It’s been a surreal week for Cubs fans, watching the core of the 2016 World Series club head out the door at the trade deadline in exchange for a series of prospects. Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez have been the faces of the Cubs for a half decade now, but they now find themselves with the Giants, Yankees and Mets, respectively. Also out the door are closer Craig Kimbrel, right-hander Ryan Tepera, lefty Andrew Chafin, outfielder Joc Pederson and outfielder Jake Marisnick.
Generally speaking, fans knew this was coming, but even after president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer made clear that the Cubs were shifting to a seller’s mindset, there were many who questioned just how far the sale would go. Bryant had long been viewed as a trade candidate after talks with him had failed to materialize in a deal multiple times in the past. Baez, however, had spoken more optimistically about reaching a deal in the past, as had Rizzo. Now, days after the deadline, Hoyer expressed frustration during a radio interview on ESPN 1000.
“I put my head on the pillow every night knowing that we put our best foot forward,” said Hoyer (Twitter thread via ESPN’s Jesse Rogers). “The extensions we offered these guys will hold up exceptionally well, historically they’ll hold up exceptionally well against the open market. I don’t know why guys didn’t want to sign. I don’t know why guys didn’t even want to counteroffer sometimes.”
Hoyer lamented that while many players publicly expressed interest in staying long-term, “when we sat down to do negotiations, that wasn’t how they acted.” Somewhat curiously, he pointed across town to the White Sox, noting that Lance Lynn “could’ve gotten more on the open market this winter but he said ’I want to stay here.'” Of course, Lynn is a 34-year-old trade acquisition who isn’t at all in the same position as the core Cubs who were dealt last Friday, and the implication of blame residing with the now-former Cubs players lacks plenty of critical context.
Rizzo, for instance, would’ve been a free agent in the 2018-19 offseason had he not inked a seven-year, $41MM contract back in May 2013. That deal contained a pair of club options and ultimately wound up paying him $75MM over nine years. There’s a difference in taking the “I want to stay here” approach when you’re an inexperienced pre-arbitration player and a soon-to-be free agent, but Rizzo surely felt he’d already given the Cubs one major break and may have been less inclined to do so a second time. Hoyer was clear that his comments were more general and that not all applied to all three of this core trio, so perhaps the Lynn comparison wasn’t intended to strike a parallel with Rizzo — but it’s difficult to overlook that disconnect.
In Hoyer’s defense, we don’t know how many attempts were made to further extend that contract over the years, but Rizzo’s initial extension proved a to be an overwhelming bargain for the club. We do know that back in March, Hoyer proclaimed he was “very confident” that the Cubs would extend Rizzo. That optimism, which came after Rizzo had already turned down a reported five-year, $70MM offer, didn’t manifest in a deal.
Hoyer is probably correct in asserting that said offer will hold up well against open-market bids, barring a huge post-trade surge for Rizzo. That said, it’s also not hard to see why Rizzo would be nonplused with the offer, if the reported terms were indeed accurate. He was entering the final season of the previously mentioned bargain extension, and a year prior he’d seen the Cardinals lock up Paul Goldschmidt for nearly twice as much — a contract that would begin with Goldschmidt’s age-32 season. Next year is Rizzo’s age-32 season. There’s no ignoring that Rizzo was coming off a down season in 2020, but the gap in those offers is still rather sizable, to say the least.
Baez, meanwhile, spoke openly and often about his desire to remain with the Cubs long-term — just as they similarly expressed interest in keeping him. Talks between the two parties seemed to be ongoing for years, with his chances of striking an accord regularly framed as the most favorable of this core trio.
As with the Rizzo/Lynn bit, it’s important to remember that Hoyer was speaking generally rather than addressing all of his former core players. But his assertion that some players didn’t even bother to counter the team’s extension offers certainly seemed to catch the attention of Baez’s agent, Nick Chanock of Wasserman. Chanock tells ESPN’s Jesse Rogers that the Baez camp did indeed present the Cubs with a counterproposal not long before the Covid-19 pandemic shut the league down. Rogers goes on to write that the team didn’t rekindle those talks, nor did they make a final offer to Baez before trading him.
Reports from ESPN’s Buster Olney and MLB Network’s Jon Heyman earlier this summer suggested that the Cubs offered Baez anywhere from $160MM to $180MM, though the length of those deals isn’t clear. It’s also worth noting that at the time, Baez was a 27-year-old shortstop coming off consecutive six-WAR, All-Star seasons — one of which saw him finish runner-up in NL MVP voting. As with Rizzo, that numbers reported by Olney and Heyman will likely “hold up historically” against any open-market earnings for Baez this winter, but that’s only true in light of Baez’s 2020-21 decline at the plate.
Arguably the most notable bit of context in all this is the Cubs’ brazen manipulation of Bryant’s service time, wherein they called him up to the Majors in 2015 the first day he was assured of missing a full year of service that season. In doing so, they effectively pushed his free agency back a year. Bryant went on to win NL Rookie of the Year honors and NL MVP honors over the next two seasons while earning scarcely more than the league minimum.
The Cubs eventually won a service time grievance over Bryant after a league-appointed arbitrator ruled in the team’s favor. Bryant was not granted the extra year of service he sought. No one would expect any team executive to willingly bring such matters up in an interview of this nature, but that’s a clear piece of the puzzle being left untouched in Hoyer’s telling of the situation.
On the one hand, it’s refreshing to see a team’s president of baseball operations speak with candor rather than deliver the same tropes we hear time and again. On the other, it’s almost befuddling to state that it’d be “bad faith” to go into specifics regarding individual negotiations only to then cast blame on the entire group of players while painting with broad strokes. Nearly any GM or agent, when discussing contract negotiations, will break out some variation of the “it takes two to tango” cliche. Hoyer’s assertion that the Cubs “put our best foot forward and tried our hardest, but it was not reciprocated,” however, puts the onus squarely on the players.
Perhaps in some cases, that’s where the “fault” (for lack of a better term) should lie. Perhaps the team will have better luck this winter with catcher Willson Contreras, who said this weekend that even in spite of the sell-off, he hoped to remain with the Cubs and was “happy to talk” if the team “wants to rebuild around me.” But comments questioning the extent to which former teammates were committed to the team don’t seem the best way to set the table for negotiations with Contreras or any other player — and they’re unlikely to assuage a fanbase that has heard more about the luxury tax and revenue losses for the past few years than about any headway in retaining the core players who changed hands last week.