Baseball's Winter Meetings kick off in Nashville this coming Monday, December 7.
During last year's Meetings the Cubs pulled off a significant trade, shipping minor league righties Jeferson Mejia and Zack Godley to the Diamondbacks for catcher Miguel Montero. However, although that move was the only one finalized by the Cubs during the Meetings, the Cubs laid important groundwork and completely revamped their starting rotation in the week that followed the Meetings by adding Jason Hammel and Jon Lester via $175 million worth of free agent dollars. Despite Hammel's second-half swoon and Lester's nearly inexplicable 11-12 win-loss record, the early returns on both deals were fantastic. Based on a market valuation of $7 million per win, Hammel returned nearly $17 million of value versus a $9 million salary while Lester pumped out $35 million of value against a signing bonus-driven $30 million first-year salary.
While the Cubs obviously won't be signing Hammel or Lester this year, there are countless options available to the club for improving the roster with an eye on 2016. Here are seven things that I'll be keeping my eye on during this year's Winter Meetings.
1. Which Free Agent Starting Pitcher Will Make Wrigley Field His Home?
At this point, we know that Jordan Zimmermann is a Tiger, David Price is a Red Sox, and Zack Greinke is staying in the National League West. That knocks three of the top arms out of the market.
As a result, the Cubs figure to be shopping for the likes of Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, Yovani Gallardo, Wei-Yin Chen, John Lackey, Scott Kazmir, and Mike Leake. While those names certainly don't inspire the same confidence as Price or Greinke, there are plenty of useful arms in the bunch.
Although he is a polarizing figure in these parts, I'm personally partial to Samardzija. Even at the cost of the Cubs' top pick in the 2016 Rule 4 draft, Samardzija represents the best ceiling of that group outside of Cueto, a reasonably solid floor, a low-mileage arm, and a price tag that figures to be roughly half of Cueto's.
Regardless of which arm from this group ends up being the primary target, I expect that the Cubs will nab one of these names during the Meetings.
2. Will the Cubs Make a Real Play for Either of the Elite Corner Outfield Free Agents?
It's not secret that the Cubs want to improve their outfield defense: Jed Hoyer has repeatedly expressed his desire to do so this offseason. Both Jason Heyward and Alex Gordon figure to command something in the neighborhood of $20 million annually on a long-term deal, but while either would represent a massive investment, both come with decent power, strong on-base skills, plus baserunning, and elite defense in a corner. Either player would give the Cubs a strong presence atop the lineup for years to come, but with Klye Schwarber and Jorge Soler currently slated to man the corners for at least the next five seasons and with corner outfield prospects Ian Happ, Billy McKinney, and Mark Zagunis barreling toward Wrigley, it may not make sense to make the necessary financial investment in either player.
I'd love to see the Cubs nab either player. But doing so will require some roster gymnastics, and as a point of full disclosure, I absolutely would not sign Heyward if doing so requires an opt-out in the middle of his contract as I expect that it will. Opt-outs are devastating for teams.
3. Will the Cubs Finally Deal from Their Positional Depth to Acquire a Young and/or Cost-Controlled Starting Pitcher?
The rumors have swirled for many months at this point, so I won't hammer them here. You know the basic framework. The Cubs have almost certainly discussed Jorge Soler with clubs at this point. Soler pulverized baseballs from July 19th through the end of the playoffs to the tune of a .292/.381/.510 batting line, but he also comes with a lengthy injury history, poor baserunning, and alarmingly poor range in right field. If the Cubs could convince a team to buy Soler's offensive upside and extract a package centered around an arm Carlos Carrasco, Shelby Miller, Tyson Ross, or any of the Mets' young starters, would the front office pull the trigger? It certainly bears monitoring, particularly as long as Heyward and Gordon remain free agents capable of replacing Soler's production and then some.
4. Will the Cubs Fill Their Center Field Void?
The options here are seemingly endless. In my preparation for the SB Nation Offseason Simulation, I had about a dozen targets that I thought could viably occupy center field in Wrigley next year. There was an extremely cheap option: bring in Nate McLouth on a minor league deal and allow McLouth, Matt Szczur, and Albert Almora to battle for the job in Spring Training. There were a number of relatively cheap controllable targets including Jarrod Dyson, Desmond Jennings, Billy Burns, and Charlie Blackmon who could keep the seat warm for the winner of the Almora-Eddy Julio Martinez battle this year before moving to a fourth outfielder role in 2017. Then there were the middle class free agent options: Austin Jackson, Will Venable, Alejandro de Aza, and Rajai Davis. I'd even consider two young premium defenders with rather serious issues at the plate in Billy Hamilton and Marcell Ozuna, although their price tags will likely prove prohibitive.
Finally, there was the nuclear plan: sign Jason Heyward and use him as a full-time centerfielder. I've had some rather prolonged discussions in the comments over the past few months regarding the feasibility of Heyward as a centerfielder. I argued sternly that I thought that the experiment was ill-fated, but over time I've come around on the idea. If Heyward flops as a centerfielder, there's no reason that he couldn't be moved back to right field in subsequent years. And if he proves to be an asset with his glove in center, he's even more valuable than he appears to be today. It's worth the risk.
Regardless of which name wins out, I expect that the Cubs will grab one of these players this winter, quite possibly during the Meetings, to address the centerfield job. Of course, they could just bring back Dexter Fowler instead.
5. Is Jose Fernandez Going to Find a New Home?
It's an open secret among baseball fans and writers that the Marlins seem open to moving their young ace. At 23, Fernandez only has three years of team control remaining, and murmurs indicate that he may not be loved by leadership in Miami. If the Marlins make him available, he'd figure to command an absolute killing in a deal, even with a recent Tommy John surgery. In fact, despite making a mid-season return from surgery, Fernandez apparently needed no adjustment phase, posting a FIP that was better than Jake Arrieta and half a run better than the likes of Zack Greinke, David Price, Max Scherzer, and Chris Sale. Fernandez came back and immediately occupied the space right behind Clayton Kershaw with Arrieta.
If the Marlins make him available, I have to imagine that the Epstein-Hoyer regime would seriously consider adding Fernandez to the fold, even at an exorbitant prospect cost and at the risk of adding a big presence to the clubhouse. I hear that the regime had good success last time they acquired a young ace from the Marlins...
6. Might the Cubs Make a Deal with Dave Dombrowski's Front Office in Their Old Digs in Boston?
The Cubs and Red Sox are a comically strong match right now to make a deal. The Cubs have added numerous bullpen pieces so far this offseason. As a result, they are well positioned to deal from that surplus. Obviously the Cubs are in search of outfield help and they could also use to pick up a depth piece for the starting rotation. The Red Sox need bullpen pieces, they have a surplus in the outfield, and they could rapidly be heading toward a time where the likes of Wade Miley, Rick Porcello, or Joe Kelly are superfluous on their roster. I wouldn't anticipate a monster deal, but the teams do appear well-positioned to trade from strengths to fill needs.
7. Is There Any Chance That Corey Black Survives the Meetings as a Cub?
The Rule 5 draft is on December 10th and Corey Black fits the profile of a Rule 5 draftee to a T: he's a relief prospect who is relatively near to the Majors with a big arm and some rather serious command issues. A team like the Rockies or the White Sox seems overwhelmingly likely to nab Black.
The first time I saw Black in person was in Daytona roughly a month after the Cubs acquired him from the Yankees for Alfonso Soriano. I was blown away that the Cubs nabbed an arm of such high quality for the aging, on-base-challenged Soriano: Black routinely pumped out fastballs in the 94-95 range with a biting mid-80s slider. High-A hitters simply couldn't touch his stuff.
Then he threw a changeup in warmups that hit the backstop on the fly. He tried only two in the game, bouncing both in the batter's box opposite the actual batter. And then the fourth inning arrived. Black's velocity evaporated as he sat 88-90 and labored through failing command. Whenever scouts mention that a pitcher may not have a chance to stick in a rotation because of his stature, Black immediately comes to mind.
I, for one, will miss Black if he heads to another organization next week. Hopefully he sticks in the Cubs organization for another year and takes a big jump with his command.
Obviously the Winter Meetings are a time where unpredictable moves happen, sometimes coming together in the wee hours of the morning. I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for the issues addressed above.
What will you be looking for next week?