The Cubs made an effort to lock up National League MVP Kris Bryant on a long-term extension this offseason but “got nowhere” in their efforts, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated reports. Verducci notes that the Cubs made efforts to lock up several of their young players, in fact, though they weren’t able to push any of them over the finish line. Chicago’s lone offseason extension was a one-year extension for excellent setup man Pedro Strop — a nice move for the club but not the sort of franchise-altering move that a long-term pact for Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell or any of the team’s other young talents would have been.
Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, has a reputation for eschewing contract extensions and pushing his clients toward free agency — long-term deals for Carlos Gonzalez with the Rockies and Stephen Strasburg with the Nationals notwithstanding — though he spoke to Verducci at length about that perception and about extensions in general.
“My first rule [on extension offers] is that I tell the player, ‘Do not look at the team as if they’re trying to steal you. They’ve made the decision that is the right decision. The question is, What is the investment worth? What is the value?'” Boras explains to Verducci. In the case of Bryant, Boras adds that he was on the same page with Cubs president of baseball operations in terms of Bryant’s fit on the team but not when it came to appropriately valuing that fit.
Perhaps most interesting in the column is that Boras paints Epstein as somewhat of a tough negotiator. While Boras doesn’t indicate any ill will toward the iconic executive, he suggests to Verducci that there was never much progress when discussing Jacoby Ellsbury during Epstein’s days as GM of the Red Sox, where Ellsbury starred for the first seven seasons of his career. Ellsbury went year-to-year through the arbitration process and ultimately signed with the Yankees on a seven-year, $153MM contract as a free agent.
“Theo does not settle on certain things,” says Boras. “He offers a very limited range. You’ve got to give up an option year, a free agent year and he can move you whenever he wants to move you.”
While it’s hard to argue with the results for Epstein, who in the past 15 years has broken two of the three longest World Series droughts in baseball (World Series wins with the Red Sox in 2004 and 2007 and, of course, with the Cubs last year), those words may nonetheless be discouraging for Cubs fans. That’s due not only to the fact that Boras represents Bryant but also due to the fact that his company represents Russell and Jake Arrieta. The lack of traction in Arrieta extension talks has been an oft-covered topic here at MLBTR, and Boras’ comments certainly don’t paint a promising picture when it comes to securing long-term deals with either Bryant or Russell. While Arrieta is a free agent at the end of the current season, both Bryant and Russell are controllable through the 2021 season.
That leaves ample time for the Cubs to strike a deal with either Bryant or Russell, but arbitration is also looming for each player. Both entered the season just days (or, in Bryant’s case, a singular day) shy of two years of Major League service time, meaning each will be eligible for arbitration as a Super Two player next offseason. And it’s worth noting that it’s almost certainly not an accident that the pair fell just days shy of qualifying for free agency a year earlier, though the Cubs are hardly the only team to leverage the current service time structure in order to delay free agency by a full year.
In Bryant’s case, the NL Rookie of the Year Award and NL MVP that are already under his belt could very well allow him to topple Ryan Howard’s longstanding record of $10MM for a first-time arbitration player. Howard, much like Bryant, had a Rookie of the Year and an MVP on his record when he received that staggering sum. Russell’s earning capacity is understandably lower, though as a shortstop that could hit arbitration with multiple 20-homer seasons already in his back pocket, he should be paid handsomely over his four years of eligibility.
As Verducci suggested in reporting that Indians star Francisco Lindor turned down an extension offer of “around $100 million” within this same column (more on that decision here), the increasingly strong market for top-tier free agents is likely to continue pushing forward the price for extending top-tier young players such as Bryant or Lindor. Verducci points out that the 2018-19 free agent class stands to be headlined by a pair of players (Bryce Harper and Manny Machado) that could sign contracts which eclipse Giancarlo Stanton’s current 13-year, $325MM record and could crack the $400MM barrier. And at this point, with Bryant just a year from reaching what could be a record-setting arbitration payday, I’d imagine that any offer that does not top Stanton would be a non-starter in extension talks.
Boras, unsurprisingly, had plenty to say on the notion of escalating free agent prices as well. After revealing that former client Alex Rodriguez turned down a $120MM extension offer from the Mariners before signing a then-record-setting $240MM contract with the Rangers all the way back in 2001, Boras tells Verducci:
“Rule number one in baseball is that no team has ever gone broke. Rule number two is that there’s never been an owner who didn’t make money when he sold the team. And rule number three is that there are no recessions in baseball.”
Suffice it to say, Verducci’s full column qualifies as a must-read not only for those who follow the Cubs and Indians but for all fans. The column is stuffed with quotes from Boras, other agents and executives about the rapidly escalating valuation of players and provides a good idea of what could be in store for baseball’s financial landscape.