With the December 2nd deadline to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players now in the rear-view mirror, the baseball world looks ahead to the Winter Meetings that will begin on December 8th in San Diego. While the yearly winter retreat typically spurs movement on both the free agent and trade fronts, the days leading up to the meetings could prove active nonetheless -- particularly with a rather large cast of newly minted free agents after Monday's activity.
Given the self-imposed payroll constraints and bargain-bin shopping the front office has already deployed this offseason, the Cubs might very well explore signing a handful of non-tendered players in an attempt to buttress a roster that maintains several needs. While most of these players would hardly be categorized as sexy pickups, they might just make sense for a team with several needs and a limited budget.
The NL Central is shaping up to be wide open in 2020, and the Cubs remain a team that's both loaded with talent and has glaring flaws. While none of the players listed below would be long-term fixtures, they could help shore up a roster with this current championship window -- however slight, these days -- closing after the 2021 season.
With a 40-man roster that currently sits at 36, the Cubs have some breathing room to make a few under-the-radar moves. Let's take a look at a few names that could find their next home on the North Side.
When it comes to non-tendered candidates, Treinen represents the best possible scenario for the Cubs: an experienced late-inning arm that could both complement and back up beleaguered closer Craig Kimbrel. 2018's brilliant campaign by Treinen was followed up by a horrific 2019, in which he posted a 4.91 ERA (5.14 FIP) en route to losing his closer role in Oakland. Oakland non-tendering him saved them a projected ~$7.8 million, which makes sense for a team always looking to shave payroll in superfluous areas.
Despite last year's disappointing results, Treinen is a bounce-back candidate the Cubs could likely land with an incentive-laden deal. Last year's numbers aren't exactly encouraging, as his walk rate was up (13.9 percent), his HR/9 (1.38) was more than double his career rate (.61), and his ground ball percentage (42.8) was significantly lower than his career average (56.9). But given that his fastball velocity is still elite (97.2 mph) and his predominant pitch (sinker) also sits in the upper 90's, Treinen's lost season is likely due to missing spots and bad luck rather than an outright depreciation in stuff.
Despite last year's horrendous results, silver linings exist outside of his maintained velocity. Treinen forced hitters to chase (38.0 O-Swing percentage) well above league-average (32.0 percent), maintained a contact percentage and hard-hit percentage just below league average, and still had a swinging strike rate above league average -- even if that number dropped five percentage points from 2018's dominant season.
It would be interesting to see what the Cubs pitching lab would suggest of Treinen's repertoire. In 2019, he drastically lessened the use of his slider and threw his sinker less in favor of upping his four-seam and cutter usage. The sinker remained his primary pitch, but clearly a different philosophy was employed last season, which produced atrocious results. Certainly, the change in approach may have been in reaction to the juiced ball, making last year's numbers perhaps an anomaly rather than his career trajectory. No one can say for sure, but the Cubs seem like an ideal landing spot for him to return to form.
At 31 years old, Treinen represents a low-risk, high-reward 'pen option that the Cubs could very well afford. He'd provide insurance to Kimbrel while lessening the workload of the likes of Rowan Wick, Brad Wieck, and Kyle Ryan — all of whom are looking to build off successful 2019 campaigns. With the loss of Steve Cishek and Pedro Strop to free agency, a veteran like Treinen makes all the more sense of a team looking to revamp its bullpen.
Although reports indicate that the Cubs are still very much in on 2019 rental Nicholas Castellanos, their pursuit of the slugger shouldn't diminish a run at one of the game's premier defensive center fielders. While his offense isn't exactly prolific (.719 OPS, 85 wRC+ in 2019), Pillar has the defensive pedigree the Cubs should covet in center field. He'd be an interesting platoon pairing for Ian Happ, with Albert Almora mixed in as the likely fifth outfielder and 26th man.
While the Cubs certainly need a leadoff hitter in addition to a quality presence in center field, it's not a requirement that a player checks off both boxes at once. Pillar's unsavory .296 career OBP (.287 last season) sounds more like an eight hitter than a leadoff hitter, and to be honest that'd be just fine if he's used appropriately. While Pillar had a rough season against lefties last season (.235 BA, .256 OBP, 81 wRC+), he had a brilliant campaign against southpaws as recently as 2018 (.336 BA, .351 OBP, 150 wRC+). Utilizing him alongside the versatile Happ (.273 BA, .341 OBP, 135 wRC+ against righties in 2019) would be a palatable, if not ideal, platoon option.
This all changes if the Cubs indeed sign Shogo Akiyama, but at a time when speculation runs rampant, the now 30-year-old Pillar remains an intriguing piece to the Cubs' roster puzzle. He may no longer be an everyday starter, but a player that can be plugged in against lefties while providing late-inning defensive and pinch-running capabilities isn't a terrible role, especially since he won't command anywhere near the estimated $9.7 million he'd have received should the Giants have tendered him.
On the infield front, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Cubs kick the tires on the 29-year-old Hernandez. At its face, this seems like an odd fit, as his roster presence would both stunt the development of Nico Hoerner while taking at-bats away from David Bote. But should the front office decide Hoerner needs more seasoning in Iowa, and if they determine that Bote remains best served as utility bench depth, Hernandez offers some upside that could benefit this roster.
While far from an offensive juggernaut, Hernandez hit a respectable .279/.333/.408 last season, complimenting his 14 home runs with nine stolen bases and above-average defense. A switch-hitter, Hernandez can also play shortstop, even if he's done so minimally (131 career innings) in his time in Philadelphia. After the Cubs finally cutting ties with Addison Russell they need all of the shortstop depth they can find, and Hernandez would provide some semblance of insurance.
Both in his career and in 2019, his average and power numbers are better as a lefty (.286, 13 home runs last season) than as a righty (.263, 1 home run). This relegates him to more of a platoon-ish type role; one that would fit nicely with Bote's right-handed power.
Hernandez is not quite the player he was just a few seasons ago, but he still accrued a 1.7 fWAR last year and could prove a nifty signing if Hoerner indeed begins the season at Triple-A.
What About the Big Picture?
While all three players listed above would likely provide some value to the 2020 roster, none of them are likely to be long-term fixtures, and the likelihood that they'd have a major impact (outside of Treinen, perhaps) remains slim. With reports aplenty the Cubs are shopping some of their bigger trade chips, the bargain-bin shopping may not be in focus until there's a resolution on the trade front.
What we do know is that the Cubs have several impending free agents after 2021, which notably includes Theo Epstein along with several members of the team's nucleus (Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, and Jon Lester). After essentially standing pat last winter, there's zero chance Theo sits on his hands this winter -- not after missing the playoffs, and not with championship hopes (however dim) still within reach.
Non-tendered players carry their own baggage and question marks, and they aren't going to solve all of this team's problems. They also carry upside that, if utilized properly, could go a long way in completing a roster that's not terribly far away from being among the best in the National League.
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