Cubs free agent focus: Josh Donaldson

Cubs free agent focus: Josh Donaldson

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.

Former Cubs farmhand and current free agent third baseman Josh Donaldson is a hot commodity this offseason.

Following an injury-riddled 2018, Donaldson had a resurgent 2019 season with the Atlanta Braves. The 33-year-old posted a .259/.379/.521 slash line with 37 home runs and 94 RBIs. He finished seventh in MLB with 100 walks and played an excellent third base — his 15 Defensive Runs Saved were No. 2 among MLB third basemen.

Donaldson is one of the game’s best third basemen and won the 2015 AL MVP Award while playing for the Toronto Blue Jays. He’d be a valuable addition to many teams, but like fellow free agent third baseman Anthony Rendon, there’s no spot for him on the Cubs roster, as currently constructed.

Kris Bryant’s positional versatility allows the Cubs to play him in the outfield — and occasionally first base when Anthony Rizzo is hurt or needs a day off. But Bryant is a third baseman first and foremost, so as long as he’s a Cub, the team isn’t going to acquire another star to man the hot corner. Doing so would mean moving Bryant to left or right field full-time, as he’s only played 25 innings in center field during his big-league career.

Kyle Schwarber (left) and Jason Heyward (right) have the Cubs corner outfield spots locked down. Now is not the time to trade Schwarber, so you can rule out dealing him to fit Bryant in left. Heyward can play center, but he’s a much better defender in right.

Therefore, adding Donaldson would only make sense if the Cubs decide to trade Bryant this winter.

The Cubs are open to shaking up their roster after a disappointing 2019 season. Bryant is a free agent after 2021, so the Cubs could look to move him if they don't foresee the 27-year-old signing an extension. The Cubs won't trade Bryant for the sake of change, especially if they aren't offered the type of return they seek.

There’s also the issue of Bryant’s service time grievance case, which would push his free agency up to next offseason, should he win. Scott Boras — Bryant’s agent — laid out at the GM Meetings why it’s unlikely we’ll see the 2016 NL MVP dealt this offseason.

Considering his age, Donaldson probably won’t be getting more than a three or four-year deal this offseason, though the annual salary will be high. Hypothetically, if the Cubs trade Bryant, they’ll have a vacancy at third base, which Donaldson could fill for a few seasons.

If these scenarios played out, the Cubs would still have an All-Star third baseman in Donaldson, all while acquiring future assets in return for Bryant. However, the Cubs wouldn’t trade Bryant without a contingency plan to replace him. They'd also lose leverage in trade talks if they acquire another third basemen while Bryant is still on the roster, thus weakening the return package for him.

Most importantly, the Cubs would be replacing Bryant — a star in his prime — with Donaldson —a veteran who had a great 2019 but will be close to 40 by the end of his next contract.

Unless the Cubs are blown out of the water by a Bryant trade proposal, it makes much more sense to keep him rather than spend big on a free agent who hopefully will be productive into his late 30s. 

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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.