The Cubs seem poised to be more active this offseason than last, and for that we're all thankful. It remains to be seen how willing the team will be to spend, and it's possible that all of their big moves will come via trade. If the Cubs do want to venture into the free agent market, however, I've identified several intriguing candidates in each area.
The Cubs have a great infield, except for second base which was a problem spot last season. Not all of these free agents fill that hole, but the ones that don't provide enough upside that I think they're worth considering.
Josh Donaldson — had a wRC+ only three points worse than Bryant this year while providing positive defensive value at third base. Durability is a concern in the long term, but he was healthy enough this season to potentially price himself out of the Cubs’ budget. Adding his bat to the lineup and moving Bryant to the outfield would be huge, though, and it's more likely the Cubs could sign him to a shorter, higher-salary deal as opposed to someone like Rendon.
Mike Moustakas — averaged 2.6 fWAR over the last two seasons while playing both second and third base. He bounced back from a down year with a 113 wRC+ for the Brewers last season. Moustakas likely wouldn't be very expensive and would provide solid depth at 2B and 3B (when Bryant plays the outfield), but I have a feeling he may re-sign with his current club.
Howie Kendrick — had a higher full-season wRC+ than every Cub this year. NLCS MVP, and a great hitter and veteran presence. Unfortunately, Kendrick seems to be moving down the defensive spectrum quickly, and played most at first base last season, where the Cubs are set. He played some second base (and actually rated better there than at first last season), and I think he's a great fit otherwise, so it's possible the Cubs could risk the defense, but it seems unlikely.
Anthony Rendon — had a better year by fWAR than any Cub and is by far the best position player free agent available this offseason. The only way this would seem to fit into the Cubs’ “constrained budget” is if they traded Kris Bryant, and going by this year's stats, that would turn Rendon into just a 2.2 WAR upgrade, probably not worth the contract difference.
Yasmani Grandal — the Cubs would have to trade Willson Contreras for this to make sense, but a shorter-term, higher-AAV deal could work while they wait for Miguel Amaya to be ready. Grandal is a much better defender than Contreras, and only a slightly worse hitter. He is admittedly three years older, but was worth almost twice as many wins as Contreras last season. Plus, you would keep him from the Brewers, for whatever that's worth. I don't see the Cubs making this move, as Contreras provides a lot of energy to the team, and it seems like the Cubs may value him more than other front offices around the league.
Eric Sogard — not much of a track record, but had a 115 wRC+ this season while playing a slightly below-average second base. He had an on-base percentage close to Ben Zobrist's this season with some pop to go along with it, and would probably be pretty cheap. However, there are some warning signs—Sogard's wRC+ in the second half was only 103, and his profile certainly seems to suggest that his breakout could be a result of the ball last season. If he falls into the Cubs’ lap, I would like to see them take a chance, but I don't think they'll aggressively pursue him.
Brock Holt — plays second base and had the 43rd-highest OBP among hitters with at least 100 PA last season despite only having a 103 wRC+. Probably not worth a lot of money, but I could see a team signing him to a Descalso-esque contract. Holt would be good depth at second, but I doubt the Cubs would sign him unless it was a minor-league deal.
José Iglesias — not a great hitter, but a great shortstop. I wanted the Cubs to sign Iglesias last offseason for insurance should Russell not perform well, and Iglesias ended up with a slightly higher wRC+ and less off-the-field issues while making less money. Iglesias shouldn't be anyone's starting shortstop, but he was one win better than Russell last year. If the Cubs can convince him to sign knowing he won't get nearly as much playing time as he has the last two seasons (he averaged almost 500 plate appearances), I think it would be a great pick-up.
Adeiny Hechavarría — had a breakout year offensively…with a 93 wRC+. I wouldn't put much stock in his numbers from last season, but he could be just as good as Iglesias both offensively and defensively while being more accepting of a backup role.
The Cubs have a fair amount of depth at the corners, and the available free agents here aren't great. Of course, if they want to spend here, the big name in this category is…
Nicholas Castellanos — impressed in his time with the Cubs, but it's hard to stomach the idea of fielding both Schwarber and Castellanos in the same outfield on a daily basis. That said, I don't think he'll get a huge contract given how players with his profile (sluggers with subpar defense) have performed in recent winters. He doesn't have the same pop as Schwarber, but he has enough, and provides a more contact-driven approach. If the Cubs do sign him, I would expect it to signal a Schwarber trade.
Outside of Castellanos, the Cubs desperately need a center fielder (unless Heyward moves there more permanently), but none of the upcoming free agents are great fits. Jarrod Dyson is a great player, but not a great hitter. Cameron Maybin had a great year with the Yankees but he seems to have been relegated to a corner outfield role. If the Cubs really want to address this hole in their roster, they'll have to do it via trade.
I doubt the Cubs are going to sign any starters this offseason, despite losing Cole Hamels to free agency. I think they believe they have enough candidates for fourth and fifth starters between Tyler Chatwood, Alec Mills, Adbert Alzolay, and other minor-leaguers. However, I wouldn't mind seeing them sign…
Zack Wheeler — tantalizing stuff, the type of pitcher the Astros could probably turn into a Cy Young candidate. A little higher ERA and FIP this year (3.96/3.48) than last (3.31/3.25), but he's put up 8.9 fWAR over the last two seasons and has been surprisingly durable considering his injury history. The main issue with Wheeler would be his asking price, as he's sure to be in high demand, particularly among player-development powerhouses.
Jake Odorizzi — had a great year with the Twins, actually outpitching Wheeler by both ERA and FIP. However, this was Odorizzi's career year so far, so teams will have to decide how much they trust his breakout. Because of this, Odorizzi may be more affordable than Wheeler, though there are reasons to expect him to successfully follow up his 2019.
If the only available options are worse than either of these, I would think the Cubs go into the season hoping the depth they built last year is sufficient, and supplement the rotation at the trade deadline if not.
The Cubs probably can't afford to sign another big-name closer after the Brandon Morrow incident and with Craig Kimbrel already under contract. The team also probably feels they have some interesting internal candidates for bullpen depth. However, the Cubs are losing Brandon Kintzler, Steve Cishek, and Pedro Strop to free agency, so one would hope the team isn't assuming all three can be replaced with Pitch Lab graduates. Here, I'm looking for a couple seventh/eighth-inning arms to complement Kimbrel, Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan, and Brad Wieck.
Will Smith — pitched very well for the Giants, though he was actually even better in 2018 in less innings, mainly due to a bit of a home run problem this year. He's a lefty, and would fit very well as a setup man for Kimbrel or a lefty fireman. However, I get the feeling his services will cost more than the Cubs are comfortable with.
Will Harris — despite what Joe Girardi may think, decidedly not Will Smith. Harris seems to be the Astros’ most-trusted reliever right now, and, despite being a righty, is good at getting lefties out due to his pitch mix. He was more valuable than any Cubs reliever this season, and has been durable the last two years. The main concern with Harris is his age (35), but that may lower his contract demand enough that he would be in the Cubs’ price range. Plus, it can't hurt to get someone who's familiar with the way the Astros develop pitchers.
Drew Pomeranz — posted a 2.39 ERA and 2.68 FIP in relief for the Brewers down the stretch. Signing Pomeranz would be a risk given his lack of track record as a dominant reliever, but the Cubs quickly became all-too-familiar with the way his stuff played up in relief. Considering Pomeranz made just $2M last season, he makes sense as a calculated risk. The upside is a pitcher who would have had the lowest ERA and FIP of any Cubs reliever last season.
Again, it remains to be seen how active the Cubs will be this offseason, as well as where the Ricketts family sets the budget. In my ideal, somewhat-reasonable world, the Cubs would sign Donaldson, Iglesias, and Pomeranz. There are a lot of great options out there, though, and I look forward to seeing how the roster comes together over the winter.