With a reduced payroll looming and many core pieces entering contract years, will the Cubs finally engineer a shake-up?
- Yu Darvish, SP: $62MM through 2023, or $65MM if he wins the Cy Young award
- Jason Heyward, RF: $65MM through 2023
- Anthony Rizzo, 1B: $16.5MM through 2021
- Craig Kimbrel, RP: $17MM through 2021
- Kyle Hendricks, SP: $43.5MM through 2023
- David Bote, 3B: $14MM through 2024
Arbitration Eligible Players
This year’s arbitration projections are more volatile than ever, given the unprecedented revenue losses felt by clubs and the shortened 2020 schedule. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz, who developed our arbitration projection model, used three different methods to calculate different projection numbers. You can see the full projections and an explanation of each if you click here, but for the purposes of our Outlook series, we’ll be using Matt’s 37-percent method — extrapolating what degree of raise a player’s 2020 rate of play would have earned him in a full 162-game slate and then awarding him 37 percent of that raise.
- Kris Bryant, 3B: $18.6MM
- Javier Baez, SS: $10.7MM
- Kyle Schwarber, LF: $7.9MM
- Willson Contreras, C: $5.6MM
- Ian Happ, CF: $2.5MM
- Jose Martinez, DH: $2.1MM
- Albert Almora Jr., CF: $1.575MM
- Victor Caratini, C: $1.2MM
- Kyle Ryan, RP: $1.2MM
- Ryan Tepera, RP: $1.1MM
- Colin Rea, RP: $1.0MM
- Dan Winkler, RP: $900K
- Non-tender candidates: Schwarber, Bryant, Almora, Martinez, , Ryan, Rea, Winkler
- Exercised $16.5MM club option on 1B Anthony Rizzo
- Declined $25MM club option on SP Jon Lester (paid $10MM buyout)
- Declined $3.5MM club option on IF Daniel Descalso (paid $1MM buyout)
- Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, Tyler Chatwood, Jeremy Jeffress, Andrew Chafin, Billy Hamilton, Jason Kipnis, Cameron Maybin, Josh Phegley, Daniel Descalso
Though the Cubs won the NL Central in the strange 60-game 2020 season, their season ended in disappointment just as it did in 2018 and 2019. This time, it was a playoff sweep at the hands of the Marlins. Most of the Cubs’ offensive core failed to show up in 2020. Here’s Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein with a quote that might as well have come from the ’18 or ’19 post-mortem press conferences:
Clearly, some change is warranted and necessary. Simply hoping for a better outcome moving forward doesn’t seem like a thoughtful approach. Embracing some change, even significant change, is warranted.
It’s remarkable how little the Cubs’ group of position players has turned over since they won the World Series in 2016. Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras, Jason Heyward — they’re all still here. Bryant, Rizzo, Baez, and Schwarber are each now down to one year of control. Epstein’s contract will be up as well, and 2021 is widely expected to be his last hurrah with the Cubs before Jed Hoyer moves into the top chair in the front office. Epstein has avoided change for the sake of change, but this is his last chance to shake up the team and try something different.
Any Cubs shakeup will come against the backdrop of financial austerity, with the team having laid off 100-plus employees, according to Patrick Mooney and Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic. And while the pandemic will be the driver of the Cubs’ expected player payroll reduction, it’s not as if they were spending any money in the two previous offseasons. If you’re looking for potential free-agent targets, focus on players at the bottom of our Top 50 Free Agents list, unless the club dumps salary first.
So once again, the winter is all about trade speculation for Cubs fans. The problem? Likely trade candidates Bryant and Schwarber had lousy years with the bat, and Baez was particularly awful. The samples are small. Bryant’s 147 plate appearances would have represented less than a quarter of a season for him based on the 671 he averaged from 2015-17. No one thinks Bryant is now a below-average hitter, given a five-year track record of success before 2020. From a club standpoint, the down year will at least prevent his arbitration salary from climbing much higher than the $18.6MM he was supposed to earn in a full 2020. But even though it was just 147 plate appearances, trading Bryant now is still selling low. At a time when most teams are expected to reduce payroll, who wants to take on roughly $20MM for Bryant while also giving up good players?
I explored specific team matches for Bryant in this post. You can identify about a half-dozen clubs that could work. The Cubs are between a rock and a hard place with Bryant, though. If the Cubs expect Bryant to put up a 4 WAR season in 2021, but no one’s offering much beyond salary relief, they should just keep him. But if they keep him, they cut off a major avenue for making a significant change to the team.
We should also take a moment to discuss the possibility of the Cubs non-tendering Bryant on December 2nd, which Mooney and Sharma said recently “probably can’t be totally dismissed out of hand because the Cubs have shown us how they are managing the downturn.” As they wrote, this would be an “embarrassment” and a “worst-case scenario.” If the Cubs exhaust all trade scenarios and don’t want to commit themselves to Bryant at around $20MM, it is an avenue they could take, however unlikely. We did just see 29 teams pass on Brad Hand at one year and $10MM. If no one is willing to take Bryant at his salary, the Cubs’ choice would come down to keeping him or cutting him. They could also consider cutting Bryant or Schwarber during Spring Training, but that would require at least 30 days termination pay and would put the player in a difficult spot.
Schwarber presents a lesser version of the same dilemma. He posted a 90 wRC+ in 224 plate appearances, but it’s not too hard to picture him returning to the 115-120 range in 2021 as a 28-year-old next year. If he does, his $7MM salary could be a bargain. He’s still more replaceable than Bryant, which is why I wouldn’t rule out a non-tender for Schwarber either if the Cubs can’t find a trade partner prior to December 2nd. I’m not optimistic about the Cubs finding a team willing to give up anything of note for a left fielder/designated hitter, particularly with Joc Pederson and Michael Brantley available in free agency and Eddie Rosario in trade (and possibly being non-tendered himself). Brantley, a much better contact hitter than Schwarber, would actually be an interesting choice to replace him for the Cubs. I’m not sure I can see the Cubs unloading Schwarber’s $7MM to potentially sign Brantley for twice as much, however.
With Baez, a contract extension could be more likely than a trade. He’s a popular, entertaining player with a desire to stay. I can see fans being disappointed if the Cubs keep Bryant and Schwarber, trade them for an uninspiring return, or non-tender them for nothing. A Baez extension could restore some goodwill. Figuring out a fair number during a pandemic for a player coming off a bad year could make an extension difficult for Baez, however. The Cubs have already extended some goodwill toward face of the franchise Anthony Rizzo, exercising his $16.5MM club option after a 103 wRC+ performance. It’s hard to picture Rizzo in any other uniform, but a new contract would have to be hammered out to retain him beyond ’21.
The Cubs have several solid building blocks in place through 2023 in Darvish, Hendricks, and Happ. They’ve got Contreras under control through ’22. All options will likely be on the table in terms of trades, and these are the players with trade value. Contreras is coming off a solid year, and getting his age 29-30 seasons would likely be appealing to the runners-up for J.T. Realmuto. Plus, Contreras won’t cost $20MM+ like Realmuto will. The Cubs could trim $7MM in payroll if they exchange Contreras for pre-arbitration players. The Marlins, Mets, Phillies, Rays, and Yankees could be interesting trade partners. If they trade Contreras, the Cubs might be content to plug in Victor Caratini as their starter behind the dish.
Similarly, the Cubs could look to get out of their commitment to Darvish with his value at a high point. They wouldn’t be able to find a Cy Young-caliber pitcher to replace him, but they could use some of the savings for veteran free agents while also bringing in quality minimum-salary players in the trade. Considering painful scenarios like these is the reality of the 2021 Cubs.
With Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, and Tyler Chatwood reaching free agency, the Cubs figure to import at least one starting pitcher this winter and possibly two. They’ve got Adbert Alzolay and Alec Mills slated behind Darvish and Hendricks, but the team clearly needs more. Interest in a Lester reunion is mutual, though the Cubs may seek more upside than the veteran southpaw can offer. One possible answer would be to find the pitching equivalent of Bryant or Schwarber – an arbitration eligible player with limited control coming off a down year – and broker a trade. Such a deal could be struck prior to the December 2nd non-tender deadline, particularly in the case of Schwarber.
On the other hand, Epstein spoke about “thread[ing] the needle and improv[ing] in 2021 while also setting ourselves up for the long-term future,” which suggests he’d like prefer to swap contract year players for ones with multiple years of control. That makes sense in theory, but as I’ve been saying, Bryant and Schwarber don’t seem to have a lot of trade value. Look at the minimal return the Indians received for a $17.5MM Corey Kluber after a lost 2019 season. And that was with the Rangers at least having the chance to get two years of Kluber, who had an expensive option for 2021 (that was bought out due to injury). That’s why trading Contreras, Darvish, Hendricks, or Happ might be Epstein’s best way to thread the needle.
The Cubs’ bullpen is also in need of reinforcements. The pitcher they put in the highest-leverage situations, Jeremy Jeffress, is a free agent. Much has been made of Craig Kimbrel’s final 14 appearances of the season, in which he posted a 1.42 ERA with a 53.1 K%, 14.3 BB%, and no home runs allowed. The list of 60+ inning relief seasons from 2015-19 in which a pitcher walked at least 14% of batters faced runs just seven-deep: Brandon Workman, Jeurys Familia, Adam Ottavino, Steven Brault, Reyes Moronta, Carl Edwards Jr., and Kyle Barraclough. The truth is that if you issue free passes to batters at the rate Kimbrel did in the “good” portion of his 2020 season, you’re walking a tightrope that few have found sustainable.
The Cubs’ most reliable reliever might be Rowan Wick, who has strung together 50 2/3 innings of 2.66 ERA ball since joining the team in a November 2018 trade. I can picture Ryan Tepera sticking around, though he walked a career-worst 13.5% of batters faced for the Cubs this year. The Cubs’ other potential bullpen holdovers seem even more fungible. I’m not yet convinced in the Cubs’ ability to grab castoff relievers on the cheap, run them through their Pitch Lab, and create an above-average bullpen. One-year deals should abound for free agent relievers this winter, and the Cubs should set their sights higher than the scrap heap.
Epstein’s legacy in Chicago is secure, and he’s likely headed for the Hall of Fame one day. But for a big-market, high-payroll team that’s made the playoffs five times in the last six seasons, fans can’t help but feel disappointed with one championship. In positioning the 2021 Cubs for one last run, Epstein faces one of his greatest challenges.