The saying “if you don’t know where you want to go, any road gets you there” certainly applies to free agency. More than 100 players will be eligible to sign with new teams Saturday, some of whom could help fix what broke in Chicago. But without a strategic eye for what really hinders the Cubs offense, creating a free agent wish list can resemble little more than a fantasy draft.
Take the two big horses this year, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. Depending on how you diagnose the Cubs’ offensive problems, you might prefer one over the other. As I have written before, I believe the most glaring weakness is against power arms – especially elite playoff power arms. If you subscribe to this theory, Harper and his career .649 OPS against such elite pitchers would appeal less than Machado’s .904 OPS against the same group of pitchers.
But if you prioritize adding a second left-handed run-producer to balance out Kris Bryant and Javier Baez from the right side, Harper appeals more. Or maybe it’s some other free agent entirely.
Either way, to truly “fix” the Cubs offense requires more than stitching one very expensive new patch onto a drafty lineup. My watch word for lineup upgrades is “diversify.” This can be achieved by adding more bats adept against power arms or a top-of-the-lineup base stealer or both.
Free agency generally isn’t a ripe avenue for speed, as most free agents are in their 30’s. Lorenzo Cain and his 30 steals last year were a rarity. The most potent speedster in this class is Rajai Davis, who impressively stole 21 bases as a 37-year-old. But he is now a part-time player with an extremely low OBP (.278), so he feels more like a mid-year addition depending on needs then.
Filtering the options
Fortunately, more options exist when it comes to free-agent bats effective against power arms. But this requires digging into each player’s splits, three-year OPS and career trends. If you do this for outfield, third base and middle-infield free agents, you find 20 hitters who managed at least a .750 OPS against power arms.
But we can’t stop there since not all 20 sustained this success in other seasons. For example, free agent corner infielder and outfielder Danny Valencia posted this year’s free-agent crop’s third-highest OPS against power arms (.868) in 2018. But he has a .651 OPS against such pitchers for his career and had a .589 mark in 2017, making his contract year quite the statistical outlier.
So subtract cases like Valencia. Likewise, we should not rule out players with strong career numbers but who had an unusually poor 2018 due to injury or otherwise. For instance, Detroit’s defensively solid shortstop Jose Iglesias slumped significantly in 2018 against power arms with a .505 OPS. Yet he posted an .811 in 2016 and .743 in 2017.
- Aside from Iglesias, Adam Jones is the biggest outlier here with his strong contract-year OPS just barely lifting his 3-year OPS to a tad over .700.
- At age 40, Adrian Beltre started only 69 games at third last year and DH’d in 28 others. This puts him more in the Ben Zobrist category of requiring his regular-season playing time to be closely meted out. This can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on the Cubs want to dole out playing time.
- Josh Donaldson started just 50 games last year and 122 the year before. So as with Beltre, durability must be closely considered.
Against best of the best
Next step is factoring in that not all power arms are the same. The power pitchers faced in the stats above bunch range from true elites such as Max Scherzer and Josh Hader to less successful high-strikeout arms like Nick Pivetta and Justin Wilson. But in the playoffs, it’s the elite power arms the Cubs most need to overcome to get to the World Series and hoist another trophy.
To evaluate success against this smaller category, I’ve totaled career at bats against the 20 or so best power starters and relievers from the eight playoff teams to reach this past year’s division championship series. Here are those totals, arranged from highest OPS to lowest:
Note: The sample size for these nine free agents averaged 207 plate appearances, ranging from a low of 134 and 148 (Murphy and Harper, respectively) up to 349 (Jones). Machado was middle of pack with 214 PAs.
Focusing on just hitters with a .750 OPS or higher shrinks our field to just five players: Beltre, Donaldson, Machado, Asdrubel Cabrera and Andrew McCutchen. Interestingly, Beltre and McCutchen’s combined career OPS against elite power arms (1.675) is more than 100 points higher than Machado and Harper combined (1.553).
So for probably the cost of one year of either Machado or Harper ($30+ million), the Cubs could sign both McCutchen and Beltre, and for a much shorter time commitment. On the other hand, the latter players are a combined 19 years older than Harper and Machado. So this means more injury risk – though McCutcheon did play 155 games in 2018.
Not pursuing Machado and Harper’s huge contract asks also means the Cubs would avoid draft pick penalties. The Cubs could also shift some of these payroll “savings” to bolster the pitching staff in other creative ways. For instance, they could acquire from Arizona much of the remaining cost of Zack Greinke’s contract (3 years, $104 million) without giving up too much in trade and also dumping the remaining Tyler Chatwood contract (2/$25.5M).
The above list also provides a nice menu of options depending on what additions come via trade. For instance, acquiring speed leadoff hitter Whit Merrifield (45 steals in 2018) to primarily play second base would push Baez to the left side of the infield and perhaps Bryant to a corner outfield spot. But acquiring an outfielder like Tampa’s Mallex Smith (40 steals) might mean more second base starts for Ben Zobrist and signing a free agent outfielder less likely.
Leadership qualities must also be weighed. Adding the right veterans will help re-instill the sense of daily urgency Theo Epstein said has been missing, which could make McCutchen and Beltre even more attractive. Strategies and priorities; priorities and strategies. These are always the key mystery variables for accurately predicting what a front office will attempt over the winter.
Then there are the 29 other teams competing to acquire the same assets. Plus improving the Cubs’ lineup may be most important offseason issue, but it’s not the sole roster need. Attention must also be given to bolstering the bullpen, backup catcher, and perhaps shortstop.
Our limited information will always challenge our ability to decipher how the Cubs front office attack their needs. But it’s also watching this kind of complex puzzle fitting that makes tracking the offseason so enjoyable. Stoke up that hot stove.