The 5 Best Available Free Agents for the Cubs
In the mid-to-late stages of their rebuilding process, the Cubs are in for an interesting offseason. They're in no position to make a major splash as the front office has noted, but some subtle moves could keep the wheels of progress moving in the right direction.
With areas of need aplenty on the major league squad, there are plenty of under-the-radar moves that could help the team for both 2014 and beyond. Based on positional need, past performance and organizational fit, these are the five free agents best suited to fit into the Cubs' plans in 2014 and possibly past that point.
No. 5: Kurt Suzuki (Catcher)
Kurt Suzuki is no Brian McCann or Jarrod Saltalamacchia, but he is a viable and less expensive option for the Cubs this season. Suzuki, who would serve as the backup catcher to a young Welington Castillo, batted .232 with five home runs and 32 runs batted in 285 at-bats in 2013.
The former Athletic and National has seen his at-bats steadily decline over the past five seasons, as he has settled into a backup role. Luckily, that's exactly what the Cubs will need him to do this season as Castillo works to improve upon a solid 2013 campaign.
Suzuki, who will turn 30 next year, is entering his eighth major league season and would be able to provide a veteran presence in the locker room. That could be an underrated quality for a team that figures to be bringing up plenty of young players in the next year or two.
Unlike McCann and Saltalamacchia, who will demand big contracts, Suzuki should be available for relatively cheap. Since he made $6.45 million (money he got with the assumption that he would be the starter) last season and his playing time has decreased, he should be available for anywhere between $2-3 million a year. Needing to bridge the age gap, a one or two-year contract would make sense from the Cubs' perspective.
No. 4: Joaquin Benoit (Relief Pitcher)
Coming off of a stellar 2012-13 run, Joaquin Benoit will be a key piece to somebody's puzzle and Chicago makes sense as a possible destination. The wily veteran had somewhat of a career year after jumping into the closer role for the Tigers last season.
Benoit went 4-1 with a 2.01 ERA to go along with 24 saves last season for Detroit. Normally a set-up man, the 36-year-old had a coming out party that will earn him more money this offseason.
A concern with Benoit for the Cubs would be his age. At 36, it would be generous to think that Benoit has more than three good years left in him. However, as more relief pitchers (such as Fernando Rodney in 2012) are hitting their primes later, age has become less of a concern in the bullpen.
Another team that is reportedly interested in Benoit is the Philadelphia Phillies. The former NL East juggernauts have already been active this offseason, inking former-Cub outfielder Marlon Byrd to a two-year deal worth $16 million and figuring to make even more moves. It appears that given the higher urgency to win in 2014, Philadelphia could land Benoit if they want him more than the Cubs do.
Due to his age, a two-year contract offer to Benoit would make sense for the Cubs. A third-year option wouldn't be a bad idea; if Benoit performs well in his first two years in Chicago, then he could be brought back for the 2016 campaign that figures to be the Cubs' first real postseason run following the rebuilding process. Benoit, whose last contract was for three years and $16.5 million, could demand anywhere between $6-8 million on the open market because of his stellar 2012-13 season.
No. 3: Curtis Granderson (Outfielder)
By far the biggest name the Cubs could realistically sign this offseason would be outfielder Curtis Granderson. Sitting out for much of that season with a variety of injuries, Granderson only logged 214 at-bats for the Yankees.
In those 214 at-bats, Granderson compiled seven home runs, 15 runs batted in, eight steals and a .229 batting average. Those numbers hardly jump out at you, and that's what makes Granderson such a bargain this offseason. For Granderson personally, this is the worst year that he could become a free agent, but for the Cubs and other teams, it's the best time.
Granderson will be 33 in March, but he should be fresher than in past years because he missed so much time a season ago. While his numbers were down last year, Granderson eclipsed at least 20 home runs in every season between 2007-2012 and had over 100 runs batted in twice over that span. A former superstar who has a down year can be a very valuable asset, especially for a team that is looking to do a lot with a little.
The native of Chicago still has strong ties to the city. Granderson funded $5 million of the $7 million project to build a new baseball stadium for UIC, Granderson's alma mater. Already having emotional ties to the city can't hurt the Cubs' chances to land the former All-Star.
What can hurt the Cubs' chances of landing Granderson is the fact that the Yankees have stated that re-signing their outfielder is a "serious part of their offseason plans" (per MLB Rumors). Additionally, MLB Rumors also reports that the New York Mets have expressed interest. With New York teams having more money to spend, it's very likely the Cubs could be outbid for Granderson's services.
Based on his market value, Granderson is projected to receive a contract in the neighborhood of three years and $45 million. While he would be worth far more money if he had a solid 2013, the price tag may still be too much for the Cubs. However, if the price is right and Granderson wants to come home, he may be the Cubs' only legitimate candidate to create a "splash" this offseason.
No. 2: Phil Hughes (Starting Pitcher)
Phil Hughes, who once had a promising future as a New York Yankee, is now looking to start over and make good on that promise. His story sounds a lot like that of Jake Arrieta, the former Oriole starting pitcher who, along with reliever Pedro Strop, was traded by the Cubs for Scott Feldman last season. Barring injury, Arrieta will be the Cubs' No. 4 starter to start the season. Phil Hughes could follow a very similar path if the Cubs can land him.
Last season, Hughes had a not-so-pretty stat line, going 4-14 with a 5.19 ERA in 29 starts for the Yankees. Hughes, who will only be 28 years of age next season, has plenty of time to turn those numbers around. Delivering on his early promise, Hughes went 18-8 with a 4.19 ERA in 2010. He will never have an unreal ERA, but Hughes could contribute to the Cubs as a No. 5 starter. Not only that, because of his age, Hughes is a viable option down the line for Chicago if he over-performs.
Much like the signings of Scott Baker and Feldman last year, Hughes fits the Epstein and Hoyer mold as a low-risk, high-reward player. After making $7.15 million in 2013 and underachieving, Hughes figures to make far less than that this season. Likely only warranting a one-year contract from any interested team, Hughes presents relatively no risk for the Cubs this season. If he doesn't play well, he and the Cubs go their separate ways, but if he performs well then he can be in Chicago when the future looks a little brighter.
With the Padres signing another reclamation project in Josh Johnson, the Cubs could use the value that Hughes presents. When it comes down to it, Hughes makes sense for the pocketbook and the product on the field for a Cubs team that will still be rebuilding in 2014.
No. 1: J.P. Howell (Relief Pitcher)
The Cubs' bullpen is poised to be its most improved unit from a season ago, and the addition of an arm like J.P. Howell would make it even better. Because the team lacks "power arms" in their minor league system, Howell seems like a perfect fit.
Howell went 4-1 last season, with an excellent 2.03 ERA. Entering his ninth season in the big leagues, Howell's value has never been higher.
For one thing, the former Royal, Ray and Dodger is a lefty, which is a premium in the bullpen. The Cubs already have a very solid left-handed reliever in their bullpen in James Russell, and the addition of Howell would assure that the team had a lefty in any mid or late-game situation. In a division where pitchers face left-handed sluggers such as Joey Votto and Pedro Alvarez on a consistent basis, having dependable lefties in the bullpen is a must.
Secondly, Howell is just 31 years old. In position player years, 31 is starting to get over the hill, but as a reliever who doesn't stress his arm as much as a starter, it is relatively young. It's also especially intriguing that Howell seems to be entering the prime of his career given his numbers last season.
Not only does Howell present an excellent bullpen option for the Cubs, he is also projected by MLB Rumors to be signed for cheaper than other relievers such as Joe Smith. Howell is projected to command a contract for anywhere between $12-18 million over three years. That's a bargain considering it's much quicker to build up the bullpen through free agency than through the farm system.