How Cubs cost-cut their way to landing a big free agent originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
MESA, Arizona — If Joc Pederson turns out to be a game-changer for the Cubs on the way to a long-shot October, his path to Chicago could wind up in the franchise annals alongside the likes of Andre Dawson and Ted Lilly.
Pederson, whose most recent game clinched the Dodgers’ first World Series championship in 32 years, didn’t offer the Cubs a blank contract like Dawson did in 1987 or negotiate his deal with a general manager hooked up to an EKG machine at a hospital like Lilly did with Jim Hendry in December of 2006.
But Pederson did pick out the Cubs based on a scan of big-league rosters that revealed a conspicuous lack of outfielders on what was left of a penny-pinched list of players.
“I said, ‘Damn, that could actually be a fit,’ “ Pederson said.
So he called his agent, who called Cubs president Jed Hoyer, who said, essentially, “Seriously? Cool.”
And then Pederson turned down other offers, better offers — multiyear offers — to sign with the Cubs.
“It was probably like a 48-hour thing,” Pederson said Friday as he met the Chicago media, through Zoom, for the first time since signing that $7 million, one-year deal less than a month ago.
So exactly how did the Cubs cost-cut their way to a free agent they didn’t expect to have the means to consider?
In part because they listened, and took a chance.
Mostly because Pederson got ticked off first.
“I don’t think I am respected as an everyday player, why a lot of teams didn’t want to pursue me as that,” said the 2015 All-Star outfielder, a slugging left-handed hitter with career-highs of 36 homers and an .876 OPS in 2019.
Miserable numbers against left-handers in a small sample size and a deep, versatile Dodgers roster left him a platoon player most of his career.
And while his priority during free agency was to find a team that would give him a chance to prove himself as an everyday player again, early promises with teams that made offers got softer as he got closer to finalizing a deal and the calendar crept closer to February.
“I thought things were getting fairly close, and it so happened that they changed their mind, I guess you could say, for the opportunities vs. lefties,” Pederson said, “and wanted it to be more of a 100-percent platoon role.”
That’s when he started scrolling rosters around the majors.
“I was up at 11 or 12 at night and looking through my phone,” he said.
It wasn’t much longer that he found himself on that phone talking to Hoyer.
“He’s like, ‘All right, let’s get this done sooner than later,’ “ Pederson said.
Said Hoyer: “I loved the tone of his voice about betting on himself.”
Now the Cubs are betting that a career .111 hitter (.576 OPS) against lefties (385 plate appearances) can improve those numbers just enough to make his powerful bat — and knack for hitting high velocity — pay off daily as their replacement for non-tendered Kyle Schwarber in left field.
“The work that he’s been putting in now, you can see he wants to try and seize that opportunity,” Cubs hitting coach Anthony Iapoce said. “No different from what anybody else is doing in the major leagues trying to get an everyday job. Just the competitive awareness and the spirit that he brings to the thing, you’re like, ‘OK.’ “
Pederson’s not looking for a free ride, he said. And as good as he said he felt about his first conversation with manager David Ross, he knows Ross isn’t offering one.
“He was super honest and up front,” Pederson said. “It was just basically saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to pencil you in there every day, and if we come to July and you’re not cutting it and you’re hitting .150 against lefties, we’re still here to win ballgames.’
“I said, ‘Absolutely. I’m not looking for anything guaranteed. I just want a real opportunity.”
If it pays off with anything close to big team results, Pederson could turn out to be the steal of the offseason.
Which would be by way of, at least on part, some serendipitous payroll slashing.
As Pederson relayed from that conversation with Ross: “He was really excited. He was like, ‘I didn’t know we were going to get to talk to free agents of your caliber.' "