The core of the Cubs’ 2016 World Series club is nearing the end of its tenure in Chicago, and president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said Thursday that there are no current extension talks with any members of that core (Twitter link via 670 The Score’s Bruce Levine). Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Baez are all slated to become free agents at season’s end, while catcher Willson Contreras hits the market following the 2022 season.
For much of the offseason, talk around Bryant was focused on whether he’d even make it to Opening Day. The fact that former Rookie of the Year and NL MVP had a dismal 2020 season likely helped keep him in Chicago, as last summer’s struggles paired with a hefty arbitration raise to sap much of his trade value.
A quarter of the way through the 2021 season, the pendulum has swung in the other direction. While the entire league seems to be plagued with anemic offensive performances, Bryant is better than ever. Through his first 167 trips to the plate, he’s raking at a .301/.401/.615 pace with 10 homers, 14 doubles and a pair of stolen bases. He’s even doing so while splitting his time between third base and all three outfield positions, showing off plenty of defensive versatility.
Rizzo is also in the midst of a resurgent campaign, having increased his average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage over last year’s levels. He’s still not back to peak form, but a .250/.361/.443 slash is solid — particularly in the aforementioned era of strikeouts and near-weekly no-hitters. Rizzo is a rarity in 2021, having walked at a higher clip (14.8 percent) than he’s struck out (12.4 percent). The Cubs reportedly offered him an extension in the vicinity of five years and $70MM back in Spring Training, which checks in at about $60MM shy of the $130MM commitment the division-rival Cardinals made to Paul Goldschmidt. That deal began in Goldschmidt’s age-32 season — the same age at which Rizzo will play in 2022.
Baez, meanwhile, is enjoying a more productive season than he did in 2020, albeit with plenty of red flags. He’s raised his slash line across the board but is now striking out at a 37.2 percent clip that represents the highest non-rookie mark of his career. Even though he’s raised his average 60 points over its 2020 level, Baez’s OBP is still resting just shy of .300. He’s batting .263/.299/.526 on the whole, which is certainly sound production, but he’s needed career-highs in BABIP (.351) and homer-to-flyball ratio (32.3 percent) in order to get there. If either of those two marks regresses or his strikeouts continue to tick up, Baez’s 2.7 percent walk rate will become all the more glaring.
Contreras, the only one of the group controlled beyond the current season, is hitting .254/.349/.462, continuing a lengthy run as one of the game’s best-hitting backstops. That he’s controlled into 2022 puts a bit less of a spotlight on him, but there were some trade rumblings surrounding Contreras over the winter.
At 21-21, the Cubs needn’t yet entertain the idea of any sort of broad-reaching fire sale. They’re still just 3.5 games back of the Cardinals in the NL Central and very much in the mix as of mid-May. Should they wilt in the coming months, any of the impending free agents would make for a plausible trade candidate. There would of course be PR implications to consider with dealing from that group, but an unavoidable reality; even if the Cubs hold onto everyone through season’s end, they’ll eventually have to bid adieu to at least one, if not two or all three of Bryant, Rizzo and Baez in free agency. For now, the hope is likely that the group puts together a big showing over the next two months, positioning the Cubs as division favorites and deadline buyers.
The more interesting scenario to consider, though, will be what the Cubs will do if they’re still in precisely this spot come mid-July. A Cubs team hovering at .500, give or take a couple games, would have to weigh two sides of a difficult dilemma. Make one final run with an offensive core that really hasn’t gotten it done in October since that World Series victory, or sell off some of the most iconic players in recent franchise history? The former route could leave the Cubs with little to show in terms of compensation for a core that won’t stay intact. The latter route would be tantamount to waving a white flag while still in striking distance of a postseason bid while turning the page on a historic era of Cubs baseball.
Hoyer, it should be noted, did make clear that the Cubs maintain an “open-door” policy and aren’t ruling out future negotiations. But Rizzo said earlier this year that he’d made his peace with the lack of an extension, while Bryant has never seemed all that likely to sign before free agency. They’ve talked with Baez for the past two to three seasons without a deal ever coming together. Generally speaking, the expectation of a deal for any of the bunch coming together before free agency (save for perhaps Contreras this offseason) should be low.