Cubs Sign Trey Mancini, Resolve DH Quagmire

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

On New Year’s Day, the Cubs’ first base-and-DH situation was a smoking crater. But now the fires have been extinguished and the hole is being filled with aggregate; the Eric Hosmer signing got the process started, and over the weekend, Chicago inked Trey Mancini — of the Italian national team, apparently — to a two-year contract.

Mancini’s coming off a bit of an odd year. He hit .268/.347/.404 in 92 games for Baltimore, then got traded to the Astros at the deadline and apparently forgot to bring his bats south. A disappointing .176/.258/.364 showing in August and September turned into an appalling playoff campaign in which he started 0-for-18.

So, in his most recent and most widely viewed major league experience, Mancini had onlookers saying things like, “But I thought pitchers didn’t hit anymore.” On the other hand, he’d been a consistent 20-homer guy across the first four years of his career, and even as recently as July had a wRC+ of 116. Perhaps his power wasn’t ideal for a middle-of-the-order bat, but he got on base and hit for a decent average.

Which version of Mancini will show up in Chicago? That’s anyone’s guess, and his contract reflects that. Two years, $14 million, with another $7 million in playing time-related bonuses available for the taking. Also available with sufficient playing time: an opt-out after year one, which becomes available if Mancini racks up 350 plate appearances or more.

If Mancini returns to his Baltimore form — that of an above-average hitter with moderate power — his $7 million salary will end up being a bargain. If he’s a total zero, which is possible based on how he looked in Houston, but unlikely, $14 million guaranteed will be an uncomfortable write-off for the Cubs, but hardly a catastrophic one. Mancini will cost less than half of what José Abreu and Josh Bell got on their two-year deals, so the risk of signing someone coming off such a brutal second half is baked into his price.

And there’s a lot to like about Mancini’s track record, even if relatively little of the good stuff happened in Houston. Apart from winning the World Series, obviously.

After the 2019 season, in which he hit .291/.364/.535 in his age-27 campaign, Mancini looked like a foundational part of Baltimore’s future. Probably not a serious MVP contender, but a quality hitter the Orioles could surround with stars of the future. Rebuilding teams start generating attention when they either call up a franchise player or acquire one through trade, but the truth is every sustainable contender has a pathfinder. That’s the first prospect to break through and establish himself in the majors. Sometimes it’s an unheralded prospect who represents a developmental success for the team; Mancini, an eighth-round pick out of Notre Dame who didn’t establish himself as a big league regular until his age-25 season, is one of these.

The pathfinder provides reason for optimism; fans get attached to him as a rare bright spot, and as the big-name free agents and top prospects fill in around him, he evolves into a quality supporting cast member and living institutional memory. Think Teoscar Hernández in Toronto, Mitch Haniger in Seattle, and Rhys Hoskins in Philadelphia.

When Mancini was in the midst of his breakout campaign, the Orioles spent their first two picks on Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson. It looked like he’d be around not only to show them the ropes in the majors, but to hit alongside them the next time the Orioles made a serious run at the playoffs.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. (Again, “unfortunately” apart from winning the World Series.) Even though he was having a great year, and even though the Orioles were just 2 1/2 games out of a Wild Card spot at the time of the trade, he got shipped to Houston at the deadline. Which brings up another reason Mancini would be attractive to the Cubs: Everyone seems to love him. At the time, I wondered if the trade was an experiment to find out if the Astros were so unlikeable they could get neutral fans to root against the universally beloved Mancini.

Mancini was already a local favorite in Baltimore when, in 2020, the team and its fans rallied around him as he underwent treatment for colon cancer. Mancini credits the Orioles medical staff with helping to save his life — irregular blood test results during a routine team physical started him down the path to being diagnosed.

Mancini was the AL Comeback Player of the Year in 2021, and nearly took home a storybook victory in that year’s Home Run Derby, which he lost in the final to Pete Alonso. But he wasn’t just beloved for sentimental reasons — he was genuinely one of the most important players on the first decent Orioles team in half a decade. Before the trade, Mancini started 90 games for the Orioles, and spent all of them in the first four spots in the order.

So when August 1 rolled around and Mancini received his orders to ship out for Houston, his teammates weren’t at all happy about it. Being a clubhouse glue guy is a squishy thing; it’s hard to pin down the effect of such intangible factors, or even to identify whether the arrow’s even pointing in the right direction. A good influence in one clubhouse might not fit in another. But I made the argument in my writeup of the Hosmer signing that his playoff experience is a worthwhile selling point for a guy making the league minimum at a position where mere competence would represent an immense upgrade over what the Cubs had in 2022.

Mancini, at $7 million a year, represents a bigger bet on his offensive production. But if he’s good in the room that’s a nice bonus. Particularly for a veteran at a position that could be in flux as Matt Mervis plays his way into the picture, and particularly on a team that was pretty bad last year and might not be able to make good on playoff expectations in 2023.

What of that offensive production? I’m not going to write off Mancini’s Houston tenure entirely; the Astros were so hard-up for anyone to DH that Aledmys Díaz was getting at-bats despite looking like he’d rather be at the dentist than at the plate. And still Mancini couldn’t get into the lineup in the World Series until Yuli Gurriel (himself an 85 wRC+ guy during the regular season) got hurt. That’s hard to forget, particularly for a DH who’s getting into his 30s.

But from the moment he arrived in the majors until the moment he got traded, Mancini was a steady, competent hitter. Never a superstar, but usually solid. Mancini posted a wRC+ of 105 in 2021 and 104 (combining his stints in Baltimore and Houston) in ’22. The league-average wRC+ at both first base and DH last year was 107.

And Mancini will probably DH in Chicago, at least to start. He can play left field (he made 31 starts in the outfield last season) but with Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki ensconced in the corners, the Cubs won’t need him to. And while adding the right-handed Mancini to the left-handed Hosmer at first invites platoon discussions, Mancini has never been a real candidate for that kind of role. Last season, he had a reverse split, and for his career almost no split at all. In fact, I bring up the idea of a platoon mostly so I have occasion to share how creepily even Mancini’s career splits are:

Trey Mancini’s Creepily Even Platoon Splits
AVG OBP SLG wRC+ BB% K%
vs. LHP .266 .331 .459 112 7.8 22.0
vs. RHP .265 .330 .456 111 7.9 23.5

Look at that! That’s unbelievable.

Mancini’s recent history suggests that he’ll be a slightly above-average hitter compared to the league, and a slightly below-average hitter compared to positional expectations for a DH. His past two full seasons indicate as much, as does his Steamer projection, which is for .244/.320/.480, or a wRC+ of 106. There’s a moderate chance of either a return to his 2019 form, or at least his first half of 2022 form. And there’s a non-negligible chance he has some sort of symbiotic E.T. stomach light thing going on with the state of Maryland and his performance is about to fall off a cliff.

That’s better than rolling the dice with a replacement-level guy or a non-roster invite. And $7 million a year, $14 million guaranteed is about the going rate for this kind of player:

Trey Mancini vs. Comparable Free Agents
Player Team Years AAV
Wil Myers CIN 1 $7.5 million
Matt Carpenter SDP 2 $6 million
Carlos Santana PIT 1 $6.73 million
Andrew McCutchen PIT 1 $5 million
Trey Mancini CHC 2 $7 million

You want more upside, or recent down-ballot MVP-type production? That’s J.D. Martinez, Justin Turner, or Michael Brantley — $10 million to $12 million territory. A sure thing, like Abreu, Bell, or Anthony Rizzo, costs closer to $20 million a year. Mancini isn’t the most ambitious signing the Cubs could’ve made, but he’s fine, and he’s very easy to root for.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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sadtrombonemember
16 days ago

I don’t really understand what’s going on here. The deal is fair in the abstract; he’s a 1B/DH who doesn’t quite hit enough to profile at the position, but it’s not terribly expensive on a $/WAR basis. It’s just that normally teams don’t like guaranteeing any money to a player who hits like a backup and is so defensively limited. That’s why Justin Turner and Brandon Drury, despite only being slightly better, make way more sense at their contracts than Mancini does on his. The moment you plan to replace him as a starter, his utility goes down to about zero. And with all of Happ, Canario, Suzuki, Mervis, Bellinger, and Brennen Davis hanging around, there is a decent chance they replace him.

Last edited 16 days ago by sadtrombone
JohnThackermember
16 days ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

“Defensively limited” perhaps, but he’d be an upgrade overall at left field over what the Braves have at the moment, I think.