‘Tis the season for free agency predictions, though Cubs fans are going to have to make due with conjecture involving guys who aren’t exactly household names. That’s definitely the case with MLB Trade Rumors’ top 50 list, which doesn’t have the Cubs entering the fray until the No. 19 ranked available player.
That’s where we find 32-year-old former Twin Kyle Gibson, a righty starter who is expected to command $18 million over two years. Gibson got off to a late start with Minnesota after 2011 Tommy John surgery kept him from the majors until he was 25 years old. He’s made at least 25 starts in each of the six seasons since, though only two of those saw him post less than a 4.47 ERA.
His career 4.52 ERA is matched closely by a 4.29 FIP, though his overall 7.0 K/9 mark doesn’t say much for his ability to miss bats. That number has increased to 8.2 and 9.0 over the last two seasons, however, and Gibson has maintained a consistent walk rate over the last several years. The real key for him is a 51.5% groundball rate that ranks fourth in MLB among pitchers with at least 1,000 innings since 2013.
This past season didn’t provide the ideal springboard into free agency, but MLBTR explains that protracted digestive health issues may have cost Gibson.
Gibson feels his season-long gastrointestinal issues may stem from “E. coli that he contracted in the Caribbean during a volunteering trip,” according to Do-Hyoung Park of MLB.com. He lost upwards of 20 pounds last winter as a result and wasn’t fully able to put the weight back on for the ’19 season. Gibson has shown that at his best, he can make 30 starts and provide around 2.5 WAR, so he fits well in the Roark-Miley-Teheran-Porcello aisle of starting pitchers.
Though he’s a far cry from the pitchers at the top of the market, Gibson represents the kind of player the Cubs may look to target. He won’t break the bank and could easily exceed the value of his deal if his strikeout and groundball trends continue. It’s probably no coincidence that his predicted Cubs deal is for two years, since that’s how much time Theo Epstein and Company have left on their own contracts.
The only other top 50 free agent tied to the Cubs is former Astros reliever Will Harris, who is ranked No. 22 and projected for the same two-year deal at $18 million. While most members of the general baseball-watching public remember Harris for the late home runs he surrendered to Anthony Rendon and Howie Kendrick in Games 6 and 7 of the World Series, the 35-year-old righty has been one of the game’s most consistent relievers over the last few seasons.
There’s plenty of reason for pause here, since $9 million AAV is not an insignificant investment in a guy who’s long in the tooth and coming off of a career year. Harris isn’t a velo monster, though, so there isn’t much concern with his fastball suddenly dropping off. Primarily a cutter/curve pitcher, he relies largely on getting grounders and limiting walks to be effective.
This prediction seems far more unlikely to me than the first, if only because of the decisions the Cubs have already made with other members of the bullpen. While Harris is superior to Derek Holland and David Phelps, that $9 million AAV is significantly more than either would have earned in 2020. With the Cubs pinching pennies, a significant expenditure on an aging bullpen arm might not be a priority when they’ve got youngsters on the come.
Take a look the list for yourself and bump it up against the one at FanGraphs, then see what you think about which directions the Cubs should and will go.