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GM Meetings Notebook: How the Cubs plan to tackle center field, shortstop in free agency

3 months agoAndy Martinez

LAS VEGAS — The GM Meetings might be nearing a close here at the Conrad at Resorts World, but the thrill of the offseason is just beginning.

In a city known for playing the odds and taking risks, Jed Hoyer and Carter Hawkins will come out of these meetings ready to play their hand as they look to improve the Cubs roster ahead of the 2023 season.

That involves being active in the free agent markets for a center fielder, especially given the last few weeks for a pair of prospects.

“I think it was always most likely that we go outside and certainly [Alexander] Canario’s injury, Brennan [Davis’] setback, I think made that that much more obvious,” Hoyer said Wednesday during his nearly-hour-long session with the media. “So, I think we can expect that.”

The class of free agents that play center is very top heavy — 30-year-old Brandon Nimmo, who posted an 5.4 fWAR with the Mets in 2022 is the prized position. Aaron Judge, who broke the AL single-season home run record, played 78 games in center for the Yankees, but is seen more as a right fielder.

The Rays hold a club option on Kevin Kiermaier, who is known more for his glove than his bat (.681 OPS, 89 OPS+ in 2022), that they are expected to decline. The Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger could be a non-tender candidate that might be an intriguing fit.

Regardless, the Cubs will look outside the organization to round out their outfield. Ian Happ has left locked down and Seiya Suzuki will man right for the Cubs in 2023. Canario and Davis might have had an outside chance of breaking with the team in 2023 and playing some center, but their respective injuries have thrown water on that. Christopher Morel is another internal option that could see some time in the role — he played 57 games there in his rookie campaign — but David Ross has stated his preference to see Morel playing in the middle of the infield. 

“We have guys internally that will certainly play out there,” Hoyer said. “But I think the lion’s share might come from external.”

That’s the case at first base, too.

While Matt Mervis has taken the prospect world by storm with his torrid 2022 minor league season that’s continued in the Fall League, the Cubs aren’t ready to hand over the reins at first base to him.

“He’s a big part of our plans,” Hoyer said. “That said, we talked about depth a lot yesterday. And it’s important to keep building that depth. So, he’s very much in our plans. But I think we’re also going to be active and exploring alternatives that can play first, that can play DH. And I think that’s really important.”

The Cubs need more thump from the position and would like to add more left-handed hitting.

“But, the strength of this market is probably more right-handed,” Hoyer said.

Instead, they’ll opt for the best talent available — something that’s prevalent at the shortstop position. The Cubs will be active in the loaded market, especially with the skillset and athleticism Nico Hoerner provides.

“We’re totally comfortable with him playing there., but he also has the ability to play second base and probably many other positions as well,” Hoyer said. “I thought one of the real strengths [when you] go back to ‘15, ‘16, ‘17 was we had [Addison Russell], we had Javy [Báez]. We had two elite defensive shortstops; you can move those guys around. When one guy did get hurt. We weren’t running out of utility guys that shouldn’t be playing at shortstop.”

Busy week ahead

The Cubs have a fascinating roster crunch in the coming days.

They have 37 players on the 40-man roster, but 7 players (Kyle Hendricks, Codi Heuer, Alec Mills, Ethan Roberts, Brad Wieck, Jason Heyward and Rafael Ortega) will have to be placed on the 40-man roster when they’re activated off the 60-day IL. Four players will have to be let go — that includes Jason Heyward, who the team already announced they are releasing at the end of the season.

That also doesn’t include players the Cubs will have to add to the 40-man roster to protect from the Rule 5 draft, including guys like Davis, Kevin Alcántara and several other intriguing minor leaguers.

“It was very different in the last few years in the sense of you, we have a lot of hard decisions to make [this year],” Hoyer said. “But that’s a good thing.”

The Cubs expect to be active in the trade market to solve some of those 40-man roster crunch decisions.

“But we haven’t finalized anything,” Hoyer said. “We’ll kind of work over the next couple of days to get that finalized and we’ll sleep on it over the weekend and make those decisions next week.”

Seiya Suzuki and the WBC

Suzuki endured a strange first Spring Training.

He might endure another in 2023.

This spring, it was a rushed process to sign after the lockout was lifted and then Spring Training was shortened, lessening the time he had to get acclimated to his new team and the new culture in the U.S.

In 2023, the World Baseball Classic returns in March, after Spring Training begins and team Japan opens pool play in Tokyo.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about it. I certainly want him to play, I think it’s a great honor to be able to represent your country,” Hoyer said. “What I want is the best for both worlds — I want him to be able to represent his country, and I want him to have a really smooth Spring Training and get ready for the season.

“Hopefully we can accomplish both.”

That could mean Suzuki joins the competition a little later — the quarterfinal pool begins in Japan in mid-March and the semifinals are in Miami on March 19 and 20. Allowing Suzuki to join at the semifinal stage, should they progress that far, could accomplish “the best for both worlds.” Japan should progress through pool play and then would have to finish in a top two spot, likely among Korea, Chinese Taipei, Cuba or the Netherlands, among other teams.

“In a perfect world, you’d be able to prepare it completely for our season, but also represent his country and I think that’s the perfect scenario,” Hoyer said. “But we’re supportive of whatever he wants to do.”

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