Cubs

Cubs free agent focus: Didi Gregorius

Cubs free agent focus: Didi Gregorius

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

Is the answer to the Cubs’ search for more second base production signing a quality shortstop in Didi Gregorius?

Gregorius had a down 2019 with the Yankees in which he posted a .238/.276/.441 slash line and 87 OPS+. Those figures are the lowest of his five-year Yankees tenure and a far cry from the .274/.319/.447 line and 104 OPS+ he averaged from 2015-18. The 29-year-old also finished with -6 Defensive Runs Saved, the second-worst total (granted, in a smaller sample size) of his eight-year big-league career.

Gregorius underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow last offseason, one explanation for his struggles. The injury kept him out until June, meaning he missed spring training and didn’t have a normal buildup to the season.

Javier Báez is entrenched as the Cubs shortstop, but second base is a question mark. The Cubs have a plethora of options already on the roster, none of whom have the position locked down going into 2020.

Following his surprise call-up in September, Nico Hoerner proved he should be a big part of the Cubs next season. That’ll come at second base or center field, and the Cubs made sure to play Hoerner at both spots throughout 2019 in preparation for next season.

Hoerner very well may open 2020 as the starting second baseman, but the Cubs haven’t made that determination yet.

“We don’t ever draw it up that a player’s gonna skip Triple-A," Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "It’s not determined yet where Nico’s gonna start next season, but given his mental makeup, given his skillset, who he is as a person, we felt that [his September promotion] was something under the extraordinary circumstances that he could handle. I think it’s important that player development continues at the major-league level.”

Besides Hoerner, other Cubs second basemen include David Bote, Daniel Descalso, Ian Happ and Tony Kemp. There’s no shortage of options, though none are guaranteed to be the starter.

A normal 2019-20 offseason will bode well for Gregorius, but his 2019 performance may hurt him in free agency. He may need to take a short-term deal this winter, possibly even a one-year pact, to reestablish his value.

Gregorius will have suitors on the open market as a shortstop. He’s been linked to the Phillies, who recently hired Joe Girardi — Gregorius’ former manager with the Yankees.

Would Gregorius join the Cubs to play second base? Very unlikely, but as they search for more production from the position, the Cubs could think outside of the box and gauge his interest in signing on to be Báez’s double play partner.

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Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

It didn’t take long for Willson Contreras to introduce himself to Major League Baseball. On the first pitch he saw as a big-leaguer, the Cubs catcher cranked a two-run home run to center field — on Sunday Night Baseball, nonetheless.

That moment was a sign of things to come for Contreras, who has since established himself as one of the best catchers in baseball. The 27-year-old holds a career .267/.350/.470 line with a 117 wRC+ and 67 home runs in four seasons. He’s started back-to-back All-Star Games, the first Cubs catcher to do so since Gabby Hartnett (1937-38).

Contreras offers so much to the Cubs besides his bat. His cannon of an arm and athleticism behind the plate are integral to the Cubs controlling opposing run games. His pitch framing is a work in progress, and admittedly, he could improve in this area by throwing behind runners less, ensuring he gets strikes called.

However, back-picking is part of Contreras’ value. He may lose some strike calls by not sticking a frame, but there've been plenty of occasions where Contreras' arm has provided the Cubs with a spark. His boundless energy is unmeasurable, but its importance to the Cubs — who feed off of it — cannot be overstated.

There are areas where Contreras can improve, and that's a scary thought. But he's already is one of the best backstops in baseball and has earned the starting catcher spot on our Cubs All-Decade Team.

Also considered: Welington Castillo, Miguel Montero, David Ross, Geovany Soto

Cubs sign oft-injured reliever Brandon Morrow to minor-league deal

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USA TODAY

Cubs sign oft-injured reliever Brandon Morrow to minor-league deal

Brandon Morrow hasn’t pitched in a big-league game since July 2018, but he’ll get a shot at making a comeback next season.

Morrow is set to sign a minor league deal with the Cubs, according to Bob Nightengale of USA Today. It’s worth $1 million if he makes the Cubs' roster and could reach $2.25 million if Morrow makes 65 big-league appearances. 

Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 15, 2018, missing the second half of that season with right biceps inflammation. He underwent a debridement procedure on his right elbow last offseason, which was supposed to keep him out for the first month of the 2019 season. But Morrow suffered several setbacks and never pitched in 2019. 

Morrow’s agent, Joel Wolfe, told Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times last month that the right-hander feels a sense of loyalty to the Cubs after they stuck by him through thick and thin. He said Morrow was open to a minor league deal.

When he last pitched, Morrow was one of the most dominant closers in baseball. He posted a 1.47 ERA in 35 games in 2018, converting 22 of 24 save tries. He provided the Cubs with a power arm in the back of the bullpen, striking out 31 batters in 30 2/3 innings compared to nine walks.

For the Cubs, Morrow is a low-risk addition with high-reward potential. He told ESPN’s Jesse Rogers that his arm feels great. If he’s healthy, he could be a major contributor to the Cubs' bullpen.

This time, the Cubs won’t place such high expectations on the 35-year-old. They expect closer Craig Kimbrel to bounce back in 2020 with a normal offseason ahead of him. Kimbrel signed a three-year, $43 million deal with the Cubs last June and struggled mightily, posting a 6.53 ERA in 23 games.

If healthy, Morrow could prove to be a lethal weapon in front of Kimbrel. If he can’t stay healthy, it’s not like the Cubs are investing a lot of money in him, as they did two offseasons ago when Morrow signed a two-year, $21 million deal.

Simply put: if Morrow pans out, great. If he can’t stay healthy, the Cubs can move on without losing a large investment.