When Theo Epstein got to Chicago he committed to a multiple-year rebuild of the Chicago Cubs that went exactly according to plan. The Cubs sold off aging talent, lost a lot of games, accumulated draft picks, and, implausibly, hit on almost all of them. That set up the Cubs with an outstanding young core of players that has had a lot of early success. However, fans have known that the day was coming when the Cubs would have to decide which players to try to lock up at or before free agency and which players would finish their careers somewhere else.
Simultaneously for the last two years the free agent market has moved at a glacial pace. As I’ve written before, the vast majority of free agents haven’t come close to deals that market watchers predicted they would get heading into free agency. It seemed inevitable that something would have to give, and on Tuesday something did.
No, there hasn’t been a flood of free agent signings. Despite Manny Machado signing a record contract with the Padres of this writing, Bryce Harper, Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel and 40 other MLB free agents remain unsigned. But there has been a flurry of contract news in baseball this week, with Aaron Hicks, Nolan Arenado and Miles Mikolas all signing early contract extensions at or below market value with their current teams. It would appear that staring down the barrel of a very uncertain future in free agency is unappealing to many of baseball’s biggest stars.
I’ll have a piece later this week on what the wave of extensions means from a player relations standpoint, but as I saw the deals come across my Twitter feed I couldn’t help but wonder, which Cubs players would I most want to see signed to an extension?
The Cubs core at a glance
For the purposes of this piece I focused on the 11 Cubs who are under 30 for the 2019 season who will hit free agency between 2021 and 2024. Eight of those players are position players and three are pitchers. I wanted to get a look at more than a single season so I compiled key stats from 2016-2018 for each player. You can take a look at the hitters’ key stats in the chart below:
Hitters key stats 2016-2018
|Albert Almora Jr.||25||331||919||16||5.2%||17.0%||.334||.289||.326||.412||.317||96||2.8||2023|
The three Cubs pitchers who met the above criteria are Kyle Hendricks, Mike Montgomery and Carl Edwards Jr. Admittedly stat comparisons between starters and relievers are imperfect, but you can get a look at their stats below as well:
Pitchers key stats 2016-2018
|Carl Edwards Jr.||26||0||154.1||12.42||4.90||0.70||0.22||75.4%||39.7%||10.1%||3.03||3.12||3.42||2.6||2023|
Despite their age some of these players don’t really seem to have contract extensions in their future unless circumstances changed substantially (I’m looking at you, Addison Russell). But there are more than a few players here where an extension could make sense, so let’s take a closer look at some possible contract extension candidates below.
When I originally wrote this I was sure this was a long shot. After all, there have already been rumors about the Cubs trying to extend Kris Bryant, although those rumors have been officially denied by both sides. Despite the current pace of free agency all signs pointed to Bryant wanting to test the market: His agent is Scott Boras and he’s already won an MVP award. Oh, and then there is the little matter of service time manipulation.
The Cubs deliberately held Bryant in the minors exactly the right amount of time to ensure another year of team control and no, the Cubs star third baseman hasn’t forgotten about any of that as Sahadev Sharma reported on Monday:
“It’s awful,” Bryant said. “So awful. It’s going to happen this year and it happens every year. I could understand it if you go out and have a rough spring training where you don’t look ready. But there’s certain people who put the time and the effort into the offseason so that they do show up to spring training and they prove that they’re ready to go. I feel like you should be rewarded for that.”
It’s not that Bryant doesn’t understand why it’s happening. He gets the dynamics of it all. By waiting until that certain date later in April, an organization can gain an extra full year of control for a top prospect.
“They’re finding a loophole in the system,” Bryant said. “It doesn’t make it right. It kind of seems like the easy way out rather than showing someone that we’re going to reward what you’ve done in spring and what you’ve done in the offseason. ‘Here you go, you get Opening Day.’ That’d be pretty cool.”
And then late last night Cubs Insider reported that Bryant would “absolutely be interested in a Nolan Arenado type deal:
“He said, ‘Absolutely,’” Rogers said of Bryant’s response to a question about accepting an offer like Arenado’s. “Now, he said it like, ‘That’s a great deal, how could anybody turn it down?’ Yet we know that if this was Theo and Scott, ‘Absolutely’ may not be the answer.
Don’t worry about the Boras piece too much, there was more:
“Kris made a point of saying to me, and he said it exactly like this: ‘I want to reiterate that I’m the client, I’m the guy in charge,’” Rogers explained. “Now I’m paraphrasing: ‘I’m the guy that Scott has to listen to.’”
Is it possible that Bryant would agree to an extension with the Cubs? I am a lot more optimistic about that deal now than I was yesterday morning. However, any extension Bryant would take will probably look a lot like the 8-year $260 million deal the Rockies just signed with Arenado. A deal like that would make almost every other deal on this page a moot point.
Anthony Rizzo signed a team-friendly deal with the Cubs that will leave the face of the Cubs a free agent for the 2022 season (the Cubs have team options for 2020 and 2021 that they will almost certainly exercise). When his deal expires he will be 32 years old, and while that might make some analytically minded folks worry a bit about aging curves and the like I worry a bit less about him falling off a cliff at first base than I would at some other positions. In 2017 Al outlined a possible deal the Cubs could offer to extend Rizzo and I would love to seem them try to work this out and keep him in Cubbie blue for the rest of his career:
I think Rizzo should have the chance to retire as a Cub. How could the Cubs do this with the current contract?
They could exercise the 2020 and 2021 options now and then offer him a five-year extension at $125 million. That would “make up” for some of the money he’s currently “losing” because he signed an undermarket extension in May 2013. That was a real commitment on the part of Theo & Co., as Rizzo was then only in his first full major-league season. They had to be pretty sure he’d do great things, and he has rewarded everyone with All-Star seasons and consistent production, not to mention being an all-around good guy and leader.
Alternatively, they could tear up the 2020 and 2021 options and offer him a seven-year extension beginning in 2020 at, say, $175 million.
Javy Báez had a career year in 2018 and came in second in MVP voting. He’s always had a special glove and bat but everything came together for the Cubs’ middle infielder last season. He hasn’t shown nearly the consistency that Rizzo has demonstrated, but if his 2019 comes close to what he demonstrated in 2018 it would certainly be worthwhile to see if that Cubs can lock up his supernatural tagging and sliding ability long-term. Interestingly Báez is represented by Wasserman, that’s the same agency that represents Nolan Arenado.
I would have to imagine a long-term deal for Javy would look something like the deal that Aaron Hicks just signed with the Yankees for 7 years/$70 million, though likely for more money, maybe seven years and $100 million.
Contreras was the starting catcher in the 2018 All Star Game but struggled down the stretch. He has approximately two and a half major league seasons under his belt and has put together an above average wRC+ of 113 during that time despite the slump. In fact, by fWAR he’s been the fifth most valuable catcher in baseball since 2016 behind J.T. Realmuto, Yasmani Grandal, Buster Posey and Gary Sanchez.
The Cubs have been interested in extending Contreras before and in November Sharma reported that Contreras turned down a contract extension prior to the 2018 season:
Sources indicated Willson Contreras is one player who could have been affected by not signing an extension. Unlike Bryant, Javier Báez, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ, Contreras didn’t have the benefit of getting a sizable draft bonus. Contreras was signed as an international free agent in 2009 and never even received the type of bonus the top-tier IFAs usually get.
That’s not to say Contreras is struggling to make ends meet, but while he was able to put up a first half that was good enough to start in the All-Star Game, Contreras’ defensive lapses, framing issues and lack of power were evident in the second half. Some believe he allowed doubt to creep into his head that he’d missed an opportunity by passing on an extension that the Cubs offered last offseason and it contributed to his struggles.
Good-hitting catchers are hard to find and while Willson has struggled with framing at times, I would think the Cubs might take another run at locking up their backstop long-term, especially if he gets off to a hot start in 2019. Given the changing free agent market I’d imagine Willson would be open to such a deal.
The details of that deal are a bit harder to work out. Buster Posey signed an eight-year, $159 million deal in 2013, but he put up numbers that were both more consistent and more productive than Willson’s first two and a half seasons with the Cubs. I would imagine that a deal to sign Contreras long-term would look more like the team friendly deal Rizzo signed for 7 years/$41 million, again perhaps for more money, maybe seven years/$65 million.
Since he arrived in 2015 there have been rumors that Schwarber is destined for the American League where he can be a designated hitter and not have to worry about playing left field. But times change. The former Cubs catcher went out and made great improvements in his fielding and now there are rumors that the DH could be coming to the National League.
After struggling at the start of 2017 Schwarber has put together solid offensive numbers bolstered by a strong on base percentage and a wRC+ of 115. If 2019 is a breakout year for his bat it may make sense to try and lock up Schwarber long term.
All he does is get guys out. Quietly, unassumingly, game after game of getting guys out. Kyle Hendricks will never throw 95 miles per hour, but he doesn’t have to because he relies on a plus change up and a mastery of location. This is part of why I think Kyle Hendricks may deserve an extension, that pitch is not going to lose effectiveness the same way some of these 98 mph fastballs will, and Kyle has just quietly kept getting guys out. As Fansided noted in 2017:
Mechanics can get off, and then you see a lack of command. Or the stuff starts to dissipate, and they don’t have what they had before to get hitters out. But what if you didn’t really have to worry about your stuff? And your command was just about as good as it can get? With Hendricks, he doesn’t throw hard which is one of the big keys, but not the biggest.
Hendricks relies on essentially two changeups. He throws a “fastball” and a curve, but these are used sparingly. But it’s the two different changeups that he not only survives on–but thrives. The time that Chris Bosio has put into Hendricks could pay huge dividends for the Cubs. So why shouldn’t the Cubs return the favor?
Look, I’m just going to go ahead and compare these two because, well, why not? Both have been nicknamed “the Professor”, and that’s not just a coincidence. When you watch how Hendricks works a hitter and the time he puts into studying them? It’s very similar to that of former Cubs’ pitcher Greg Maddux. Hendricks got the nickname from being an Ivy-league kid from Dartmouth, but there’s more to it than that.
I don’t think Kyle Hendricks is Greg Maddux, but he’s exactly the type of pitcher who will continue to make the right adjustments as he ages and I imagine he’s already getting suggestions from teammates Jon Lester and Cole Hamels regularly. He’ll be 30 years old when he’s eligible for free agency and if I were the Cubs I wouldn’t hesitate to extend him four or five years beyond that.
Which Cubs player would you most like to see signed to a contract extension?
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