Best free agency predictions on Earth include Cubs shocker originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
A week ahead of baseball's annual winter meetings, the top two free agent first basemen — Jose Abreu and Anthony Rizzo — are off the market, the first of the big dominoes to fall this winter.
Which makes this the place to be for what's going to happen next.
Because — that's right — we got both of those right.
Rizzo back to the Yankees. And, as of Monday's three-year deal for Abreu, the former White Sox MVP going to the World Series-champion Astros.
That's 2-for-2, baby, for the NBC Sports Chicago 2022-23 free agency predictions that we published more than two weeks ago!
Which makes this basically the greatest MLB free agency predictions in the world.
So what's going to happen with the Cubs?
If you weren’t sure how serious the Cubs were about landing one of the four big-name shortstops in free agency this year, you have’t been listening to team president Jed Hoyer talk about competing next year and his conversations with ownership about “having the financial flexibility to do that.”
Or been listening to Hoyer talk specifically about that position while alluding to their deficit of infield depth as MLB next year bans the extreme infield shifts that can often hide lack of fielding skill or range.
“The best defenders usually play shortstop; the best athletes often play shortstop,” Hoyer said during last week’s General Managers Meetings in Las Vegas. “Those are guys you can move around.
“Nico [Hoerner] was one of the top defensive shortstops in the league last year, and 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. It’s a position where you can have multiple guys who can do it.”
And the best teams have had that — including one particular all-time Cubs team.
“One of our real strengths when you go back to ’15, ’16 and ’17 was we had Addy [Russell] and we had Javy [Báez]. We had two elite defensive shortstops,” Hoyer said. “We could move those guys around. When one guy got hurt we weren’t running out a utility guy who shouldn’t be playing at shortstop.
“And I do think we saw early this year when Nico was hurt just how destabilizing bad defense can be at shortstop.”
The Cubs talked early in the process to all three agents representing the four All-Stars at that position, as well as agents representing players they might target at their multitude of other areas of need: starting pitching, center field, first base, more pitching and some more pitching.
The shortstop position for good reason is getting the most attention this winter industrywide. One agent with knowledge of that market estimates 11 of the 30 teams are in the early mix for the four big shots.
How will that musical chairs game play out among the most aggressive suitors? How will Carlos Correa’s relative youth (28) and absence of a qualifying offer (and requisite draft-pick compensation) play against the burgeoning offensive value some suggest put Trea Turner at or near the top of the class heading into his age 30 season?
Where does Wilson Contreras land? And what about newly released Jason Heyward and former White Sox MVP José Abreu?
These are our original predictions — with original explanations — coming out of the General Managers Meetings, and we're standing behind them.
Where players are signed, we've added that update (*-indicates player tied to qualifying offer and draft-pick compensation):
*CF Aaron Judge: Giants
The Giants “absolutely” like having hometown guys on the roster, team president Farhan Zaidi said last week (see: Brandon Crawford, Joc Pederson). “That’s a been a big part of what we’ve done over the last few years, both in the draft and in free agency. That’s always something we look at because we just think guys that have Bay Area ties are gonna be more invested and engaged in the organization and community.” Judge grew up a Giants fan in Linden, California, about two hours away.
And this: “From a financial standpoint, there’s nobody that would be out of our capability to meet what we expect contract demands to be,” Zaidi said — suggesting even multiple big-ticket players could be in play.
SS Carlos Correa: Cubs
Wait, what? The Cubs? THE CUBS?!! Despite signals from team sources that they don’t have an appetite for the kind of long-term contract that left them with Jason Heyward several years longer than optimal, the Cubs can’t go into next season without a significant addition to their middle infield, especially with the shift going away next year and all the payroll flexibility they have over the next few years.
If Correa was a fit for the Cubs last year on a long-term deal (he was), he still is, as the youngest of the four elite shortstops in the marketplace — and without the qualifying offer that ties the three others to draft-pick compensation. The Cubs have liked this guy since working him out at Wrigley before the 2012 draft (when they were poised to take him at No. 6 before he went No. 1 overall).
And consider this pitch to Correa and agent Scott Boras if they’re looking for the market-benchmark contract Boras often seeks for his top clients: Nine years, $290 million ($32.2 million AAV), front-loaded to take advantage of short-term flexibility. That doesn’t beat the record for shortstops that Corey Seager secured with his 10-year, $325 million deal last year — unless you add Correa’s $35.1 million bridge year with the Twins before he opted out of last year’s free agent deal. Then it’s 10 years, $325.1 million since he hit free agency last year.
*SS Xander Bogaerts: Phillies
The Phillies aren’t about to stop going big after their surprising World Series appearance, not with Dave Dombrowski running baseball ops and two 101-win teams to chase down in the NL East in the big-spending Mets and the young, locked-up core of the Braves. Bogaerts fits the middle-infield profile the Phillies seek and the kind of bat and clubhouse presence Dombrowski has always coveted.
Keep an eye on the Mariners as a serious challenge for Bogaerts, despite M’s president Jerry DiPoto’s insistence last week that former Gold Glove winner J.P. Crawford is his 2023 Opening Day shortstop and Boras saying last week that none of the teams he’s talked to has raised the issue of either of his shortstops (including Bogaerts) moving off the position even short-term. The Cubs also are expected to keep their options open for Bogaerts if Correa’s price gets too steep for their tastes.
*SS Trea Turner: Red Sox
Turner, a Florida kid who met his wife when they were athletes at N.C. State, isn’t a West Coast guy by nature, and it’s been suggested he might like to find a baseball home on or near the other coast. The Red Sox, who reportedly have tried, so far unsuccessfully, to keep Bogaerts, have lots of payroll flexibility as they try to get back into the thick of an NL East that looks like it has four other contenders. How big will they go after losing Bogaerts? Especially if the Yankees get involved with their Judge savings or the Orioles with their piles of cash and newfound competitive window? Stay tuned.
*SS Dansby Swanson: Dodgers
The Dodgers don’t have an heir apparent in their system to backfill for the departure of Trea Turner, and Gavin Lux is not considered a viable everyday option at short. The biggest-spending team in baseball for most of the past decade — with 10 consecutive postseason appearances to show for it — isn’t going home this winter without a bona fide replacement. Swanson, a former teammate of big-bucks Dodger first baseman Freddie Freeman, also is represented by the same agent.
RHP Koudai Senga: Giants
Thought we were going to predict the Cubs, didn’t you? Certainly, the Cubs are in on the power-pitching All-Star starter from Japan — who won’t cost the posting fee Seiya Suzuki did last winter. And Suzuki has already reached out to recruit. But this will be a robust market, and Senga already has landed in San Francisco this week for an apparent recruiting visit, with the Giants’ ballpark video board displaying a picture of him in Giants gear.
He wants a big market club that wants to win now, his agent told NBC Sports Chicago last week. That would qualify the Giants if you believe Zaidi, the Cubs if you believe Hoyer and maybe the Yankees and/or Mets. What’s less clear is whether Senga wants to share the Cubs spotlight brand back home with Suzuki or wants to go where he can be the lone Japanese star on the team, a dynamic that sometimes comes into play with NPB players making the move to MLB.
*1B Anthony Rizzo: Yankees
“He’s someone we’d like to retain,” Yankees GM Brian Cashman said of Rizzo during the GM meetings. That should be the final word on the matter.
Except for this: About the only thing that gave the World Champion Astros any trouble during their near-pristine title run was left-handed slug — some of which was the same left-handed slug that propelled the Phillies to the NL pennant. In particular, ex-Cubs Kyle Schwarber hit three home runs with a .700 slugging percentage and 1.123 OPS in six World Series games; Rizzo hit a homer and double in four ALCS games with a .583 slugging percentage and 1.021 OPS.
Guess who has a need at first base, money to burn and is reportedly prioritizing a run at Rizzo for its first base need after watching all that lefty-slugging value in the postseason? Including their own Yordan Alvarez.
The Yankees need Rizzo, and he fits the team culture and geography, so they’re still the favorites — but perhaps not by as a big a margin as some would think.
UPDATE: Rizzo signed a two-year, $40 million deal (plus third-year option) to return to the Yankees.
1B Jose Abreu: Astros
It’s not left-handed slug. But assuming Abreu bounces back, at 36, to something closer to his career power numbers next year, he’s the lineup fit, positional fit and clubhouse fit for a defending champ with the resources to pay him whatever his market commands. As for that power bounce-back, Abreu will find few places to make that happen as accommodating as Houston’s juice-box bandbox.
UPDATE: Abreu on Monday signed a three-year deal with the Astros for a reported $58.5 million.
*LHP Carlos Rodón: Rangers
The Rangers are all in after spending a half-billion dollars on a pair of shortstops last winter (Corey Seager, Marcus Semien) and then firing their manager to eventually hire Hall of Fame-bound Bruce Bochy heading into an important 2023. How do they fix their biggest weakness? They start by signing the top swing-and-miss, power-pitching starter on the market, a guy with All-Star appearances the last two years — and a guy with a brand new home he just bought in the Dallas area.
*RHP Justin Verlander: Mets
Owner Steve Cohen’s wallet is not likely to fold at the departure of Jacob deGrom, and this year’s American League Cy Young favorite is the poetic — if not perfect — complement to Max Scherzer in an Old Man Winners 1-2 punch at the front end of the Mets rotation. Two Hall of Fame-bound pitchers, 78 combined years of age on Opening Day, sipping from the fountain of six combined Cy Youngs.
Bring on those whippersnappers from Atlanta.
*RHP Jacob deGrom: Astros
Did we mention that the Astros have a lot of dough? And the urgency of an ongoing dynasty? And that their Cy Young pitcher is a free agent? Here’s the Met-for-tat move that returns the Astros staff to whole again — and formidable enough to hold off what’s sure to be a charge by the Mariners between now and October. And did we mention poetic?
OF/1B Cody Bellinger: Cubs
This assumes the 2019 MVP is non-tendered by the Dodgers Thursday on the heels of two injury-hampered, under-performing seasons. If so, he’ll likely be in the market for a short-term deal to recoup value before hitting the free agent market again. That could make Bellinger, 27, an excellent fit for a Cubs team in need of at least job-share at-bats at first and in center — where the Cubs’ closest prospects to the majors (Brennen Davis, Alexander Canario) both are dealing with injuries.
Hoyer said the club has some in-house candidates who will get at-bats in center, “but I think the lion’s share might come from external.” An outside bat at first also eases the pressure and expectations on breakout prospect Matt Mervis in a potential debut scenario next year.
OF Jason Heyward: Orioles
Heyward, who was officially released by the Cubs Monday with a year and $23 million left on his franchise-record contract, will cost any team signing him only the major-league minimum in 2023. A young, talented team close to making a competitive leap — like the Orioles — could get an especially valuable clubhouse presence for that process in addition to whatever roll-of-the-dice upside a motivated Heyward might have left in the tank as a late-winter, low-risk signing.
Nobody knows that potential value better than O’s manager Brandon Hyde, who was on the 2016 championship coaching staff.
*C Willson Contreras: Cardinals.
There’s a scenario that makes this work despite the signals coming from John Mozeliak’s front office that the Cards want to prioritize defense/receiving as they take on the Herculean task of replacing Yadier Molina — including Mozeliak, well, saying as much (“We don’t want to take a huge step back defensively because our team is centered around defense”).
Contreras, the NL’s starting catcher in three of the last four All-Star games, has the arm, the athleticism and the track record for controlling the running game that could raise his value as larger bases next season presumably incentivize more running. And this: The Cubs offered a blueprint that might provide the Cards the best way to backfill for their Hall of Fame-caliber retiree while ramping up the desperately needed offense at the position missing from their playoff team last year. Bring in a receiver-first catcher (at presumably a lesser cost) to pair with Contreras, as the Cubs did with Yan Gomes in 2022, and then keep Contreras’ bat in the lineup on the days he’s not catching either as the DH or at any of three other positions he’s capable of manning.
One thing’s for sure: An emotional player who has admired Molina throughout his career and felt hurt by the Cubs’ kick-him-to-the-curb treatment this year would be the most motivated free agent the Cardinals could find in the marketplace.
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