Don’t look now, but the 2021 Cubs have suddenly started to add players — and it might not be a coincidence.
On the heels of Friday’s $7 million signing of former Dodgers slugger Joc Pederson, NBC Sports Chicago’s David Kaplan reports that ownership has loosened some of the mandated payroll belt-tightening and increased team president Jed Hoyer’s budget.
The Pederson move comes after more than three months of shedding payroll and significant criticism of the high-revenue Cubs’ industry-leading cost-cutting — and one day after an analysis of MLB price structures showed the Cubs charge the highest prices in the game by a whopping 14 percent.
Pederson’s deal marks the most expensive signing of a new player in an otherwise sleepy NL Central so far this winter, with most of the division’s movement involving significant departures from the five teams.
The Cubs’ biggest signing of the winter before Pederson was the $1.5 million deal with backup catcher Austin Romine.
Even after the Pederson deal, the Cubs have trimmed close to $60 million from last year’s base payroll in expiring contracts, trades and non-tenders.
Pederson, a 2015 All-Star who has struggled against left-handers in his career, essentially backfills the loss of Kyle Schwarber — at the same 2020 base salary of Schwarber and with a better glove in left field.
The Cubs still are shaky in the starting rotation after acquiring Shelby Miller on a minor-league deal and more recently low-risk, potential upside project Kohl Stewart — with only two pitchers on the roster (Kyle Hendricks, Zach Davies) who have made more than 11 starts in a season (Miller would be three, but not since 2016).
Spring training is about three weeks away.
The lefty-hitting Pederson, who came up with the Dodgers as a center fielder, is a lifetime .230 hitter with a .336 on-base percentage, .470 slugging percentage and 130 home runs.
That included a career-high 36 home runs in 149 games in 2019 (He hit .190 with seven homers in 43 games during the truncated 2020 season).
An above-average walk rate most of his career has helped compensate for the low average, and he has mashed right-handers throughout his career.
But his walk rate has declined the last three seasons with a steadier diet of off-speed pitches, and his .191/.266/.310 career slash line against lefties has made him largely a platoon player on a deep Dodgers roster (only 10 plate appearances vs. lefties in 2020). He becomes the fourth outfielder on the Cubs’ 40-man roster, joining right-handed hitting Phillip Ervin, who was acquired early in the winter.
Ian Happ and Jason Heyward are expected to remain the primary center fielder and right fielder, respectively.
Pederson, 28, has tended to raise his performance in the postseason, hitting .272 with nine homers and an .852 OPS in 64 postseason games — including .275 with five homers and a 1.041 OPS in 17 World Series games the last four years.