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.