The Cubs didn’t score enough runs and didn’t have enough power in 2022, and that’s when they still had Willson Contreras. Replacing him with a defense-first catcher means having to upgrade the offense at first base, DH, center field, and both middle infield spots. Well, they can probably get away with comparable or even slightly worse offense in center as long as the defense improves over the mess from this past season.
Cody Bellinger seems to be the top target there and he’s only seeking a one-year deal to rebuild his value in order to make another run at free agency next winter. The Cubs present an almost perfect landing spot for him because they need someone to man center on an everyday basis while Pete Crow-Armstrong finishes his developmental journey, which means they can offer Bellinger a lot of leeway even if his bat is still absent.
There is no shortage of suitors for the former Rookie of the Year and MVP, though, so it’s entirely possible that Bellinger prefers a different situation. That means the Cubs are going to have to keep their options open.
One possibility we had mentioned back in October is Michael Conforto, another Scott Boras client who missed all of ’22 following right shoulder surgery. Jon Heyman recently named the Cubs as one of the teams looking at the former Met, who Boras said is drawing broad interest. A left-handed batter with a career .214 ISO and three seasons of 27 or more homers, Conforto could certainly address the Cubs’ power deficit. He’s far from a defensive whiz in center, however, and his contract demands might not match up with what Jed Hoyer is looking to do.
After reportedly turning down a two-year, $30 million offer from the Astros back in August, Conforto is looking for something of that same length with an opt-out like the deal Boras negotiated for Carlos Rodón. The only way this really makes sense on the surface is if Conforto plays mainly left field, where his defense is actually a little above average even though he hasn’t played there since 2018.
That would mean either trading Ian Happ, who the Cubs are expected to engage in extension talks, or moving the Gold Glove left fielder to center for next season. Happ is better than Conforto in center and could still slide back to left with a tough southpaw on the mound, plus Conforto could serve as DH on occasion. I suppose the Cubs could get comfortable with Conforto in center if he hits well enough to make up for his glove, it’s just a little riskier.
If Heyman’s report is accurate, and our knowledge of Boras’s methods gives us no reason to doubt its veracity, Conforto is only looking to stick somewhere for a year. While he wants the security of a second year just in case, the goal is clearly to bounce back and earn more. The Astros deal complicates this a little, but I guess the idea was that ’22 would be a wash and there was no security for ’24.
So maybe that same deal for two years and $30 million with an opt-out after the first year would make sense for both sides. If Conforto plays well enough to opt out, the Cubs get great value and have a spot open for PCA after next season. There’s also the possibility that Conforto doesn’t play well enough to opt out, at which point he still offers depth in the event that a Happ extension doesn’t get figured out.
Maybe it takes a couple million more, a no-trade clause, and/or performance incentives to get something done, I’m just keeping it simple.
I really like Conforto and his career 124 wRC+ as an offense-first addition to a team that desperately needs to find ways to score more runs. At the same time, his glove leaves a bit to be desired if he’s expected to handle a lot of the reps in center. This may all depend on what the Cubs think they can do at shortstop, which is where they have the greatest potential to upgrade in a big way on the offensive side.
If they go with Dansby Swanson, which I think would be a grievous error, Conforto would supply some much-needed pop. Adding Xander Bogaerts or Carlos Correa would provide more firepower and allow for a glove-first option in center. Thing is, none of those shortstops figure to be coming off the board soon. Perhaps what the Cubs do to address their hole in the outfield will signal their intentions for other pursuits.