Cody Bellinger isn’t the only bounceback candidate the Cubs should be considering in the wake of a non-tender decision, and it’s possible he’s not even the best fit. That’s because former Cub Jeimer Candelario was cut loose by the Tigers one year after tying for the AL lead with 42 doubles in his breakout 2021 campaign. Following his MLB debut in 2016, Candelario and shortstop prospect Isaac Paredes were traded to Detroit for Alex Avila and Justin Wilson at the 2017 trade deadline.
History hasn’t looked too kindly upon that deal as Wilson’s Cubs tenure was best known for a mound visit in which he told Anthony Rizzo to shut up. Avila was actually pretty solid, posting a 104 wRC+over 112 plate appearances and serving as the primary catcher for a while as Willson Contreras dealt with a bad hamstring.
Paredes had a hard time figuring things out in the Tigers organization, but he busted out with the Rays following the April trade that sent Austin Meadows to the Motor City. Though he only batted .205, Paredes smacked 20 homers and posted 2.4 fWAR over just 381 plate appearances, plus he had an 11.5% walk rate against just a 17.6% strikeout rate.
But back to the Candy Man, who has see-sawed statistically over the course of his career as he peaks one season and then declines for two more before repeating the trend. He looked like a potential cornerstone at the hot corner two years ago as he generated a 140 wRC+ and 1.9 fWAR in the short season. He followed that up with 16 homers to go with all those doubles and played solid defense at third to post 3.9 fWAR.
Just one year later, though, the Tigers chose to make the switch-hitting corner man a free agent rather than tender him a contract that might have paid him around $7 million. That seems like a pretty odd decision even after he fell to -0.1 fWAR thanks to a .217 average and a 6.0% walk rate that was several points below his career average.
If the Cubs are looking to add some upside depth at a low cost and with no long-term risk, a reunion with Candelario makes sense. They need more balance in the lineup and he’s a switch hitter with a 95 career wRC+ against righties and 110 against lefties. For the sake of reference, Patrick Wisdom had a 147 wRC+ against LHP and 89 against RHP last year; Christopher Morel was at 81 and 119.
There’s not a very strong case to be made for Candelario’s bat there, though a platoon would work to offset Wisdom’s massive splits. Morel really needs to be more of a utilityman because his athleticism allows him to play all over the field even if he’s not a great option at any one spot. His defense in center was very rough this past season and the combination of his decision-making and errant throws from third was maddening.
Wisdom was similarly troublesome at the hot corner as he engaged in the kind of butchery Upton Sinclair once wrote about. Those two Cubs combined for -9 defensive runs saved at third, which was even worse than the team’s overall mark of -7 which ranked 23rd in MLB. Candelario wasn’t great by any stretch, but his -1 DRS would have been a big improvement and his 0.2 UZR/150 was far better than either Wisdom (-1.2) or Morel (-14.8).
Though his ceiling isn’t as high due to either power or pure athleticism, Candelario would provide more balance to the roster at a very low relative cost. Of course, the Cubs have already picked up a pair of infielders recently and may have too much depth there as it is. What’s really tough is that this feels like the kind of guy they should have added when they were competitive, but now he might not work because they need free agents who will move the needle.
Or do they have to thread the needle? Whatever metaphor you choose, the Cubs just need to get better in a hurry.
Ed. note: As a corollary to the Candelario news, former Cub Rob Zastryzny was also non-tendered prior to Friday’s deadline as the Angels let him go. His claim to fame is that he was the first Cubs pitcher drafted by the Theo Epstein regime in Chicago to debut in the big leagues, but he’s also one of the nicest players I’ve ever met. Candelario and Zastryzny were actually the first two prospects I ever interviewed live as part of my partnership with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans at Cubs Convention.
Zastryzny told me about a time when he was pitching and a guy laid down a bunt that was rolling up the third base line. He said Candelario actually dropped to the ground and tried to blow the ball foul, which I thought was something you only saw in cartoons. In any case, it ended up being a really fun discussion.
I caught up with Zastryzny the following year because he made a point to come back to the minor league area just to talk with the people from all the different affiliates. He asked who I was going to be talking to and then offered some advice on how to coax Dillon Maples out of his shell a bit. Then I mentioned Mark Zagunis and Zastryzny made a funny face and just said, “Good luck.” Zagunis is just a really stoic dude in those settings.
Anyway, I felt like sharing something on the more personal side because we often break these moves down very clinically and it’s easy to forget that these players are people whose lives are being upended by the decisions their teams make.