Wednesday, October 4, 2023
HomeFootballFIFAHow close to playoffs Dansby Swanson free agency contract puts Cubs

How close to playoffs Dansby Swanson free agency contract puts Cubs

What Dansby Swanson free agency signing means for Cubs originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

It took until only one remained, but the Cubs got their big-ticket shortstop, salvaged an otherwise lagging offseason and in the process might wind up with the best defensive middle infield in the National League.

The addition of Gold Glove shortstop Dansby Swanson on a seven-year deal means plus-defender Nico Hoerner moves back to second base, where he was a Gold Glove finalist in 2020 — an overall infield upgrade that becomes especially valuable next season when MLB’s ban on extreme infield shifts goes into effect.

The agreement with Swanson was first reported by NBC Sports Chicago’s Dave Kaplan on Saturday afternoon — four days after one-time Cubs target Carlos Correa reached agreement with the Giants on an 13-year, $350 million deal.

Sources confirmed Swanson’s agreement for seven years, $177 million.

The move doesn’t make the Cubs a sudden NL pennant contender, despite the focus and importance of the Cubs landing one of the four big-name, All-Star free agents at that position.

And Swanson’s bat doesn’t suggest the kind of high-impact, middle-of-the-order profile that the Cubs lost in multiple players the last two years via trades and free agency since they last fielded an impact offensive lineup.

But the club’s subpar fielding in the post-Anthony Rizzo, post-Javy Báez era the past season and a half has now been significantly improved this winter by Swanson as well as the addition on a one-year contract of center fielder Cody Bellinger, a former Gold Glove outfielder who joins a Cubs outfield that already included 2022 Gold Glove left fielder Ian Happ and right fielder Seiya Suzuki, who won multiple Golden Gloves in Japan’s NPB league.

Despite a below-league-average shortstop arm, Swanson and Hoerner look like the best defensive keystone combo at least this side of San Francisco (depending on whether Brandon Crawford lands at second base or third) or San Diego (Xander Bogaerts, Ha-Seong Kim) — or maybe the state of Texas (the Rangers’ Corey Seager and Marcus Semien; the Astros’ Jeremy Peña and José Altuve).

RELATED: Where Swanson contract ranks among largest in Cubs history

Run prevention has been a focus of team president Jed Hoyer and the front office as a way of improving the roster since the season ended, especially up the middle.

“Obviously, I’ve been pretty open about that,” he said during the recent Winter Meetings.

The fielding side of that run-prevention formula became even more important as it became clear that the Cubs were staying out of the deep end of the swing-and-miss starting pitching market (Carlos Rodón, Koudai Senga, et al) — adding more contact-centric right-hander Jameson Taillon to a starting staff that already includes contact-pitching veterans Marcus Stroman and Kyle Hendricks (pending his comeback from a shoulder injury).

“There are certain baseball truisms,” Hoyer said. “Being strong up the middle really helps. Especially with the new rules it’s really important to have really good defense up the middle.”

Among a handful of new rules that go into effect next season is the ban on extreme infield shifts that requires two infielders to remain on each side of second base — and on the dirt — before the pitcher delivers the ball to the plate.

“You can’t hide the [subpar] middle-of-the-infield player in the shift anymore,” Hoyer said. “That’s going to expose those guys even more, and it makes athleticism and defense in the middle-of-the-infield that much more important.

“That’s something we’re talking about a lot.”

Swanson, who turns 29 before the season opener, ranked second in the majors, regardless of position, in outs above average (21), according to Statcast (Detroit second baseman Jonathan Schoop was first with 27).

How good on paper does that make the Cubs’ middle infield?

Among MLB shortstops, Hoerner was tied with the Mets’ Francisco Lindor for second to Swanson (at 13 each).

“One of our real strengths when you go back to ’15, ’16 and ’17 was we had Addy [Russell] and we had Javy. 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.”

Swanson, whose career .738 OPS is roughly league average, was 15 percent above league this year.

That doesn’t fully replace outgoing All-Star catcher Willson Contreras’ impact bat. But one way to look at the right-handed-hitting shortstop’s addition to the lineup is that he at least approaches some of Contreras’ impact over the years, on paper, in backfilling that loss.

Both are among the league leaders in hard-hit rate, albeit Contreras with significantly higher numbers.

Among his more impressive achievements more recently in his career is the fact that he played in all but two of the Braves’ regular-season games the past three years with a higher home run rate in that stretch than earlier in his career (hitting .265 with a .451 slugging percentage and .775 OPS from 2020 through ’22).

But perhaps nothing more impressive than this for the former No. 1 overall draft pick: a 22-15 record in postseason games played, including the last five consecutive seasons playing in October with a 2021 World Series ring.

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