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The 2020 non-tender deadline signals it will be a brutal offseason for free agents and trades

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There are no incentives for owners to pay players what they are worth this offseason

Kyle Schwarber at the plate during the 2020 Wild Card Series
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

There are a lot of takes right now about how to repurpose the money the Cubs saved by non-tendering Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora Jr. late Wednesday but I’d like to reframe this conversation a bit because the bottom line is that the Cubs decided to part ways with two former first round draft picks over less than $10 million.

$10 million.

Look, I get it. Almora has struggled at the plate and Schwarber probably wasn’t worth the $8 million he was projected to get in arbitration this offseason, but the whole thing about tanking and getting a ton of early round picks is that those picks are supposed to pan out for teams in a number of ways. In order here are the possible outcomes with those picks, ranked from best to worst:

  • The draft pick hits, they are on your team and you win with them. You sign them to an extension and the player becomes a franchise player.
  • The draft pick hits but doesn’t exactly fit on your roster at a given moment, you trade them to someone else for prospects.
  • The draft pick hits but they don’t exactly fit on your roster, you cannot find a trade partner so you have to let them go when they exceed their value <— The Cubs are here.
  • The draft pick does not hit and never makes it to the big leagues

The Cubs find themselves in the unenviable position of having players who made it to the big leagues, have demonstrated they can play in the big leagues, but being unable to agree on their value (either internally or with other teams) — so those players just walk. For nothing. No prospects. Nothing.

Look, I get it, baseball is a business. The Cubs lost a lot of money in 2020 and both Schwarber and Almora were due more money than they are probably worth in the next arbitration process. And I suppose it is still possible the Cubs could try to come to terms to a longer-term deal for a lower AAV with Schwarber (although I think the non-tender makes that a lot less likely). The bigger story here is one of economics and having a front office that is able to either identify talent or flip that talent for other players.

This isn’t just a Cubs issue. There were eyebrow raising non-tenders across the league. Here are a few (all projected arbitration values based on MLB Trade Rumors predictions here):

  • The Rockies non-tendered David Dahl over $2.5 million
  • The White Sox non-tendered Nomar Mazara over $5.5 million
  • The Twins non-tendered Eddie Rosario over $8-9 million

You can see a complete list of non-tendered players at MLB Trade Rumors.

And look, I’m sure people can go through the stats of each of these players plus Kyle Schwarber (projected — $8 million) and Albert Almora Jr. (projected — $1.5 million) and make (accurate) arguments that they are just not quite worth that much for 2020. But from a market perspective this is a red flag - and a predictable one with this offseason marking the last big standoff between players and owners before they renegotiate the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which expires after the 2021 season.

After a truncated 2020 season without fans it will be easier than ever for the owners to claim they don’t have the money for players and Wednesday’s non-tender deadline makes it pretty clear that they are going to drive contract values down at every possible opportunity. In a more sane baseball market Schwarber and Almora would have been traded for prospects. In 2020 we are all just supposed to suspend disbelief and pretend that it’s normal for two major league caliber first-round draft picks to be let go over less than $10 million.