Competing in 2021 was an afterthought for the Cubs last offseason. But here we are, just days into June, and the club is only first in the NL Central, a game and a half ahead of the Cardinals and three ahead of the Brewers.
It is not a completely shocking development, but it is quite unexpected. Why? Let’s take a quick look at how the front office folks operated this offseason.
They gave rotation host Jon Lester a $ 10 million purchase to leave, rather than paying him $ 25 million to pitch for the club in 2021. They didn’t tender Kyle Schwarber in early December, which means they chose not to. Offering a contract to a player who hit 94 home runs for the team from 2017 to 2019, even though he was under the club’s control. Lester and Schwarber ended up signing with the Nationals. The Cubs let Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood go through free agency. Individually, of course, there were reasons for all those decisions, due to costs and / or decreased production.
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But in case their “fight or not fight” motivations were murky, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, they traded ace Yu Darvish – the right-hander had a 2.01 ERA with 93 strikeouts in 76 innings during the pandemic. shortened the 2020 season and finished second in the National League Cy Young career, to the Padres for starter Zack Davies and four prospects who are a long way from MLB ready.
The signal was clear. The Cubs might compete by accident, or as a nice bonus, but competing was not the main concern of the front office for 2021. They spent a bit of money, on nostalgia, bringing 35-year-old Jake Arrieta back in one year. / club option agreement – or on a roll of the dice – slugging outfielder Joc Pederson into a similarly structured contract.
And yet here we are in June and the Cubs are in first place. It’s cool … a little.
Success actually creates a little dilemma. There was a reason the Cubs weren’t in “race now” mode this offseason. The core group that led the franchise to the 2016 World Series title won’t be around for much longer. They got rid of Lester and Schwarber a year earlier than they had to, getting nothing in return, in terms of prospect or recruiting compensation, and the list of impending free agents is overwhelming.
Let’s take a look at familiar faces that might be playing elsewhere relatively soon.
3B Kris Bryant: free agent after 2021
Bryant’s resurgence this season, it wasn’t good in 2020, is as big a reason for Chicago’s success as any other. Bryant, in his 29-year season, is on the NL MVP shortlist for the first two months of the season, sporting a bar line above the .300 / .400 / .600 plateaus. for most of the season.
SS Javier Baez: free agent from 2021
Baez, in his 28-year season, makes things happen, with Exhibit 2,133,534 being the play that made all the featured reels against Pittsburgh last week. Like Bryant, Baez wasn’t good in 2020, but he’s back to career levels: 123 OPS +, 14 home runs and eight stolen bases in 50 games.
1B Anthony Rizzo: Yes, free agent after 2021
It’s starting to become clear why the Cubs were looking to the future rather than just 2021, right? As many pillars as short-term workers. Rizzo, who is a couple of years older than 31, has only five home runs so far this year, but his on-base percentage (.377) is just about his career average (.372) and so is his OPS + (134; run) average is 129). Like Báez and Bryant, Rizzo has been much better in 2021 than in 2020.
C Willson Contreras: free agent after 2022
Contreras, in his 29-year season, has nine home runs and 122 OPS +, with 1.7 bWAR in 49 games this year. And a massively overlooked part of the “Baez Play” against the Pirates was Contreras running from second base to home plate in the time it took for Baez and first baseman Will Craig to tango their way from first base to home plate. An incredibly aggressive and alert play from Contreras.
Closer Craig Kimbrel: free agent after 2022 (if Cubs pick 2022 option)
Kimbrel wasn’t part of Chicago’s World Series title, of course, but he’s in his third year with the Cubs. The first two were mostly disasters – 6.00 ERA and 6.0 BB / 9 in 41 starts combined, with four blown saves in 19 chances – but it’s been really good this year. This is the classic Kimbrel, with a 0.78 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 23 innings.
Will the Cubs buy or sell?
The Cubs, as they are currently built, could win the NL Central. This is not a division where it will take 100 wins to secure a title. It is quite possible that the division champion will end up with 91 or 92 wins. The Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers (all three teams come into play Thursday a couple of games apart) are very flawed teams. The Reds are talented, but they are already five games under .500 and seven from first place, and they have their own contract issues, most notably the opt-out of Nick Castellanos after this season.
A division title would be great, of course. But getting through the National League playoffs and the World Series, with the Dodgers and / or Padres as giant hurdles, is a very different challenge than winning the NL Central. It’s hard to imagine these Cubs entering the World Series as they are currently built. They would need an ace like, I don’t know, Yu Darvish.
And the opportunity cost could be great. They already lost Lester and Schwarber without any return. Getting nothing in return for Schwarber, in particular, shows the potential cost of waiting too long; Remember when American League teams salivated at the idea of having him as their designee? Nor can they repeat those mistakes with Bryant, Baez and Rizzo. Not if they want to remain regular World Series contenders.
Even getting draft pick compensation for Bryant and / or Baez (Rizzo doesn’t seem likely to get a qualified offer heading into his 32-year season) feels like a less than ideal situation, especially with the uncertainty of what. promises to be. a controversial offseason when the collective bargaining agreement between MLB and the MLB Players Association runs out.
For the long-term health of the franchise, it’s pretty clear that the best course of action is to trade as many productive veterans as possible. Bryant and Baez, in particular, would get a decent return from contenders looking to add bats in a year where offensive production is low across the board. Contreras, with his extra year of club control and a power bat from the catcher spot, has a lot of value. And what contender wouldn’t pay to add Kimbrel to the bottom of the bullpen while chasing a World Series title?
But can the Cubs really trade those players, players who meant so much to the most iconic team in the last 100 years of franchise history, while the team is in first place, or even close to first place?
That would be a tough pill for Cubs fans to swallow, especially as the season progresses and Wrigley Field returns to full capacity. “Welcome, fans! We trade all your favorite players! “Not exactly a great slogan for a banner.
For now, there is not much rush. Maybe the Cubs will get back down to earth a bit, and that bullpen, a collection of 30-something pitchers, mostly outstanding, has a tough streak. Maybe they fall behind the Brewers and Cardinals in early July and the trade becomes more palatable. Maybe.
That is why, as they say, they play the games.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.