Cubs free agent focus: Howie Kendrick

Cubs free agent focus: Howie Kendrick

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 Howie Kendrick the answer to the Cubs’ search for improved second base production in 2020?

The Cubs struggled to replace Ben Zobrist last season during his four-month stint on the restricted list. Six Cubs started at least 10 games at second base, posting a combined .220/.301/.383 (.684 OPS) slash line — all team lows from position players. League-wide, Cubs second basemen ranked 28th in average and 21st in OPS.

Those numbers would’ve been better with a full season of Zobrist, who proved he has something left in the tank after returning to the Cubs in September. However, he’s 38 years old, a free agent and mulling retirement. He and the Cubs could seek a reunion, but his status for 2020 is uncertain.

Kendrick is 36 and coming off a stellar 2019 with the Nationals in which he posted a .344/.395/.572 (.966 OPS) slash line in 121 games/334 at-bats. Those numbers are even better against lefties — .376/.421/.615 (1.036 OPS) — an area the Cubs — .239/.322/.428 (.750 OPS) — struggled in 2019.

Besides his ability to mash southpaws, Kendrick provides a professional at-bat; he made contact at an 84.3 percent clip in 2019 and struck out just 13.2 percent of the time. For comparison, Zobrist made contact at an 85 percent clip and struck out 13.6 percent of the time, both solid figures. The Cubs finished last in baseball in contact rate last season (73.8 percent), missing Zobrist's ability to move the ball around the diamond during his absence. Kendrick would provide a Zobrist-esque presence in the Cubs lineup.

Kendrick is a versatile defender who played first, second and third base for Washington last season. He's not an everyday player anymore, and Cubs top prospect Nico Hoerner proved he should be a big part of the team in 2020 — likely at second, with Javier Baez manning shortstop. But Kendrick would provide the Cubs with a stable veteran behind Hoerner, the latter of whom can also play center field. Playing Kendrick at third would mean moving Kris Bryant to the outfield, which Bryant is no stranger to doing. Doing so to get Kendrick’s bat in the lineup would be a plus for the Cubs offensively.

Kendrick signed a two-year, $7 million contract with Washington ahead of the 2018 season. He comes with an affordable price tag this offseason, key for a Cubs team that has payroll constraints once again.

Free agents such as Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg aren’t realistic targets for the Cubs, barring any significant moves to shed payroll. Kendrick is a different story, and his versatility would help the Cubs in many ways.

More from NBC Sports Chicago: Howie Kendrick is a perfect fit for the 2020 Cubs

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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


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.