LAS VEGAS — The bustle, the buzz, the bells, the beeps, the spinning and dinging all day and through the night.
“It definitely felt like the Winter Meetings,” Cubs general manager Carter Hawkins said Thursday as he and the Cubs wrapped up four days of whatcha-got, whatcha-want chatter at the annual GM Meetings.
It also definitely felt like Las Vegas, which it was, which made it the perfect place for baseball’s top executives to gather for their first offseason convention since last winter’s 99-day lockout — and with more of them flashing bigger wads of cash than at any of these things since at least the 2019 Winter Meetings.
Nobody’s all in yet on any of the big-name free agents. Teams and agents weren’t even allowed to discuss dollars until Thursday.
“It’s a lot of get-to-know-type conversations and really just making sure there’s general interest discussed vs. specifics,” Hawkins said.
Consider it the ante process before the opening deal. The chips on the table before the roulette wheel starts spinning on what promises to an active, big-spender offseason — with industrywide revenues back up following pandemic-related suppression, significant increases in the luxury-tax thresholds post-lockout and more teams looking like they’re trying to win in 2023 than MLB has seen in maybe five years or more.
Hawkins cautioned that it’s still early enough in the offseason to be skeptical of just how widespread the aggressiveness will be among teams, regardless of how aggressive many sounded during these GM Meetings — when agents came away from their flurries of meetings feeling the rising heat of markets across all position areas from teams across all divisions.
“I think people always sound like that early,” said Hawkins, who suggested little way of knowing how quickly free agency might move at this point — be it the star-studded shortstop market or scarcities among center fielders, catchers or lefty sluggers.
“It really takes one domino to fall to start that process,” he said. “But sometimes it takes a long time for that domino to fall. It’ll be interesting to see when it does.”
Until then, the Cubs may not be quite ready to go all-in this winter, but they’ve certainly anted up, and they’ve got their seat at the shortstop table for some four-stud dealing.
After meetings with agents for nearly every player in the market who might be a roster fit, it’s impossible to know how the final distribution of the Cubs’ “intelligent spending” will fall, but unlike the crosstown White Sox, they’re poised to look more toward free agents than trades for additions.
And at least a rough road map has emerged for how they might approach their middle infield, first base, center field and starting pitching needs, based on conversations with agents and MLB sources during the meetings:
The Cubs are among the nearly half of MLB teams seriously targeting the four-man class of elite shortstops that include the Dodgers’ Trea Turner, Twins’ Carlos Correa, Braves’ Dansby Swanson and Red Sox’ Xander Bogaerts.
Turner and Correa will command the longest-term contracts, if early industry predictions are to be believed, which could dissuade the Cubs off those players in proportion to the years it would take, given team president Jed Hoyer’s distaste for the idea of big-dollar commitments beyond, roughly, Seiya Suzuki’s five-year deal in March.
But more than one source said the Cubs “love” Correa, whom they worked out before his 2012 draft and thought they might have a chance to select at No. 6 before the Astros took him first . And depending on the years, the Cubs don’t appear to have serious concern over Correa’s past minor-injury/back issues (he has played in 89 percent of his team’s games the last three seasons).
On the other hand, an agent who has none of the four predicted the Cubs would sign Turner — likely an indication of how serious people in the game believe the Cubs are about landing one of the big-name guys. And how big they believe they'll spend.
That said, keep an eye on Bogaerts.
While a lot has been made of former White Sox MVP José Abreu, he’s just one of several players the Cubs have their eye on as they look at possible short-term help at the position while they wait to see if breakout prospect Matt Mervis, a lefty slugger, is the “next Anthony Rizzo” he hopes to become.
They also met with the agents for Astros right-handed-hitting Trey Mancini and Padres switch-hitter Josh Bell. Any of these players and righty Abreu would also fit a scenario in which Mervis can ease into the big leagues with some job-share support for tough lefties or other tough matchups, something Hoyer suggested the club prefers.
And don’t sleep on Padres versatile free agent Brandon Drury, who one source suggested as a fit in a short-term corner-infield toggle role as the Cubs sort out their longer term infield mix (which, beyond shortstop Nico Hoerner, also includes Patrick Wisdom, Zach McKinstry and Nick Madrigal).
There’s also the possibility former MVP and two-time All-Star Cody Bellinger becomes available next week as a non-tender candidate with the Dodgers.
Which brings us to…
Hoyer said this week he expects most of next year’s center field innings to be handled by somebody he’ll add to the roster this winter.
“Certainly with [Alexander] Canario’s injury and Brennen [Davis’] setback, it made that just that much more obvious,” Hoyer said of Canario’s long-term ankle and shoulder injuries suffered two weeks ago in winter ball and Davis’ stress reaction in his surgically repaired back experienced during Arizona Fall League. They are the Cubs’ top two Triple-A outfield prospects.
Problem with the external solution: There aren’t many available outfielders who fit the bill. And when it comes to bills, you can forget the top two guys out there: megastar, soon-to-be-megabucks recipient Aaron Judge and the Mets’ Brandon Nimmo, who looks like a candidate to get overpaid based on his recent numbers, league-wide need and scarcity.
But three-time Gold Glove centerfielder Kevin Kiermeier, who had his 2023 option declined by the Rays, and Bellinger are both on the Cubs’ radar, according to sources.
Kiermeier, who turns 33 in April, didn’t play the second half in 2022 because of a hip injury, and likely will be available on a modest, short-term commitment.
Bellinger, the lefty hitter who has made most of his career starts in center (and second-most at first), has been a significantly below-average offensive performer the last two years after shoulder surgery, which could make him — at age 27 — a candidate for one of agent Scott Boras’ one-year, “pillow” contracts to prove his value for next year’s free agency.
“He can play Gold Glove first base and center field,” Boras said. “It’s really about getting his strength back so he can repeat his skill level.”
The Cubs are essentially out on power-pitching lefty Carlos Rodon, another former White Sox All-Star, unless his market inexplicably deflates closer to the Marcus Stroman (three years/$71 million) range than the Robbie Ray (five/$115 million) plus $10 million one agent predicted.
But they’re in on Japanese free agent Koudai Senga (with a little recruiting help from Suzuki). And left-hander Drew Smyly, who performed especially well down the stretch for the Cubs, remains in play for a two- or three-year deal, as the mutually-admiring parties remain in touch after Smyly (as expected) declined their mutual option for 2023.
Depending on what happens on those two fronts, the Cubs could turn to the tier of quality starters just behind Rodon for the veteran middle-of-the-rotation innings they need to fill to have a chance of competing in 2023.
They’ve liked Taijuan Walker, 30, for years, and some predict his 2022 Mets teammate Chris Bassitt will wind up a Cub.
“Essentially Taijuan is on an island,” Boras said after describing his attributes and upside. “The only question is who is willing to Tai-pei.”
Keep an eye on lefty Sean Manea.
Boras said he’s already sensed a demand for this guy, “when you get the general managers calling you and saying, ‘Man-I-a need a left-handed pitcher.”