Contending in 2021 was a bit of an afterthought for the Cubs this past offseason. But here we are, a few days into June, and the club sits alone in first place in the NL Central, one-and-a-half games ahead of the Cardinals and three up on the Brewers.
It’s not a completely shocking development, but it is pretty unexpected. Why? Let’s take a quick look back at how the front office folks operated this offseason.
They gave longtime rotation anchor Jon Lester a $10 million buyout to leave, rather than paying him $25 million to pitch for the club in 2021. They non-tendered Kyle Schwarber in early December, meaning they chose not to offer a contract to a player who hit 94 homers for the team from 2017 to 2019, despite that he was under club control. Lester and Schwarber both wound up signing with the Nationals. The Cubs let Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood leave via free agency. Individually, of course, there were reasons for all those decisions, because of costs and/or declining production.
But just in case their “to contend or not to contend” 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 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and finished second in the NL Cy Young race — to the Padres for back-of-the-rotation starter Zack Davies and four prospects who are a long way from big league ready.
The signal was clear. The Cubs might contend by accident, or as a nice bonus, but contending was not the front office’s primary concern for 2021. They spent a bit of money, on nostalgia — bringing back 35-year-old Jake Arrieta on a one-year/club option deal — or on a roll of the dice — slugging outfielder Joc Pederson on a similarly structured contract.
And yet, here we are in June and the Cubs are in first place. It’s great … kinda.
The success actually creates a bit of a dilemma. There was a reason the Cubs were not in “contend now” mode this offseason. The core group that led the franchise to the 2016 World Series title will not be around much longer. They jettisoned Lester and Schwarber a year earlier than they had to — getting nothing back for them, in terms of prospect or draft-pick compensation — and the list of impending free agents is daunting.
Let’s look at the familiar faces who could be playing elsewhere relatively soon.
3B Kris Bryant: Free agent after 2021
Bryant’s resurgence this season — he was not good in 2020 — is as big a reason for Chicago’s success as any. Bryant, in his Age 29 season, is on the short list of MVP candidates in the NL through the first two months of the season, sporting a slash line above the .300/.400/.600 plateaus for most of the season.
SS Javier Baez: Free agent after 2021
Baez, in his Age 28 season, makes things happen, with Exhibit 2,133,534 being the play that made all the highlight reels against Pittsburgh last week. Like Bryant, Baez was not good in 2020, but is right back up toward his career levels — 123 OPS+, 14 homers and eight stolen bases in 50 games.
1B Anthony Rizzo: Yep, free agent after 2021
It’s starting to become clear why the Cubs were looking ahead instead of solely at 2021, right? So many mainstays as short-timers. Rizzo, who is a couple of years older at 31, has only five homers so far this year, but his on-base percentage (.377) is right at his career average (.372) and so is his OPS+ (134; career average is 129). Like Baez and Bryant, Rizzo has been much better in 2021 than he was in 2020.
C Willson Contreras: Free agent after 2022
Contreras, in his Age 29 season, has nine homers and a 122 OPS+, with a 1.7 bWAR through 49 games this year. And a massively overlooked part of the “Baez Play” against the Pirates was Contreras racing all the way from second base to home plate in the time it took Baez and first baseman Will Craig to tango their way from first to home. An incredibly aggressive, alert hustle play from Contreras.
Closer Craig Kimbrel: Free agent after 2022 (if Cubs pick up 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 combined outings, with four blown saves in 19 opportunities — but he’s been really good this year. This is vintage Kimbrel, with a 0.78 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 23 innings.
Will the Cubs buy or sell?
The Cubs, as currently constructed, absolutely could win the NL Central. This is not a division where it’s going to take 100 wins to secure a title. It’s entirely possible that the division champ winds up with 91 or 92 wins. The Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers — all three teams enter play Thursday within a couple of games of each other — are all very flawed teams. The Reds are talented, but already five games under .500 and seven out of first place, and they have contract issues of their own, primarily Nick Castellanos’ opt-out after this season.
A division title would be great, of course. But getting through the NL playoffs and to the World Series — with the Dodgers and/or Padres as giant hurdles — is a much different challenge than winning the NL Central. It’s hard to imagine these Cubs getting into the World Series as currently constructed. They’d need an ace like, I dunno, Yu Darvish.
And the opportunity cost could be great. They already lost Lester and Schwarber without any sort of return at all. Not getting anything back for Schwarber, particularly, shows the potential cost of waiting too long; remember when AL teams salivated over the thought of having him as their DH? They cannot repeat those mistakes with Bryant, Baez and Rizzo, too. 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 qualifying offer heading into his Age 32 season — feels like a less-than-ideal situation, especially with the uncertainty of what promises to be a contentious 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 of the productive veterans as possible. Bryant and Baez, particularly, would fetch a decent return from contenders looking to add bats in a year when offensive production is down 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 back of the bullpen while chasing a World Series title?
But can the Cubs really trade away those players — players who meant so much to the most iconic team in the past 100-plus 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 moves on and Wrigley Field gets back toward full capacity. “Welcome back, fans! We traded all your favorite players!” isn’t exactly a great slogan for a banner.
For now, there’s no big rush. Maybe the Cubs will come back to earth a bit, and that bullpen — a collection of 30-something pitchers, mostly, which has been outstanding — hits a rough stretch. Maybe they fall behind the Brewers and Cardinals by early July and trades become more palatable. Maybe.
That’s why, as they say, they play the games.
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