When weighing free agent acquisitions, it is important to consider not only how good a given player is, but how much better he would be than the player he is displacing. Signing an All-Star does not necessarily improve your team if he merely replaces someone of comparable talent and production.
This presents a minor problem for the Cubs. They currently have 2.0 WAR players at every position (counting Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. as a center field platoon) and 2.5 WAR players at six of eight positions. That’s right in the range of a good mid-tier free agent — like Andrew McCutchen, for example — so such a free agent would not represent a significant upgrade for the Cubs. To genuinely improve, the Cubs need to target All-Star level players (4+ WAR).
Those are rare even in the lauded 2019 free agent class. The following is the list of positional free agents who have earned 4.0 bWAR in either of the two past seasons: Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson, Brett Gardner. That’s it. That’s the entire list.
Donaldson will be 33 next season and is coming off an injury-plagued campaign. Gardner will be 35 and his best years are likely behind him. That leaves Machado and Harper. No other players available would constitute a significant upgrade for the Cubs and the 2020 free agent class is no better. The best 2020 free agent would be Paul Goldschmidt, who would barely be an upgrade over Anthony Rizzo and cannot play elsewhere.
Madison Bumgarner and Chris Sale are also scheduled to be available, but for the moment the offense needs the help and you don’t punt an offseason to wait on pitchers who may or may not be available.
So Machado and Harper, MVP-level talents still in the midst of their respective primes, are the only options in free agency if the Cubs are indeed looking for a meaningful offensive upgrade. The Cubs wisely kept themselves under the luxury tax in anticipation of spending big when the time came and they are also in line for a new TV deal and the money it will bring in 2020.
What’s more, ownership has shown a willingness to borrow from future earnings for the right free agent, as they did prior to 2016. The Cubs have the cash flow to pay either Harper or Machado $30 million (or even $40 million if necessary) per season for years to come. They also have the positional flexibility to accommodate either player.
Some may argue that the Cubs should not overpay for a single player, no matter how talented. I would counter that the Cubs have more than enough money to afford it and no real reason to save that money for a rainy day or a more impactful player. All things considered, it’d be a waste to let both stars go elsewhere.