Friday, March 24, 2023

Grading the Cubs Free Agent Signings


Jed Hoyer entered the offseason with a clear objective to make the Chicago Cubs a competitive team from the very start of the 2023 season. The Cubs played much better in the second half of 2022, led by an impressive performance from the starting rotation and they got rid of some dead weight from the active roster.

We knew the Cubs were going to be active in free agency and as we approach spring training, I’m going to grade the 10 guaranteed MLB deals agreed to by the team this offseason.

Do these grades actually mean anything? Of course they do.

No, but this is just a good exercise to recap the moves and give some overall thoughts on each player now that we’ve had more time to process the signings as a whole. These grades are based on a combination of my personal expectations, what the Cubs were specifically trying to target and how I think the players will perform during their time on the team.

Dansby Swanson

Contract: 7 Years, $177 Million. Full no-trade clause.
Age on Opening Day 2023: 29
Grade: B

This entire offseason would have been a failure for the Cubs if they didn’t sign one of the top four free agent shortstops. While Dansby Swanson was considered the fourth-best option, the Cubs still got him. He wasn’t my top choice, but signing him not only provides an upgrade at shortstop, it means Nico Hoerner will now be starting at second base. So, with one signing the Cubs improved two positions and will begin 2023 with one of the best defensive middle infields in MLB. Swanson has to prove his 2022 season wasn’t a fluke at the plate, but there are signs he can maintain his power numbers after hitting 25+ homers in each of the last two years. Plus, after the other free agent shortstops signed, many thought Swanson would eventually receive a $200 million deal. That didn’t happen and the Cubs signed Swanson to a similar AAV that was predicted before the free agent market went bonkers.

Jameson Taillon

Contract: 4 Years, $68 Million.
Age on Opening Day 2023: 31
Grade: B+

The Cubs targeted right-handed starting pitcher Jameson Taillon early in free agency and he fell in love with them after meeting with Craig Breslow for a couple hours in New York. Taillon was in that second tier of free agent starting pitchers and I’m a fan. The righty pitched two years with the Yankees after coming back from arm surgery in 2019 and is poised to be a workhorse in the Cubs rotation. Taillon has said that throwing 200 innings in 2023 is one of his goals, which has become a rare feat in today’s MLB. He throws a lot of strikes, which means he’s not giving up a lot walks and Taillon has shown the ability to consistently go deep in his starts. I’m only knocking the grade down a bit because I felt the Cubs could have attempted a run at a few of the other starting pitchers at the top of the free agent market.

Cody Bellinger

Contract: 1 Year, $12.5 Million. $25 Million Option for 2024, includes $5 Million Buyout.
Age on Opening Day 2023: 27
Grade: B+

The Cubs are taking a gamble on Cody Bellinger, but it’s only going to cost them $17.5 million if it doesn’t work out. There is so much potential here with Bellinger that I can’t hate on the move. Yes, he’s been bad at the plate since 2021, but if his shoulder is good now, then the risk can turn into a big reward for the Cubs. The other reason I really like the signing is that at the very least Bellinger gives the Cubs a competent defender in center, some power from the left side and another option to play first base. Purely from a 2022 comparison to the guys who played center field, Bellinger is an upgrade for the Cubs. Plus, it’s not like there were a lot of great options to play center in free agency. I think Bellinger is a good bet for the Cubs. If it doesn’t work out in 2023, then the Cubs will move on with no major monetary loss.

Drew Smyly

Contract: 2 Years, $19 Million. Opt out after 2023. $10 Million Option for 2025, includes $2.5 Million Buyout.
Age on Opening Day 2023: 33
Grade: B+

Drew Smyly was fantastic in the second half of 2022, pitching to a sub-3 ERA, dominating hitters with a nasty curve ball. He’ll make $8 million in 2023 and provides the Cubs with more quality depth in the starting rotation. He may not be flashy, but this was a solid move by the Cubs, who have now signed Smyly for a third time since 2017.

Trey Mancini

Contract: 2 Years, $14 Million. Opt out after 2023.
Age on Opening Day 2023: 31
Grade: B

Just a solid signing here for the Cubs to add a guy who has a decent track record. Trey Mancini is slated in as the designated hitter and in case the team’s other free agent first baseman doesn’t pan out, then Mancini can easily step in to play first base. Mancini could see a rise in his power numbers at Wrigley Field and he can also play in the corner outfield positions if needed.

Tucker Barnhart

Contract: 2 Years, $6.5 Million. Opt out after 2023.
Age on Opening Day 2023: 31
Grade: D+

This is the only move I haven’t liked in the offseason. It pretty much stems from losing out on Christian Vázquez to the Minnesota Twins and then having to settle for Tucker Barnhart. I mean, it’s probably more of a C- move in isolation and when you factor in what the Cubs are now looking for in a catcher. They moved on from Willson Contreras and have prioritized defense, game-calling and basically everything other than expecting offense from a catcher. We kind of just have to reset out expectations from an offensive standpoint, so hopefully Barnhart and Yan Gomes can continue to guide the pitching staff to more success.

Michael Fulmer

Contract: 1 Years, $4 Million.
Age on Opening Day 2023: 30
Grade: B

The Cubs are going to begin the 2023 season without really having an established closer in their bullpen. Michael Fulmer was signed in February and he does provide a viable option to close out games, having done so once he converted into a reliever with the Detroit Tigers. Fulmer has a great slider that has made him affective out of the bullpen, but there isn’t a long track record. Still, Fulmer has been good the past couple seasons, so it’s a fine signing by the Cubs.

Brad Boxberger

Contract: 1 Year, $2.8 Million.
Age on Opening Day 2023: 34
Grade: A

If there’s one thing I agree with Jed Hoyer the most is not really spending a lot of money on free agent relievers. It helps that the Cubs have drastically improved their pitching infrastructure in the last few years and have had success signing veteran relievers on short deals and getting a lot of value out of them. Brad Boxberger will give manager David Ross a veteran arm in high-leverage situations, as the righty does have previous experience as a closer. It’s a one-year deal, almost zero risk here. Much of my optimism in Boxberger does fall on the Cubs track record with previous relievers, but he’s also been fairly consistent, especially in the last three seasons with the Miami Marlins and Milwaukee Brewers.

Edwin Rios

Contract: 1 Years, $1 Million.
Age on Opening Day 2023: 28
Grade: B+

Edwin Rios is hoping to bounce back from injuries and find more playing time with the Cubs after spending his entire pro career with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The left-handed hitter has huge power with the ability to play the corner infield positions along, while also having previous experience in the corner outfield spots. Rios still has a minor league option remaining, so the Cubs can send him down if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster and he’s also under team control for a few more years. Again, just another solid pick up, trying to uncover some hidden value.

Eric Hosmer

Contract: 1 Year, $720K.
Age on Opening Day 2023: 33
Grade: D

Maybe the D grade is too tough because if Eric Hosmer does turn out to be bad, then the Cubs can instantly drop him and it doesn’t really cost them much. That being said, Hosmer is at best going to give you league average offense and a lot of that is getting singles on the ground. His defense is also horrible, so it’s not like there’s an upgrade there at first base.

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