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