The Cubs had mostly played in the mid-market section of free agency so far this winter, despite a fairly obvious need in the infield for one premium player. They missed out on the two superstar shortstops, Carlos Correa and Trea Turner, and apparently were never seriously in play on either. But they end up with a very good player in Dansby Swanson, and get him on a more favorable deal for the club.
Swanson had a career year in 2022, with 6.4 fWAR, and how much you believe this is a new level for him and at least mostly sustainable likely informs your view of this signing. I’m on record as saying I’m more a believer than not, as I think the defensive improvement from him was real, and even if he’s just a league-average hitter going forward — which he was in 2021 — he’s still a 4+ WAR player, and likely to hold that for several years as he enters his age-29 season.
Swanson was the second-most-valuable defensive player in MLB last year by Statcast’s Outs Above Average, at +21 runs above average, behind only Detroit second baseman Jonathan Schoop (a former shortstop himself). This was the best defensive performance of his career, although he was at +8 in 60 games in 2020, a pace of +21.6 per 162 games, so there’s some slight precedent for it. He dropped to +2 in 2021, and some of the gain this past season was just optimized positioning on the part of Atlanta, with some credit to Swanson as well for becoming more consistent and getting better reads overall. Defensive numbers do tend to vary more year to year than offensive stats, with a two-year sample quite a bit more reliable than one year; but in Swanson’s case, the two-year look has him as a plus defender who could be worth almost a win a year from his glove alone.
The 2022 season was Swanson’s best-case scenario: 115 wRC+, +21 outs saved, and in 162 games played that’s more than six wins above replacement. He might do that again once in this deal, but even I, as the high man on Swanson’s free agency case, don’t expect more than that. I’m more bullish on him because I think his floor is reasonably high – the worst-case scenario for him, based on his track record, is he’s a slightly below-average bat and a slightly above-average fielder, and still at shortstop, which is probably a 2.5-3 WAR player. At $25.3 million per year, he’d be paid about what he was worth.
The Cubs will only end up regretting this deal if Swanson drops all the way to his 2016-18 offensive levels, when his contact quality was substantially lower than it is now (his hard-hit rate in 2018 was 34 percent; it’s been over 40 percent every year since), or he suddenly drops to his 2017 defensive level, the only year he’s had a negative OAA — and even that looks fluky in hindsight.
The Chicago Cubs are finalizing a seven-year, $177M deal with shortstop Dansby Swanson, multiple sources confirm to @keithlaw. pic.twitter.com/7ZGPKdhnEi
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) December 17, 2022
The Cubs played Nico Hoerner at shortstop last year, and he played surprisingly well, at +13 OAA, far above what he’d shown before or what any reasonable expectations would have been given how he played the position in college and in the minors. He’s also very sure-handed, like Swanson, and the Cubs also seemed to do a particularly good job with his positioning, which helped him play above his natural ability.
With the Swanson signing, Hoerner likely just slides over to second base, and the Cubs will have an argument for the best defensive middle infield in baseball. They’ve also got a potential 70 defender in center coming quickly in the minors, as Pete Crow-Armstrong, the return for trading Javy Báez to the Mets at the deadline in 2021, should start this year in Double A after a very strong first full pro season despite having missed all of 2020 (pandemic) and nearly all of 2021 (six games before shoulder surgery). So Cubs fans can hope to have incredible up-the-middle defense maybe as soon as the early part of 2024.
I’m probably the wrong person to listen to on this topic (or some other topics), but I think the Cubs could be dark-horse contenders for the division in 2023. They’re probably too far back of the wild card, given the way the Phillies, Giants and Padres have all made big pushes this winter, but the NL Central doesn’t have a dominant team at the top.
The one avenue still wide open to the Cubs to improve is third base, where they have two flawed players on the depth chart in Christopher Morel (who struck out in nearly a third of his plate appearances last year) and Patrick Wisdom (who struck out even more), neither of whom mustered even a .310 OBP in 2022. They’re a good fit for Justin Turner or Evan Longoria on one-year deals, since those players would both represent improvements over the current tandem, but the Cubs would at least have a fallback option in Morel if they sign one of those veterans and he flops. If the Marlins want to move Joey Wendle in his final year before free agency, the Cubs would also be a good fit. Chicago also has Nick Madrigal as a surplus option at second base, as he could be some non-contender’s cheap starter for two-to-three years and might net them something useful in a trade.
This closes the book on the shortstop class in this year’s free-agent market, which leaves a couple of teams without chairs as the music stops. Atlanta is the most obvious team without a shortstop, although they could play sophomore Vaughn Grissom there after his very impressive 41-game debut last season, with Orlando Arcia as a backup if Grissom struggles and now Hoy Jun Park as a potential utility infield option. I’d love to see Royce Lewis return healthy for the Twins, but he wasn’t a great defender at short before two ACL tears, and he’s missed so much time that assuming he could play there for the major-league club this year seems wildly optimistic. Elvis Andrus is the only potential everyday shortstop left in free agency, and he’d be a match for either of those teams.
I’ll reiterate what I wrote after Carlos Correa signed — the Orioles are sitting on a small gold mine, with shortstops coming out of both of Mike Elias’ ears. Jorge Mateo shouldn’t be on this roster when spring training opens, as he’s more valuable in a trade than he is to a team with Gunnar Henderson and Joey Ortiz on the 40-man. And if I’m, say, the Marlins, I’m trying to build a prospect package with the Orioles that sends them Pablo Lopez and brings Ortiz back in the deal.
(Photo: Mitchell Leff / Getty Images)