The Chicago Cubs developed a clear offseason strategy to improve their run prevention.
Signing center fielder Cody Bellinger and shortstop Dansby Swanson — and moving Nico Hoerner back to second base — did not go unnoticed by catcher Tucker Barnhart. As he evaluated his options in free agency, the Cubs’ investment in run prevention, notably up the middle, made them an intriguing destination.
“It’s not the coolest, most highlight-reel thing to see every day, but pitching and defense wins games,” Barnhart said Wednesday during an introductory Zoom news conference. “There’s a bias because that’s the way I play the game, defensive-first mindset, things like that. I don’t think enough people put an emphasis on run prevention and pitching and defense. Hearing how highly they value that was a big key in making my antennas go up as a place that I wanted to play.
“Knowing that we’re going to have Gold Glovers all over the field, that says something. It gives pitchers a lot of confidence to know they don’t have to be super fine and pitch for the strikeout all the time.”
The Cubs plan to have Barnhart and Yan Gomes split time behind the plate, according to Barnhart’s conversation with manager David Ross, who outlined the setup. Barnhart has connected a few times with Gomes since signing his two-year deal.
“You need two catchers that you trust and believe in that could play every day if necessary, and I think we have that,” Barnhart said. “Yan has obviously proven that he is an elite-level everyday catcher in the big leagues, and I think I’ve done the same. I can’t wait to work with him.
“Over time the best teams that win, it’s a lot easier to sustain winning when you are able to pitch and play defense because bats get hot, they get cold — it’s just a reality of the game. When you’re able to consistently play good defense and pitch well, you’re going to win a lot of games.”
While evaluating the Cubs, Barnhart leaned heavily on pitcher Wade Miley despite the left-hander spending only the 2022 season with the Cubs. The two became close during two seasons together in Cincinnati (2020-21).
Barnhart trusts Miley’s 12 years of big-league experience that spans eight teams, and Miley couldn’t say enough good things about the Cubs: “It’s hard for me to choose a different organization that’s done it better,” he told Barnhart.
Miley’s praise coupled with the proximity to his native Indiana added to the fit for Barnhart, who turns 32 on Saturday.
The Barnhart-Gomes tandem won’t come close to replicating what Willson Contreras provided offensively. The Cubs haven’t adequately replaced his offensive production and clearly are banking on their pitching staff and defense to keep games close, low-scoring and winnable. Barnhart brings a career 82 OPS+ to Wrigley Field, a ballpark he is very familiar with after spending the first eight years of his big-league career with the Reds.
The Cubs, though, didn’t target and sign Barnhart for what he can bring offensively. His career has been built around his game calling and pitch framing. His pitch-framing numbers dipped last season in what Barnhart acknowledged as an all-around bad year in Detroit, his lone season with the Tigers. He considers it valuable experience in how to work through those situations.
“I hit rock bottom in terms of my performance, and I took that into the offseason as motivation,” Barnhart said. “Everybody’s going to say that, I know, and it’s cliché as hell, but I’ve enjoyed my work more this offseason and I’m looking forward to bouncing back.”
The Cubs are taking a low-risk approach in an effort to generate more offense at first base, where their options last year posted a combined 86 weighted runs created plus (wRC+), 25th in the majors. They agreed to a deal Wednesday with first baseman Eric Hosmer, a source confirmed to the Tribune.
Hosmer, 33, is expected to receive the league-minimum $720,000 for 2023 because the San Diego Padres are on the hook for nearly $37 million he is owed over the next three years.
Hosmer appeared in 104 games between the Padres and Boston Red Sox last season, recording a .268/.334/.382 slash line with a 108 OPS+. But most of his success came in April, when he hit .389 with a .457 on-base percentage and 1.054 OPS in 81 plate appearances. Over the next five months, Hosmer managed a meager .240/.305/.331 line and a .636 OPS in 338 plate appearances.
Although Hosmer won four Gold Gloves earlier in his career with the Kansas City Royals, he isn’t known for elite defense at this point. His minus-5 defensive runs saved (DRS) ranked 33rd among the 37 first basemen who played at least 350 innings in 2022.
Comparatively, Alfonso Rivas, who was designated for assignment Dec. 23, led the Cubs in innings at first base and finished with 6 DRS, tied for second in baseball.
The Cubs can hope Hosmer recaptures some of his power while living with his ground-ball rate. The minimal financial investment gives them leeway to move on if he struggles or first base prospect Matt Mervis earns a big-league roster spot and regular playing time.