Many players were non-tendered before this year’s December 2nd deadline, meaning their clubs declined to offer them a contract. Some of these players played poorly, while others were projected to make more in arbitration than their clubs thought they were worth. I went through the list and identified five players that make some sense for the Cubs to sign, in order of feasibility and how much I think the player could improve the team. Feasibility is particularly important, as Ken Rosenthal reported today that “club officials are telling representatives of even low-budget free agents that they need to clear money before engaging in serious negotiations.” (What payroll the Cubs could move is a topic for another time, though that could indicate they’re more inclined to move Kris Bryant than Willson Contreras.) None of the players below should command a large salary commitment, but since ownership seems to have imposed an unreasonably tight budget, we have to take it into consideration here.
It’s not hard to see why the Reds non-tendered a pitcher with a 5.72 ERA who was projected to earn over $10M in 2020. A deeper dive into the numbers, however, reveals an intriguing pitcher. In 21 innings as a reliever last year, Gausman struck out 27 batters and walked just five, allowing a 3.10 ERA and a 2.72 FIP. His numbers as a starter weren’t as bad as they seem, and it’s possible Gausman is looking for a team that will allow him to start, but I think his ceiling there is a two-times-through-the-order guy, whereas as a reliever he could be a dynamic, multi-inning weapon.
Gausman has always had a great splitter but a limited repertoire overall, leading to difficulties going deeper in games. In September, when he made seven relief appearances and one start, his whiff rate went up to a near career-high 39.6%. His FIP in relief last season was lower than any Cub who pitched at least 15 innings. With Tyler Chatwood on the trading block for budgetary reasons, Gausman makes sense as a replacement–he should be both cheaper and better than Chatwood, while serving as a fine starter in a pinch. Gausman made $9.36M in 2019, and I would expect any relief contract he signed to be for two years and a smaller average annual value. It may seem like a hefty investment for a reliever, but it’s the type of risk the Cubs may need to take.
At first glance, Hernández looks like a perfect fit for the Cubs. He can play second base! Over his major league career he’s gotten on base about as much as Willson Contreras did last year! He provided positive baserunning and defensive value last year!
Of course, Hernández is coming off a 92 wRC+ in 2019, and his plate discipline regressed quite a bit. Despite this, he still struck out less than every Cubs regular except for Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist. By sprint speed, he was the 80th-fastest player in the majors last year, faster than every Cub besides Javier Báez despite being 29. There are certainly warning signs with Hernández, but I believe he’ll be an above-average second baseman for some team in 2020, and he has the type of on-base potential and speed that would look good at the top of the Cubs' lineup. If the Cubs don’t sign Hernández, it’s probably because another team has offered him more money or guaranteed him the role of starting second baseman.
Pillar was still an above-average defender last year, but his days of being one of the best defensive center fielders in the game are behind him, and he has a career 86 wRC+. As an everyday center fielder for the Giants last year he put up 1.8 WAR, and it’s clear why the Giants didn’t want to pay him over $10M next season. I would hesitate to have him be Chicago’s starting center fielder, but Pillar was a slightly-above-average hitter against lefties, and a slightly-above-average defender in center field, two things which would have benefited the Cubs greatly in 2018. He could be platooned with Ian Happ, as Pillar hit lefties better and Happ hit righties better. Pillar shouldn’t be starting for the Cubs, but he would be an upgrade over Albert Almora, and I doubt he’ll be too expensive.
The main reason Treinen is this low on the list is that he’s probably out of the Cubs' price range. I doubt Treinen will ever repeat his 2018 season, when he put up 3.6 fWAR with a 0.78 ERA and a 1.82 FIP in 80.1 innings (somehow, the Athletics managed to get even more production out of Liam Hendriks this season; 3.8 fWAR, a 1.80 ERA and a 1.87 FIP in 85 innings). I’m not sure what exactly went wrong with Treinen in 2019, but the Yankees were reportedly interested in trading for him before he was non-tendered, so teams must have some idea how to bring him back closer to his 2018 form. Pretty much every contender has reason to be interested in Treinen, which unfortunately means he’s probably out of the Cubs' price range, unless the Cubs firmly believe their player development staff can turn him back into the best reliever in the game and are willing to pay him like it.
Shaw is at the bottom of this list for a reason. He’s best suited to third base or first base, positions at which the Cubs are set for now, and he had a wRC+ of 47 in 2019. However, Shaw was good enough in 2017 and 2018 to justify moving Bryant to the outfield, or perhaps to have Shaw play second base on occasion. Shaw had a 120 wRC+ in 2017 and 119 in 2018, to go with 3.5 and 3.6 WAR. Last year went very badly, but it’s hard to believe that Shaw completely forgot to hit at the age of 29. Shaw seems like a perfect change of scenery candidate, and while I doubt he’ll sign with the Cubs, it could be worth taking a chance on him, especially if the Cubs were to trade Kyle Schwarber or Happ, or if they end up trading Bryant to cut payroll. Shaw may not outhit any of those three players, but he hit so well in two of the past three years that some team will take a chance on him.
That brings us to the end of another post. Hopefully the Winter Meetings bring some interesting news this week–if anything big happens with the Cubs, you can be sure I’ll have some thoughts soon.