How the Cubs can navigate free agency and not block prospects

The Chicago Cubs must be careful about who they sign in free agency and for how much. Otherwise, they risk penalties and blocking top prospects.

Colorado Rockies v Chicago Cubs
Colorado Rockies v Chicago Cubs / Matt Dirksen/GettyImages

We know the Chicago Cubs have prioritized landing a starting pitcher to insert toward the front of the rotation. They also need a power bat. Given that Shohei Ohtani is the best player in baseball, can DH and be an ace (starting in 2025), he checks two needs off the list, and it's no surprise the Cubs are still pursuing him. But what about the other positions of need?

How the front office feels about top prospect Matt Shaw's ability to play third base will significantly determine how things pan out this winter. They must avoid locking Matt Chapman into a long-term deal if they believe Shaw can handle the hot corner. Given that Nico Hoerner and Dansby Swanson are here longer term, Shaw becomes an afterthought if Chapman is signed, and I don't see the team going in this direction.

The best route the Cubs can go offensively if they miss out on Ohtani is by landing Cody Bellinger and Rhys Hoskins. They don't tear your farm apart at all. Hoskins wasn't even given a qualifying offer, so he isn't tied to draft-pick compensation. Given that most of the Cubs' top prospects (Pete Crow-Armstrong and Alexander Canario are closest to MLB-ready) are outfielders, landing Bellinger and Hoskins allows Bellinger to switch off from center field to 1st base when needed. It also lets Hoskins DH and not have to play 1B every day, given that he's returning from an ACL tear.

This way, with the Cubs looking to hand over CF primarily to Crow-Armstrong, he gets everyday playing time, while Bellinger can play his position if he needs a day off. Crow-Armstrong went 0-14 to start his big league career. Those 14 ABs, however, were throughout 13 games that he appeared in. He was never allowed to get into a rhythm and find his groove. For some reason, if he doesn't work out at the plate, the Cubs have others who will be ready for a chance, such as Canario or even Owen Caissie if he moves along fast enough.

It's not that complicated of a situation for Jed Hoyer, thankfully. If you miss out on Ohtani, it's your best backup option. Of course, signing Hoskins is going to be easier than Bellinger. We've already had reports that Hoskins and the Cubs were exchanging factors on a contract. Bellinger will be the big fish they have to lure back to Wrigley. If they can do that, they will have an offense similar to last year but with an added punch of Hoskins' pop.

Chicago Cubs: What about the starting rotation and bullpen?

There are several relievers that the Cubs can look at in free agency. That should be addressed last. As far as the rotation, it needs help. Marcus Stroman is gone. Jameson Taillon could have had a better first season with the Cubs. Jordan Wicks and Javier Assad have a lot of upside. Kyle Hendricks proved he still has something left in the tank. Justin Steele is your main guy, as he finished 5th in Cy Young voting this season. It would be best if you still had another ace-caliber arm.

I would love to see the Cubs trade for Tyler Glasnow, but I'm more on board with snagging Shane Bieber and Emmanuel Clase from Cleveland. A rotation led by Bieber and Steele is a great start, and you have exceptional depth.

The Cubs currently have about 51.0M until the first luxury tax tier. Bieber is estimated to be worth around 12.2M via arbitration. Bellinger and Hoskins, you have to assume, will set you back at least an estimated 43.0M. That, plus Clase's 2.5M next season, has you looking at increasing payroll between all players mentioned by roughly 57.7M. Given the club has its own arbitration-eligible players that need a raise, this type of offseason will put the Cubs squarely in between luxury tax tier one or two, with room to add at the deadline without getting further penalized by hitting tier two.

All this to say, it's possible to do this if the Cubs are willing to spend that much. It remains to be seen if they'll go over the first luxury tax tier if they don't get a player like Ohtani or Yoshinobu Yamamoto. More will be revealed as the offseason goes on.

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