The Cubs haven’t yet begun talks with second baseman Javier Baez or right-hander Kyle Hendricks about potential contract extensions, the two players told Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times. Both said that they “would love to stay” with the team over the long term, and would welcome such negotiations if they took place.
Both Baez and Hendricks avoided arbitration with the Cubs this winter, agreeing to respective salaries of $5.2MM and $7.405MM for the 2019 season. Baez was arb-eligible for the first of three times this winter and isn’t eligible for free agency until after the 2021 campaign, while Hendricks was in his second arbitration year and can become a free agent after the 2020 season.
It is still early in spring camp, and the Cubs could yet begin talks with Baez, Hendricks, or any number of players over the coming weeks. Still, Baez and Hendricks stand out as perhaps the two most obvious extension candidates on the roster, even beyond the notable players who could be free agents after the 2019 season. Of that group, the Cubs control Anthony Rizzo and Jose Quintana via club options for 2020, while the team probably isn’t likely to explore extending veterans like Cole Hamels or Ben Zobrist until later in the year or even after the season, to guard against declines from either veteran (Hamels is 35, Zobrist is 37).
Baez broke out as one of the game’s best all-around players last season, hitting .290/.326/.554 with 34 homers and a league-high 111 RBI over 645 plate appearances. Baez augmented his first above-average run producing (131 wRC+) season with solid overall baserunning that included 21 steals, as well as his typically strong glovework at multiple infield positions (699 2/3 innings at second base, 462 2/3 IP at shortstop, 142 2/3 IP at third base). Among all position players, Baez ranked 10th in bWAR (6.3) and 14th in fWAR (5.3) last season.
With Kris Bryant indicating a willingness to go year-to-year until he reaches free agency after 2021, Baez stands out as the Cubs’ top young building block. Among other recent young infielders to sign extensions, Eugenio Suarez’s seven-year, $66MM deal with the Reds and Jean Segura’s five-year, $70MM extension with the Mariners could be potential comps, even if neither quite fit Baez’s situation. For instance, Suarez was locking in his first big professional payday as something of a surprise breakout performer, whereas Baez was a hyped prospect for years before reaching the big leagues. Segura was also over a year older at the time of his extension than Baez is now, and had only one arbitration year remaining.
Hendricks, meanwhile, has been a solid and usually durable member of Chicago’s rotation for four seasons. Something of a throwback pitcher with a sub-90mph fastball, Hendricks has relied on soft-to-medium contact rather than big strikeouts (career 7.62 K/9) to good effect in his career, posting a 3.14 ERA over the 708 2/3 innings since 2015. The 29-year-old’s best season came in the Cubs’ World Series campaign of 2016, when Hendricks posted a league-best 2.13 ERA.
Hendricks’ arsenal might help him project better as a long-term investment for the Cubs or potential future free agent suitors, as it isn’t like he is a hard-tossing strikeout artist who could be more apt to decline with a loss in velocity. What could harm Hendricks’ chances at an extension, however, is that Chicago made such a huge investment in its starting staff, and gotten next to nothing in return from Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood. Beyond 2020, however, Hamels, Chatwood, Quintana, and potentially Jon Lester (depending on a vesting option) will no longer be on the books, leaving the Cubs in search of arms. Prospects like Adbert Alzolay, Alec Mills, or Justin Steele could be contributing by that point, of course, though the Cubs might also want to have another solid veteran on hand to augment that bunch. (Also, the Cubs have had enough difficulty in developing pitchers in recent years that relying on prospects doesn’t seem sound.)
Of course, as Wittenmyer notes, discussions about extensions also need to factor in whether a player could be more apt to sign an extension rather than test an increasingly hostile free agent market. “You have to look at what’s going on around the league, for sure. You have to educate yourself on things that have happened in the past and what the market looks like now, then make the best decision possible,” Hendricks said. The threat of a potential work stoppage could impact Baez the most directly, as the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires on December 1, 2021 — roughly a month after Baez is eligible to hit free agency.