dodgers to five games in the NLDS and lost on a questionable check swing. Their current team success was not driven by years of tanking. The top prospects the Giants have acquired with high draft picks are only making a minimal impact in the majors. Rather, their success comes from two important places. First, the Giants’ veteran position players are having a renaissance. That is a difficult path to walk and hard to predict the likelihood of that happening. The Cubs tried to compete with the same core players from 2015-2017 and had inconsistent results. Second, what the Giants (and other clubs like the Dodgers and Rays) have done is play the match-ups. The Giants have one player on their roster who has played one position in more than 120 games and that is Brandon Crawford. They only have one other player who has even played more than 120 games and that is Wilmer Flores who plays 1B/2B/3B. The Giants have a deep group of players who played 90-115 games this year with specific match-ups highlighting each of their strengths. I will detail options in Parts 1 and 2 of this series. Part 3 will go over the starting pitching options.

What do the Cubs have in Frank Schwindel, Patrick Wisdom, and Rafael Ortega? Only time will tell, but of the three, I am the most confident in Frank Schwindel. I believe he has earned a long look at at-bats from 1B and DH (if it comes to the NL next season as expected). But Rafael Ortega and Patrick Wisdom require a deeper discussion. I believe they also have earned roles to start the year, but it makes sense to surround them with players that not only cover for their weaknesses, but excel at what Oretga and Wisdom struggle with in-game. These players should be available and they won’t break the bank.

In order to accomplish the main goals of this exercise, I’ll focus on the two main goals:

  1. Bring in players to help you compete: Complementary players who excel in 1-2 key areas
  2. Don’t jeopardize your future: Don’t trade away top prospects or sign players who may lose draft picks
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Third Base: The Wisdom to know the difference

As the franchise leader in rookie home runs, Patrick Wisdom had an excellent campaign in 2021. With a chance to finally play consistently in the majors, Wisdom carried the club for stretches, even keeping the team in contention. His final line of .231/.308/.518 with 28 home runs and a 40.8 K% (good for 2.3 fWAR) provides a good amount of context into what Patrick Wisdom excels at, power. However he isn’t completely one dimensional as he’s proved to be a strong defender at 3B. Wisdom finished 6th amongst major league third basemen in Outs Above Average (OAA), a defensive metric from Statcast. It’s a profile that a noncontending club can absolutely run out there every day and live the the ups and downs. However the Cubs do plan to compete according to public comments from Tom Ricketts and Jed Hoyer. Let’s look at where Wisdom succeeds and fails.

Wisdom Run Values by pitch type in 2021 via Savant
Wisdom 2021 Whiff% by Gameday Zone via Savant

Patrick Wisdom struggles with pitches in the upper levels of the strike zone and he succeeds against pitches traditionally thrown in the lower zones (such as sinkers, sliders, and cutters). He contributed a positive Run Value (red is good for a hitter; blue is bad) on each of those pitches along with four-seam fastballs. While that four-seam fastball Run value isn’t high, some context is critical. Wisdom rarely swings and misses on fastballs in the lower strike zone (13.1%), but he whiffs at a 46.8% clip on fastballs thrown in the upper strike zone. He is very zone dependent. Fortunately there is a wonderful complement to Patrick Wisdom, Kyle Seager.

Kyle Seager also plays excellent defense, but the bat is what is so enticing. His .212/.285/.485 (35 home runs and 99 wRC+) may not set champagne corks flying, but a deeper dive into Seager’s 2021 shows what a complement he is to Wisdom.

Seager Run Values by pitch type in 2021 via Savant
Seager 2021 Whiff% by Gameday Zone via Savant

Seager feasts on four-seam fastballs, cutters, and changeups and struggles against pitches low in the zone. The players wouldn’t operate in a strict platoon. There are match-ups that would succeed with both Wisdom and Seager at 3B with the other at DH, 1B, or LF. Making this work takes finesse, buy-in from Seager and Wisdom, David Ross and the coaching staff, along with a team of data scientists behind the scenes, but it puts both the Cubs and Seager/Wisdom in a fantastic position. The Mariners have a $20 million player option for Seager, but it’s expected they decline it. Seager is beloved in Seattle and it won’t be an easy sell, but the Cubs should make every effort in signing Kyle Seager.

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Left Field: It takes two to make a thing go right

Rafael Ortega was yet another bright spot for the Chicago Cubs. His .291/.360/.461 line in 103 games was good for a 1.6 fWAR. He played acceptable defense in centerfield and solid in the corners. However, it became quickly apparent that Ortega had a dramatic weakness, left-handed pitching. His production against RHP (.900 OPS) far out-paced his work against southpaws (.421 OPS). Diving even further, Ortega absolutely demolished fastballs (15 Run Value, .588 SLG, .487 wOBA) and was simply acceptable against all other offerings (Run Values between -1 to +2). Fortunately, finding a lefty masher isn’t to difficult.

There are a host of players to choose from, but let’s look at one of the most well-respected players in the game, Andrew McCutchen. “Cutch” would be a fantastic role model for Brennen Davis when he hopefully joins the club in 2022, but he also mashes LHP to a tune of .296/.411/.616 (169 wRC+). While matchups can be more nuanced, this would largely be a strict platoon with McCutchen getting the nod against lefty starters and PH opportunities.

This morning a new report surfaced that NPB star player Seiya Suzuki may be posted this offseason. The 27-year-old combines above-average hit and power with strong defense in a corner outfield role. If the possibility presents itself, the Cubs should be aggressive in their pursuits. Since that posting has not been confirmed, I’ll stick with the above plan.

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First Base/Designated Hitter: Frank the Tank

Frank Schwindel absolutely deserves to get a significant number of at-bats next season in the 1B/DH role. And for as someone as cautious in how they respond to questions, it is telling that Jed Hoyer had this to say about Schwindel.

That was a lot of fun to watch. Watching the way he played, the energy he had, the way he grinded his at-bats… I think Frank is going to be a big part of our team.”

Schwindel’s 2021 via Savant

And it’s hard to argue with what Schwindel did on the field. He succeeded against most pitch types and hit with power without sacrificing contact. Schwindel’s .326/.371/.591 line in 259 plate appearances (2.1 fWAR) may not be sustainable, but there were no red flags for areas pitchers can exploit him on a consistent basis. He was als0 slit-neutral (172 wRC+ against LHP compared to 142 wRC+ against righties). It really was remarkable. He doesn’t necessarily need a counterpart. This could be an opportunity to either take on a contract such as Wil Myers (bringing along a prospect) or bring back an old friend and fan-favorite such as Anthony Rizzo. Ultimately though, I’d prefer DH or 1B at-bats to go towards Seager, Wisdom, Contreras, and Madrigal unless a clear upgrade is available. While I believe the Cubs will spend this offseason, I don’t believe they’ll go all-in and I’d rather resources go towards SP, SS, and the OF.

Wrap up

Schwindel, Ortega, and Wisdom each had a successful breakout in 2021, but whether one can forecast that success to continue in 2022 varies by each player. Schwindel deserves a significant cut of the 1B/DH at-bats next season but both Wisdom and Ortega could use a complementary player to maximize their skillset. In Part 2, I examine centerfield, shortstop, and propose a few lineups based on these match-ups.

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A Pathway for Cubs Contention in 2022: Building the Offense Part 2

Ian Happ in Spring Training by Rich Biesterfeld

Prelude:

The Chicago Cubs took extraordinary measures not to “go halfway” in their trade deadline moves. Jed Hoyer, in his first season as President of Baseball operations, seemingly traded every available player on expiring deals. The returns of those trades are promising, but the question that fans have been asking is “is this another rebuild?”. For his part, Hoyer maintains that the Cubs have plans to compete in the immediacy and they have funs to spend. Scrutiny to that statement is understandable, after all the Cubs just traded all their stars. Are they really going to go all in? Will they spend the money necessary to compete? There are many roads that lead to the “Next Great Cubs Team”, but this is one possible pathway to compete as early as next season while honoring the future core of the team.

The San Francisco Giants were a surprise team this season. After winning percentages of .395, .451, .475 and .483 in the past four seasons, the Giants owned the best record in baseball by winning 107 games. They represent an ideal model to try to replicate aspects of their success. The Giants have a deep group of players who played 90-115 games this year with specific match-ups highlighting each of their strengths. I will detail options in Parts 1 and 2 of this series. Part 3 will go over lineups for how these match-ups can actually work. Part 4 details pitching options.

Part 1: Building the Offense Part 1 with Wisdom, Ortega, and Schwindel
Part 2: Building the Offense Part 2 with an Ian Happ trade
Part 3: Building the lineup with Match-ups
Part 4: Pitching Targets

In an ideal world, any contention plans serve two main goals:

  1. Bring in players to help you compete: Complementary players who excel in 1-2 key areas
  2. Don’t jeopardize your future: Don’t trade away top prospects or sign players who may lose draft picks

Disclaimers: I operate on the assumption that all mock trades are bad, including mine. They are. And even though I’ve historically spent a lot of time on them as a fan, I’ll sparingly use them in posts. The larger point is the players acquired. If you’re here from another team’s fanbase, “welcome”, but just know that I think the players from your team I mention are awesome.

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The Trade

What do the Cubs have with Ian Happ? I wrote in August that the Cubs were largely at a crossroads with Happ as any of the three options (keeping him, trading him, or DFA’ing him in the offseason were likely). From that point on Happ had a resurgent year at the plate. His .285/.366/.585 (147 wRC+) and 16 home runs in 61 games eliminated the need to DFA him. Those in the camp of keeping Happ certainly can feel justified. Ultimately, I see a player who does a lot right and has value, but could also be moved to add a different dynamic to the team because of that value. I land on the side of trading Happ, not because he is worthless (he isn’t) and not because he can’t be a solid player going forward (he can and likely will), but because this is an opportunity to address different areas of the team.

Baseball Trade Values does a really solid job of contextualizing and assessing baseball player trade values with their Trade Simulator. It’s not a perfect process (and BTV wouldn’t say it is), but it’s fairly un-biased from a fan-perspective. The genesis of this trade are to move Happ in order to acquire a longer term player who is relatively blocked in Tampa Bay (Taylor Walls blocked by Wander Franco) by taking on a salary that the Rays have discussed moving in Kevin Kiermaier. The trade saves the Rays $5.67 million (according to Happ’s projected arbitration estimate) and provides them a more impactful bat that they can platoon to face RHP. The Rays also gamble on a LHP with elite stuff in Burl Carraway. I don’t believe the Cubs would jump at giving up Carraway, but I wonder if the prospect of acquiring a young shortstop in Taylor Walls would make them take that risk.

It’s also been reported that the Cubs and Rays had significant conversations ($) this summer about a deal that included Kiermaier, Tyler Glasnow, and prospects going to the Cubs with Kris Bryant and Craig Kimbrel heading to the Rays. So we know that the Cubs and Rays have done their due diligence on players in the respective organizations. Tyler Glasnow would be an enticing player to add for 2023 after he completes his TJS rehab. If a deal could be expanded to include him, I’d be all over it.

There’s a common adage of “Don’t trade with the Rays”. I totally buy that, but in this case you’re not trading years of team control that could haunt the team. I would jump at the opportunity to buy on a player like Walls and capitalize on him being relatively blocked by a superstar and on Tampa Bay’s need to move salary.

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Centerfield: Defense, Defense!

Kevin Kiermaier is no longer an albatross of a contract and his one year $12,166,167 (with a team option for $13 M in 2023) won’t tie up resources down the line. His .259/.328/.388 slash line won’t inspire much confidence. As a switch hitter, Kiermaier has a slightly better line against righties than lefties (OPS .735 compared to .676 in 2021), which provides an opportunity to platoon him with a lefty-masher (Hermosillo perhaps?) or stack the lineup with other hitters who hit lefties while sitting Kiermaier.

But let’s not bury the lede here, the benefit of Kiermaier is the defense not the bat. He offers elite centerfield defense and doesn’t block Brennen Davis when he makes his debut in 2022. The prospect for a late inning defense of Hermosillo/Ortega/Wisdom in LF, Kiermaier in CF, and Heyward in RF is enticing.

Kiermaier defense via Savant

Even a platoon with Hermosillo or others doesn’t guarantee Kiermaier the bulk of starts in CF. He can play very specific match-ups and where he can face pitchers who use more sinkers, changeups, where he had more success in 2021. Nico Hoerner, Nick Madrigal, and potentially Taylor Walls should factor into CF playing time until Davis debuts.

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Shortstop: Enter Taylor Walls

For those that aren’t familiar, Taylor Walls profiles as a switch-hitting, glove first, contact-oriented shortstop. Due to the presence of emerging superstar, Wander Franco, Walls is sufficiently blocked at shortstop. He played a handful of innings at 2B and 3B when Franco was in the lineup. He has been very successful in his minor league career. The Cubs could be an ideal option to let Walls have an opportunity to split time at SS along with Hoerner and Hoerner and Madrigal logging time at 2B and CF (along with Madrigal occasionally at DH).

Taylor Walls via Fangraphs

The Cubs elite shortstop prospects are years away and none of them should hold back the opportunity to bring in a cost-controlled SS who adds a different dynamic to the line-up.

I want to note that this is an elite free agency SS class. The Cubs should absolutely try to sign Carlos Correa. He fits every organization’s timeline. It’s just very hard to project it happening due to the competition. This projection takes a more realistic path, but by all means shout from the rooftops that the Cubs should sign Carlos Correa. I am all-in on going big with a mid-20s all-star shortstop.

The Off-season offense

The Cubs would acquire: Taylor Walls, Kevin Kiermaier, Kyle Seager, and Andrew McCutchen, back-up catcher

In an ideal environment: Seiya Suzuki and Carlos Correa are both on the Cubs radar

The Cubs would move: Ian Happ, Burl Carraway, back up catcher

Pitchers acquired: Coming soon

Wrap-up

Some of these moves will elicit a significant response, especially trading Ian Happ. I totally validate those feelings. Some of these other moves won’t inspire a lot of confidence, but this isn’t meant to illustrate the limit of what the Cubs should do this offseason. No fan should be content with the Cubs not trying to bring in impact players. However I wanted to lay out a reasonable middle ground for a way the Cubs can absolutely make good on their plans to contend while “spending intelligently”.

In Part 3 of this series I lay out multiple lineups against pitchers the Cubs will likely face next season to illustrate how match-ups can work next season.

Cubs Sign the Most Creative Deal of the Draft with Wilson Cunningham

Wilson Cunningham after signing with the Cubs via Cunningham family

A special thanks to Wilson Cunningham for meeting with me for this interview.

Cubs draft Twitter was sent into a scramble in the 20th round of this year’s draft with those words. Another high school pitcher, but one that wasn’t on their radar. Who was this mystery pitcher? Standing 6’8″ with a very projectable frame and coming from an impressive high school, Wilson Cunningham has all the features you’d like to see from a draft pick. He also wasn’t listed on the primary draft ranking websites like Prospects Live or Baseball America. Cunningham was committed to the University of Chicago, an institution known for producing more Nobel laureates than future MLB players. The selection required a deeper dive.

Cunningham signed the most creative deal in the Chicago Cubs draft class, and after reaching out to a few contacts within the game, it’s a deal that no one could provide a similar example of seeing before. Unlike most players, Cunningham signed a contract with the Cubs, but he will be attending the University of Chicago as planned.

It was all a huge surprise, [but] a wonderful surprise…

Wilson Cunningham

Who is Wilson Cunningham?

Standing 6’8″ at 185 lbs. during his Senior year of high school, Wilson Cunningham’s frame may resemble a basketball or volleyball player rather than what one would expect on the baseball diamond, but the Cubs see untapped potential. Despite only throwing in the mid-80s with his fastball, the lanky lefthander offers no shortage of future physical projection. Cunningham is well aware he doesn’t light up the radar gun, but he is also attuned to the unique skills he brings when he steps out on the mound. “You look at the other guys in the organization or the other Draftees [interms of velocity]. I’m a little behind the curve there, but I think what I have going for me is my height [and my] left-handedness,” Cunningham said. “So, right now, as a pitcher, I’m really comfortable with my fastball. I’ve heard players on my team when we do intersquads say ‘hey, you hide the ball really well, or it’s really tough to hit off you even though you’re not throwing as hard as everyone.’ And I think, maybe, just maybe, releasing closer to the plate might help with that, just [using] my long frame. My fastball has tons of natural sink. It’s definitely not a true four-seam. It kind of runs towards the end of the bats and induces a lot of soft contact, which is really great.” 

Wilson Cunningham on the mound via Cunningham family

Though he didn’t discuss the concept by name, his long frame allowing him to release the ball much closer to the plate is an intriguing attribute. That concept is known as a pitcher’s extension. The Cubs organization is known to favor pitchers with a long extension and higher “perceived velocity” (the ball appears to be traveling faster to a hitter than it is). But Cunningham also fits the Cubs’ recent development model of targeting players who can make significant gains with proper instruction. After investing heavily in the Performance Science and High-Performance departments, the Cubs have another ideal player to build physically from the ground up. After speaking with Cunningham, he confirmed that he’s made significant strength and weight gains. He now sits over 200 lbs., with plenty of projectability remaining.

What is far more difficult to teach is a player’s intelligence and mentality. Though I can’t speak to the specifics about Cunningham’s demeanor on the mound, it shouldn’t come as a shock that the University of Chicago-bound student boasts a curious mind and a keen ability to understand the intricacies of advanced mathematics. The lefthander’s major as he enters his university years? Applied mathematics with a focus on economics. I would bet concepts such as spin rate, spin axis, induced vertical break, and tunneling won’t be too difficult to pick up. 

The Deal Coming Together

The Chicago Cubs’ scouting departments leave no stone unturned and have a very collaborative process in building their draft plans. There may not be a better example of incorporating both aspects into results than the selection of Wilson Cunningham. According to Cunningham, this process came together near the end of the draft cycle.

“About two and a half weeks before the draft, my dad actually got a call from the area scout (Evan Kauffman). He called me and said, ‘Hey, nice to meet you. I’ll be sending you an email. Just fill out [a draft prospect questionaire], and if there is a time, we can Zoom with your whole family later this week. And so that was a Monday, I believe, and then we set up the zoom for [that] Thursday,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham’s Zoom invite brought in high-level executives within the Cubs Scouting department, including VP of Scouting Dan Kantrovitz. But despite a very positive meeting, Cunningham didn’t leave the session feeling confident it would happen. “I honestly didn’t think I was going to get drafted. I thought that they were just getting to know me; maybe they keep tabs on me while I’m at school and kind of check up on me in a couple of years to see how I’m doing, baseball-wise. But they mentioned the plan a little bit about doing both, going to school, playing for the Cubs, [though] it was pretty vague on the logistics,” Cunningham said.

The Cunningham family already were planning to be in Chicago the week of the MLB Draft on a campus tour, and so the Cubs planned a tentative meetup at Wrigley Field on Sunday (the first day of the draft) if time would allow. 

 As it turned out, the scouting team was able to schedule the time. “A week later, we go to Chicago, and we’re at Wrigley. And, the day before Evan [Kauffman] texted me and said, ‘Yeah, you’re good to go. We can meet with you,'” Cunningham said. 

After being escorted by Scott Munson and Ben Kullavanijaya (Coordinator and Assistant in Amateur Scouting) up to the offices to meet Evan Kauffman, the Cubs brought in the real heavy hitters within the Cubs organization. If there was any question about how interested the Chicago Cubs were in Wilson Cunningham, it was quickly answered when both Kantrovitz and Cubs Assistant General Manager/Vice President, Pitching, Craig Breslow met with the Cunningham family. Without any time to lose on the morning of the MLB draft’s first day, the Cubs laid it out to Wilson and his parents. “They talked more about the plan and they said ‘Hey we’re really considering drafting you. They just went over the whole plan again and talked more [about the] details and everything,” Cunningham continued. After reaffirming his interest in pursuing baseball professionally, the Cubs told him to keep his phone on him on Tuesday, day three of the draft. 

The Waiting Game

As Wilson Cunningham and his family prepared for a life-changing day, he toured the University of Chicago campus trying to hold back nerves. According to Cunningham, “It’s Tuesday, and we’re actually on the University of Chicago campus touring the school as I had never seen it with COVID and everything. So [my family is] there, and we’re all on our phones on the draft tracker refreshing. I don’t know if I get drafted at all, or if it’s 10th, 12th, 15th, or 20th round. We just left the tour because we couldn’t handle it. We were super excited and angsty and everything. So we waited.” After what must have felt like an eternity, Cunningham finally was contacted by Evan Kauffman. “We sat down in this little café, and I got a call from Evan. I’m like, oh my gosh, oh my gosh, this is it. It was around the 15th round. And then he said, ‘Hey Wilson. We’re just making sure that you’re really seriously considering this course,'” Cunningham said.

His parents thought Wilson had been drafted there but to no avail. Time ticked by, and countless refreshes of the draft tracker later, Wilson Cunningham finally saw his name pop up as the 20th Round selection of the Chicago Cubs.

“The big day” via Cunningham family

Next Steps

The complexities of this signing meant that all the respective ducks needed to be in a row. The Cubs worked tirelessly behind the scenes and were in communication with the Cunninghams. First and foremost, the family wanted to make sure that Wilson could continue to attend school and have that school paid for by the Chicago Cubs as promised. 

It is common practice for Major League organizations to offer signed players funds to pursue college education if the player retires. What is truly unique about this deal is that the Cubs pursued language that would specifically allow Cunningham to tap into those resources immediately rather than within two years after a player retires. 

“College Scholarship Plan (CSP) or Continuing Education Program (CEP) funds to help you attend an institution that offers training for personal and professional development. A CSP provision would allow you to attend a university or college, provided your studies are in pursuit of an undergraduate degree.”

With such a special deal, an even more personalized training regimen was required. According to Cunningham, he is off to the University of Chicago to begin fall classes this September through the end of the academic year (in June). However, he will still dedicate time to his baseball activities. “I will be at school full-time student at school, and I’ll be training remotely with the Cubs. It does also helps to be in Chicago with the staff there. I’ll be on the lifting [and] throwing program. I’ll be checking in with people,” Cunningham said. “Then over spring break and over the summers (and maybe even some long weekends here and there), I’ll be in Arizona with the ACL Cubs as a full-time baseball player.”

The Cubs didn’t enter the 2021 Draft with the most bonus pool money or draft selections, but they worked behind the scenes to bring in an amazing group of players. To accomplish this, they had to be creative in their bonus pool allocations and explore unique avenues to bring in projectable players, like Wilson Cunningham. 

Wilson Cunningham would like to thank his family, friends, and his coaches, Glenn Zielinski, Brett Kay, and Blake Hawksworth, for helping him prepare for a future in baseball and in his studies. He would also like to thank Cubs officials Evan Kauffman, Dan Kantrovitz, and Craig Breslow for making sure that the deal was a win-win [for himself and the organization]. Most importantly he’d attribute this whole situation to God.

Who Should Represent the Cubs in the Arizona Fall League?

Chris Clarke from Rich Biesterfeld (@biest22)

After nearly two years, the Arizona Fall League is finally back. This annual event served as a prospect proving ground where organizations could send their upper level prospects to face off against higher level competition. According to the AZ Fall League, the majority of all participants in the league make the majors, which is a remarkable statistic. This fall, the Cubs will send six representatives to team up with Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles (Angels), and Oakland farmhands to field the Mesa Solar Sox.

Historically, organizations sent only players in the AA or higher levels, but with the following changes made in 2019 (see below) the options for who a team can send are nearly infinite.

Beginning with the 2019 season, any player under contract with a Major League organization will be eligible for nomination for the Fall League. Previously, all Triple-A and Double-A players were eligible, so long as they were in Double-A by at least Aug. 1. Clubs could also nominate one player below the Double-A level (as the Cubs did with Nico Hoerner in 2018) and one foreign player from a country that doesn’t have a winter-ball circuit. Also, no players with more than one year of Major League service time could participate.

Now, all that is gone, which could lead to some fascinating Fall League rosters. Clubs could, in theory, send multiple Major Leaguers who need more development time or, at the other end of the spectrum, load their AFL contingent with younger players who they want to get experience against advanced competition. MLB added that this particular change will be evaluated again after the 2019 AFL season, so if rosters get too crazy, the change might not be around for long.

Sam Dykstra in 2019

Picking the Cubs 2021 Reps

In identifying players below I tried to be realistic in innings totals for the year. Privately, the Cubs have noted a goal of approximately 100 innings for many of the Cubs minor league starters so this rules out many of the starters who have pitched since the beginning of the season. Names like Max Bain and Cam Sanders likely would not have the room to add more innings while staying under the limit. Other pitchers like DJ Herz, Richard Gallardo, and Tyler Schalffer are likely a year away from this level.

On the hitting side, expect a mix of positions since these teams do need to field a full roster. Each organization can send six participants and the AZ Fall League is a great time to emphasize versatility. The final consideration is that the AZ Fall League can serve as 40-man roster tryout prior to the Rule 5 draft. Todd Johnson provided a great breakdown of 40 man roster considerations.

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Pitchers

  1. Chris Clarke: The 6’7″ righthander has looked solid in his return form a lingering hip injury. He has been making up for lost time, but at the time of this article only has 40 2/3 innings. Clarke should be a fast-mover in 2022 and likely will start at AA or higher. He has used a starter’s arsenal to succeed at South Bend (4.30 ERA with 41 Ks in 40 2/3 innings). Clarke is already 23 years old so debuting at AA at 24 isn’t a concern, but it would be advantageous to let him compete against upper level players this fall.
  2. Jordan Wicks: Once Wicks made his debut, this pick became much more realistic. The Cubs 2021 first-round pick logged 92 1/3 innings for Kansas State prior to the draft and was widely regarded as one of the most advanced pitchers selected. There are some that feel that Wicks should start at AA next season in a similar manner to Los Angeles Angels LHP, Reid Detmers, who was the top college lefty in the 2020 draft. Even if Wicks only pitches in shorter outings, he should have the opportunity to try his hand against competition that will likely be in the A+/AA range of talent. Out of all the selections, this feels the least likely.
  3. Dakota Chalmers: The Cubs claimed the righthander with a killer fastball/curveball combo from Oakland in June. The former Dan Kantrovitz draft pick has had a mixed bag this season and sits with a 6.55 ERA, but he has had flashes of brilliance. Chalmers is eligible for the Rule 5 draft if not added to the 40-man roster. With that fastball-curveball combination it wouldn’t be in his best interest to give up on starting, but it would be ideal for him to at least get a run as a reliever in AZ to finish out the season.

Other pitchers to consider: Ryan Jensen, Danis Correa, Gabriel Jaramillo, Ethan Roberts, Michael McAvene, Brandon Hughes, Brian Hudson

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Hitters

  1. Brennen Davis: After missing the first month of the season following a concussion suffered late in Spring Camp, Brennen Davis has absolutely scorched the ball to a tune of .284/.387/.507 in 79 combined games between A+ and AA. His K% is still high at 29.6%, but that number has decreased in the last month. Davis is not far from making his Wrigley debut and the AZ Fall League makes complete sense to give some additional reps and face off against high level competition.
  2. Chase Strumpf: Strumpf mashed during instructional league last year. He continued that trend into 2021 with a solid start at South Bend, but his .211/.335/.380 line at AA leaves much to be desired. Instructional league is not a viable option to grade how well Strumpf if progressing. He has battled injuries, but has started to turn it around before being put on the 7-day IL following a COVID outbreak at AA. If healthy, Strumpf should get a chance to play all over the diamond for the Solar Sox.
  3. Casey Opitz: Already regarded as having a major-league caliber glove and demeanor at C, Opitz should be a quick mover through the minor leagues. He is a strong bet to spend time in AA in 2022. Every team needs catching and I’d bet the Mesa Solar Sox pitchers would be lining up to throw to Optiz. The 2021 draftee is currently slashing .300/.382/.334 in limited at-bats.

Other hitters to consider: Nelson Velasquez, Andy Weber, Chris Morel

What do you think?

Rosters are set to come out soon. Who do you think will suit up as the Chicago Cubs’ representatives on the Mesa Solar Sox. Games begin October 13th!

Three Possible Paths to Walk: The Cubs and Ian Happ are at a Crossroads

Ian Happ by Rich Biesterfeld (@Biest22)

Ian Happ is a lightning rod for discourse on Cubs Twitter. The 27-year-old has always been a polarizing prospect. After being drafted 9th out of the University of Cincinnati, Happ endured emotional turmoils but still managed to produce a .272/.362/.452 (131 wRC+; 31% above league-average production) with a 22.7 K% across two minor league seasons before entering the 2017 season ranked as MLB Pipeline’s 28th overall prospect. Despite the on-field success, publications frequently mentioned Happ as a trade chip ($) for a team in the middle of its contention window. 

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Happ wasn’t traded and, instead, served as an offensive catalyst for the 2017 club by slashing .253/.328/.514 with 24 home runs and a 1.9 fWAR. His 31.2% strikeout rate was concerning, but optimists viewed that as an area he could improve with more major league reps. He entered 2018 as the leadoff hitter, but it wasn’t long before those strikeouts only intensified (36.1% in 2018). In a surprise move, the Cubs demoted Happ during the 2019 spring training. He slowly made improvements. Over 387 plate appearances in 2019 and 2020, Happ fully realized his potential. His .260/.350/.530 slash line with a manageable 26.4 K% and outstanding 130 wRC+ landed the centerfielder squarely in the Cubs’ plans. The Cubs had found their future centerfielder and leadoff man.

Now that future role is uncertain at best. From the start of the 2021 season to July 25th, Happ produced a ghastly .175/.286/.315 slash line with a .272 weighted OBA and 69 wRC+. He, surprisingly, cut down on his strikeouts (28.4%), but Happ was a man caught in between. And his platoon splits only intensified (51 wRC+ against LHP) for the switch hitter across that period prompting calls for Happ to give up switch-hitting. At that point, moving on from the 27-year-old appeared to be the obvious choice. Since July 26th (exactly one month ago), Happ caught fire. 

Happ is producing, including last night’s game-tying home run. Happ’s last month is a quality .258/.343/.516 line with an outstanding 130 wRC+. His strikeout rate is back up to 34.3%. His production is remarkably similar to (and in some ways better than) his career numbers before 2021 (.248/.344/.481 with a 31.5 K% and 116 wRC+).

The choice becomes much more complicated, and it appears the Cubs are left with three options:

  1. Hold on to Happ for 2022
  2. DFA Happ
  3. Trade Happ this offseason

Let’s explore each of these options below

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Retain Ian Happ for 2022

Ian Happ is polarizing. For as many fans ready to move on, a large contingent views the young outfielder as a player worthy of one more chance. Fans point to the career 109 wRC+ and his breakout 2019 and 2020 numbers. Still more see the impact that Happ brings to the community. Others view 2022 as a transition year and would hate to sell low on a player who could bring far more value on the field or in a trade if he were to rebound. While his offensive production slipped during the bulk of 2021, Happ still has believers.

Designate Ian Happ for assignment

Regardless of Happ’s production, his offensive profile leaves many fans with a sour taste in their mouths. There is a large contingent of the fanbase who are willing to move on from the outfielder. They view the last month as nothing more than a hot streak in a small sample size. He is striking out as much as he ever has, and his overall season numbers still leave nothing to be desired. Due to Rafael Ortega’s emergence, Happ is playing more in the outfield corners than centerfield. In this group of opinions, it’s hard to see the Cubs bringing anything back in a trade, so why should the Cubs give Happ playing time at the expense of another player who could be a long-term answer in the outfield.

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Trade Ian Happ this offseason

The last camp is the most divisive, which is to continue to play him, hoping that you could trade him this offseason. I won’t pretend that trading Happ (even with a solid finish to the 2021 season) brings back impact players. But is it possible to both maximize playing time for hopeful future contributors like Ortega, Hermosillo, and Wisdom by moving Happ around the diamond while also agreeing he doesn’t fit the organization’s future plans? I would argue that it is, and Happ can bring back talent to the organization via trade. It may seem farfetched, but the Red Sox faced a similar conundrum with Andrew Benintendi the last offseason. 

Benintendi was widely rumored to be near the top of the Cubs draft wish list in 2015. However, the Red Sox nabbed Benintendi two picks ahead of the Cubs before selecting Ian Happ out of Cincinnati. Despite a 4.4 fWAR 2018 season, Benintendi only produced a .260/.307/.410 line for a 94 wRC+ in his major league career before last offseason’s trade. Injuries certainly contributed to his downturn, but Benintendi didn’t show offensive power or defense in centerfield. With rising salaries due to the arbitration process and two years of control remaining, the Red Sox fielded offers and found teams were willing to gamble on a former top-10 overall pick. 

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In a complicated 3-team trade with the Royals and the Mets, the Red Sox traded Benintendi and received five players back: Franchy CorderoJosh Winckowski (Mets), Freddy Valdez (Mets), Luis De La Rosa, and Grant Gambrell (Royals). Cordero didn’t work out for the Red Sox. Still, according to MLB Pipeline, Winckowski slots in as the 19th best prospect in Boston’s system. Both Valdez and De La Rosa are young players having success in the Florida Complex League. The Red Sox turned Benintendi into a Top 20 system prospect and a handful of lottery tickets.

Where do you land?