Not Talking Seriously About Jake Cronenworth May Give Clues to Cubs’ Plans

We’re only on Day 2 of a new year and already we’ve run out of things to write. Actually, it’s precisely that time of the baseball offseason at which the news has reached cold molasses levels of sluggishness, which means either rehashing or finding new angles on things that have already happened. And while it’s not at all helpful to further lament the loss of Yu Darvish and Victor Caratini, one wrinkle of that trade is notable.

More specifically, it’s notable because it was apparently never discussed as an option in the first place. Several names were being theorized as part of the Cubs’ return over the course of the reporting on the trade, pretty much none of which other than Zach Davies came to pass. Many believed the Cubs would land at least one of the Padres’ top-five prospects rather than the quartet who all feel outside the top 10.

Another player who seemed almost certain to be included was second baseman Jake Cronenworth, who had been displaced earlier in the day by San Diego’s addition of Ha-Seong Kim. A lefty batter with a contact-heavy approach and decent pop, Cronenworth would have slotted right into a Cubs lineup that has been plagued by way too much swing-and-miss.

But as Sahadev Sharma parenthetically noted in his piece about why Jed Hoyer made this move, Cronenworth “wasn’t ever a serious part of the trade discussions.” Part of that is a matter of timing. Though the trade seemed to have taken shape over the course of a few hours, talks had been ongoing for weeks and would have started well before the Padres had added the Korean star who pushed their incumbent second baseman off his spot.

There’s also the matter of age and control, which are at odds as far as Cronenworth and the Cubs are concerned. He’ll turn 27 in January, not exactly young for a guy who has a total of 192 MLB plate appearances to his name. Because he’s controlled through 2025, the Cubs would essentially be locking down second base for the foreseeable future. Even if Nico Hoerner needs a little more seasoning in the minors, blocking him at second would significantly limit the Cubs’ options.

Perhaps the most crucial aspect here, for better or worse, is that the Cubs are going to need to have an elite defense if — and Hoyer keeps insisting this is the case — they really do hope to compete. When your starting rotation features three pitchers who don’t break 90 mph and who give up an above-average number of grounders, there isn’t much margin for error.

Hoerner was a Gold Glove finalist and David Bote is an excellent defensive second baseman, so Cronenworth would probably be a step down from either in that regard. And while having a solid lefty bat is a good thing, Cronenworth wouldn’t help the Cubs with one of the worst facets of their offense. They OPS’d an anemic .619 against lefties in 2020, so adding someone who posted a .550 after trading a guy whose .892 led the team would be a big net loss.

My fear is that the Cubs may continue to allow Hoerner to develop offensively at the MLB level in order to take advantage of his defense and versatility, which I believe would be a grievous error when it comes to his long-term success. Though he has hit lefties better than righties, a .662 career OPS that was dragged down by a .619 mark last season isn’t what the team needs. Whether or not that outweighs their pressing desire to suppress payroll costs is yet to be seen.

If Hoyer is allowed to spend a little money, there are at least two almost perfect fits available in free agency. Kolten Wong had his $12.5 million option declined by St. Louis and, while there is reportedly interest from both sides in a reunion, he might like a chance to get a little revenge. Wong is a Gold Glove defender with a contact-heavy approach and decent splits against lefties, exactly the traits Chicago needs.

If the Cubs want to go cheaper, César Hernández is out there as well. He’s coming off of a one-year deal in Cleveland and might be amenable to another such contract given the uncertainty of the coming season. While he’s not as adroit as Wong in the field, he reaches base at a higher clip and is a switch-hitter whose splits favor the right side. He also earned about $4 million less than Wong last season, so it’s reasonable to believe he’s not looking for as much.

And we haven’t even talked about Tommy La Stella, with whom the Cubs reportedly had interested in reuniting. A meh defender, La Stella is a contact-first lefty bat with decent pop and he’s actually pretty good against southpaws (95 wRC+). Believe it or not, he’s also much older than either Hernandez or Wong and will turn 32 at the end of January. Even so, he’s probably seeking the kind of multi-year deal that pushes him out of the Cubs’ range.

Had the Cubs truly been looking to compete in ’21, Cronenworth would have made a helluva lot of sense as part of their trade return. But since they’re looking around the division and figuring they should be able to win a few games by default, not to mention they keep saying they’re broke, the strategy has shifted to favor the future. As such, they opted for higher-risk lottery tickets that add depth to the farm and could even be flipped for more MLB-ready players in the near future.

I’m not saying this makes me hate the return any less, especially since it removed a player who was one of my personal favorites to cover, but the deal at least makes slightly more sense after taking time to reframe it. However, I reserve the right to get even more upset if the Cubs’ financial concerns result in Hoerner being plugged back in at second while other veterans sign elsewhere for next to nothing.

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