Almost all the talk about players the Cubs can or should pursue this offseason has centered around big names, specifically ace pitchers or elite shortstops. And that’s to be expected, right? It’s not quite as fun to discuss which role players a team should sign to complement the bigger stars on the roster, though such signings are a big part of what eventually makes a team successful.
There were a few years when the Cubs were only signing role players, though they couldn’t figure out a way to find the ones who properly balanced out the lineup. With that in mind, I wanted to look at a few players who aren’t getting much attention and probably won’t even after the World Series is over. Maybe their salad days are behind them or their skillsets are such that it’ll appeal to only a handful of teams that need to sharpen a very particular edge.
In some cases, it might just be a matter of a very good player being overshadowed on his team. With the understanding that there are easily a dozen or more players who could be listed below, here are a few I personally would like to see the Cubs engage with.
This one has more of a personal bent because Barnhart is from my current hometown of Brownsburg, IN — along with Lance Lynn — and his dad has been giving my son hitting lessons for the last five years or so. Assuming the Cubs indeed go in a different direction at catcher moving forward, they may want to add another game manager behind the plate who brings leadership and the ability to guide a pitching staff.
Barnhart had a pretty rough offensive season in Detroit, a common refrain among Tigers hitters, but he finished strong with a 99 wRC+ across his last 110 plate appearances. He’s also back to switch-hitting after batting only left-handed in 2020 and ’21, so he’s got a little more flexibility in that regard. Barnhart wants to win after spending the last few years with the Reds and Tigers, and staying close to home might be a nice value-add.
I wanted the Cubs to go after Wong last season before the Brewers nabbed him and I still think he’d make a solid addition under the right circumstances. This would make a ton of sense if the Cubs can convince one of the top free agent shortstops to slide over to third, thereby keeping Nico Hoerner at short and installing Wong at second. The former Cardinal and Brewer is a left-handed hitter who still has double-digit home run power and a very good plate approach.
My thinking here is probably colored more by the idea that Mancini is a beloved player who meant a lot to the fans in Baltimore and who has battled back from colon cancer to resume a productive career. Being a right-handed hitter hurts him a little in terms of fit, but he’s capable of playing first base and both corner outfield spots. If the Cubs go with Matt Mervis as the everyday first baseman, Mancini could platoon there and rotate to other spots as needed.
He’s a Northern Indiana kid who can still pick it in center and whose brother maintains the playing surface at Wrigley. You can’t get more perfect than that. The Cubs have been connected to the centerfielder in the past as a possible landing spot for his “bad” contract, but a deal at this point would be for him to hold down center as a glove-first guy until Pete Crow-Armstrong is ready.
His checkered health history wouldn’t really be much of an issue because the Cubs have plenty of outfield depth. This would be more about rounding that out with a veteran left-handed batter who can play good defense, something they’ve been lacking out in center for a while.
A possible buy-low candidate who might be looking for a prove-it deal after missing all of 2022 due to shoulder surgery, Conforto is a lefty batter who’s hit 27 or more homers three times. How much of that power will return, and how quickly, is the real question. He’s not a great defender and he’s only played right field since 2019, so the limitations are real.
There’s also the distinct likelihood that he’ll be looking for more than a pillow contract after all. Conforto turned down a two-year, $30 million offer from the Astros back in August and might be looking for at least that much in a new deal. He had rejected the Mets’ $18.4 million qualifying offer following the ’21 season, but any penalties tied that expired following the draft.
Even for a team that needs lefty power in a bad way, Conforto probably only makes sense if his market doesn’t come around and he has to take a discount on a one-year deal.
Now we get to the pitchers, which is a very interesting spot for a team that has made huge strides on the development front. On one hand, the Cubs could push the rebuild forward in a big way with an ace who solidifies the rotation. On the other, they could choose to invest more payroll dollars into position players while letting the system produce starters and relievers alike.
Bassitt isn’t an ace, nor is he going to come cheap, but he could definitely fill out the middle of a rotation at a much lower cost than, say, Jacob deGrom or Justin Verlander. Not that Bassitt is on that level from a performance standpoint, but he’s been very good with the Mets after several strong seasons in Oakland.
This would probably have to be one of those sweet-spot deals where neither Bassitt nor the Cubs are finding their perfect match elsewhere. That means the Cubs would have missed on the top of the market for one reason or another, though they do have a great deal of depth and could still work something out in a trade.
Long removed from his Cy Young days, Kluber will be 37 next season and is probably amenable to another one-year deal. He made 31 starts for Tampa after managing a total of just 24 over the previous three seasons combined between Cleveland, Texas, and New York, pitching to a 4.34 ERA with lower expected numbers and a sterling 1.15 BB/9.
Again, this would be more of a fallback in the event that the Cubs swing and miss on an ace. But if we’re talking about one year, there’s really no risk involved and they could still try to go big in free agency next winter.
As I mentioned at the top, there are dozens of players who could be a fit on the North Side, and the list will shift based on what the Cubs end up doing with their bigger signings. Assuming they make bigger signings. No matter who the particular players end up being, I believe we’ll see Jed Hoyer and Co. continuing to aim for shorter commitments with higher AAV.
Flexibility is the name of the game and the Cubs are less concerned about increasing payroll today as long as they’re not locking themselves up for too many tomorrows. So thinking about all the potential free agents out there who aren’t going to make headlines, who do you think would be a good fit with the Cubs?