Spending money in the offseason is on the horizon for the Chicago Cubs.
The organization expects the 2023 payroll to be higher than last season, but how significantly that increases largely depends on the quality of talent they acquire.
The Cubs featured a nearly $175 million competitive balance tax configured payroll in 2022, according to figures from Baseball Prospectus’ Cot’s Contracts. It ranked 12th in baseball and was $55 million below the CBT threshold. For 2023, the Cubs’ CBT payroll is just under $135 million and more than $87 million beneath the penalized limit.
Signing one of the top four free-agent shortstops — Carlos Correa, Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts or Dansby Swanson — would boost not only the lineup but the perception that the Cubs are actively trying to compete within a division that does not appear to be a gauntlet to get to the postseason.
“When you look at the last couple years, certainly the (St. Louis) Cardinals, they’ve been really strong, and I think they do have a gap we have to close,” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said Wednesday at the general manager meetings. “I certainly think some of that gap can be closed by raising the payroll back to where it was. We took it down for a couple years, and we have to move that back up. That definitely helps close that gap, but we also know that a lot of that gap has to be closed with our internal guys.”
1. The Cubs will explore external options for center field.
Among the roster improvements the Cubs are expected to address will focus on center field. The organization went into the offseason anticipating an outside acquisition for the position, something that becomes more important after their depth at the spot took a hit in the last month when Triple-A prospects sufffered injuries.
Alexander Canario’s devastating injury in the Dominican Winter League that requires surgery on his left ankle and left shoulder followed by a lengthy rehab, combined with Brennen Davis’ setback in the Arizona Fall League complicates their internal choices. Davis’ AFL experience was cut short after just five games because of a stress reaction in his back, according to a source, and rest was prescribed. He will be focused on spending the offseason building strength into spring training. His back issues over the last year create uncertainty about how much the Cubs can project to count on him at some point next season.
“We have guys internally that will certainly play out there,” Hoyer said Wednesday. “But the lion’s share might come from externally.”
The Cubs still like Christopher Morel, who started 50 games in center field, but Hoyer prefers moving him around the field. Morel, 23, played at least 13 games each at shortstop, third base, second base and center field.
“So much of his value is wrapped up in the fact that he’s a really good defender at a lot of positions,” Hoyer said. “I think he’ll work really hard over the winter to play all those positions that much better. But his versatility, athleticism is extreme, and we should utilize that. I don’t think pigeon holing him in one spot is the best idea.”
2. Matt Mervis has earned opportunity to be on the roster.
No matter where Mervis has played this year, he keeps mashing.
The AFL was his latest challenge after playing at three minor-league levels in 2022, ultimately reaching Triple-A Iowa for the first time two years into his professional career.
Mervis, 24, is coming off 36 home runs, 40 doubles, a .379 on-base percentage and a .984 OPS in 137 games, and kept rolling in the AFL. He earned MVP honors in the All-Star Game this week. In 51 AFL plate appearances, Mervis’ six home runs equate his strikeout total. His power production complements a respectable 18.5 K% this year.
“He’s very much in our plans,” Hoyer said. “But we’re also going to be active and exploring alternatives.”
The Cubs want depth throughout the roster and into the upper ranks of the minors, including to account for when someone might struggle. That includes at first base, where they also can utilize the designated-hitter spot to find at-bats. The Cubs might explore adding a power-hitting first baseman to potentially either platoon with the left-handed-hitting Mervis or use both to split time between first base and DH.
José Abreu, 36, and Josh Bell, 30, are intriguing short-term options if the Cubs prioritize power, which Hoyer frequently has stated is a lineup need this offseason. Miguel Sanó, 29, also has pop, but he missed most of the season with an injury and has middling on-base numbers since his lone All-Star Game appearance in 2017.
3. The World Baseball Classic could factor into Seiya Suzuki’s spring training start.
Suzuki’s transition to Major League Baseball was disrupted by the owner’s lockout heading into his rookie season. Year 2 also might feature an altered start.
The World Baseball Classic’s international tournament, played every four years, coincides with the middle of spring training. Suzuki likely will play for his home country, though it has yet to be officially decided as to what level he will participate for Team Japan.
There is value in Suzuki experiencing a normal spring after last year’s hectic three weeks to prepare for opening day after signing his five-year, $85 million deal with the Cubs. The organization understands why Suzuki would want to play for Japan in a prominent tournament.
“Ultimately I’ll support whatever he decides he wants to do,” Hoyer said. “In a perfect world, you’d be able to prepare completely for our season but also represent his country, and I think that’s the perfect scenario.”
Hoyer did not provide specifics on what blend of WBC and spring training preparation for Suzuki would strike the right balance.
A variety of options are seemingly in play. Perhaps one possible path: Suzuki would remain with the Cubs in camp until Japan, a tournament favorite, reaches the semifinals, which are held in Miami starting March 19. Japan opens the WBC for pool play March 9-13 in Toyko, where the quarterfinals are also played March 15-16. This arrangement would lessen Suzuki’s travel and time away from the Cubs. It’s unclear if Japan would agree to this setup.
4. The Cubs will prioritize the defensive component at catcher.
The Cubs will extend a qualifying offer to catcher Willson Contreras by the 4 p.m. deadline Thursday, the same day free agency begins.
Contreras is expected to decline the offer within the 10-day window. A free-agent reunion between the sides is unlikely. Yan Gomes remains under contract for 2023 with a club option in 2024. Expect the Cubs to emphasize the defensive side for whatever catcher they acquire in the offseason.
“You want guys that can hit, but it’s a run-prevention position,” Hoyer said. “So much of it is game calling and preparation, feeling strongly that everything that pitchers do is a ‘we’ thing. It’s about that teamwork and collaboration.
“Throwing is probably going to become more important with some of the rules (changes), but it’s an offense and defensive position. And that relationship with pitchers is really important.”
Hoyer liked the three-catcher setup of Contreras, Gomes and P.J. Higgins the Cubs employed for the last 4½ months of the season. It created more pinch-hitting opportunities and more dynamic versatility. Higgins’ ability to play three positions (catcher, first base and third base) was a big factor in that element. However, Hoyer doesn’t envision having three catchers on the active roster through all of next season.