Cubs’ first place success creates an interesting dilemma for the future of the franchise
Arguing in 2021 was a bit of an afterthought for the Cubs this past offseason. But here we are, a few days in June, and the club alone occupy first place at NL Central, a game and a half ahead of the Cardinals and three ahead of the Brewers.
It’s not a completely shocking development, but it’s quite unexpected. Why? Let’s take a quick look at how the front office folks have performed 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 didn’t bid on Kyle Schwarber in early December, which means they chose not to offer a contract to a player who hit 94 home runs for the team from 2017 to 2019, despite being under the club’s control. Lester and Schwarber both 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 of these decisions, due to costs and / or lower production.
But just in case their “to fight or not to fight” motivations were murky, the week between Christmas and New Years, 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 NL Cy Young race – to the Padres for starter behind the rotation Zack Davies and four prospects who are far from ready for the big league.
The signal was clear. The Cubs could argue by accident, or as a nice bonus, but contestation wasn’t the main front office concern for 2021. They spent some money, out of nostalgia – bringing Jake Arrieta, 35, back on one year / club option contract – or on a roll of the dice – outfielder Joc Pederson on a similarly structured contract.
And yet, here we are in June and the Cubs are in first place. It’s awesome… a little.
Success actually creates a bit of a dilemma. There was a reason the Cubs weren’t in “confront now” mode this offseason. The core group that led the franchise to the 2016 World Series title won’t be around for long. They dumped Lester and Schwarber a year earlier than they had to – getting nothing back for them, in terms of prospect compensation or selection – and the list of impending free agents is intimidating.
Let’s take a look at the familiar faces that might be playing elsewhere pretty soon.
3B Kris Bryant: Free agent after 2021
Bryant’s resurgence this season – he wasn’t good in 2020 – is as big a reason as any for Chicago’s success. Bryant, in his season at 29, is on the NL’s shortlist of MVP contenders for the first two months of the season, sporting a slash above the targets of 0.300 / 0.400 / 0.600 for most of the season. the season.
SS Javier Baez: Free agent after 2021
Baez, in his season at 28, is shaking things up, with 2,133,534 being the game that made all the highlights against Pittsburgh last week. Like Bryant, Baez wasn’t good in 2020, but is back to his 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 instead of just 2021, right? As many pillars as short films. Rizzo, who is a few years older at 31, has just five home runs so far this year, but his base percentage (0.377) is right at his career average (0.372), as is his OPS + ( 134; career average is 129). Like Baez and Bryant, Rizzo was much better in 2021 than he was in 2020.
C Willson Contreras: Free agent after 2022
Contreras, in his season at 29, has nine home runs and a 122 OPS +, with a bWAR of 1.7 from 49 games this year. And a massively overlooked part of the “Baez Play” against the Pirates was Contreras who ran from second base to plate during the time it took Baez and first baseman Will Craig to make their way from first to goal. . An incredibly aggressive and alert stirring game by Contreras.
Closer Craig Kimbrel: Free agent after 2022 (if the Cubs choose the 2022 option)
Kimbrel wasn’t in the Chicago 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 starts, with four missed saves on 19 occasions – but he’s been really good this year. This is the Kimbrel vintage, with an ERA of 0.78 and 39 strikeouts in 23 innings.
Are the Cubs going to buy or sell?
The Cubs, as they are currently built, could absolutely win NL Central. This is not a division where it will take 100 wins to clinch a title. It is quite possible that the division champion ends with 91 or 92 wins. The Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers – the three teams come into play on Thursday within a few 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 their own contract issues, mainly Nick Castellanos’ rejection after this season.
A division title would be great, of course. But making it through the NL playoffs and 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 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 significant. They have already lost Lester and Schwarber without any sort of return. Not getting anything back for Schwarber, in particular, shows the potential cost of waiting too long; Do you remember when the AL teams salivated at the idea of having him as DH? They also can’t repeat those mistakes with Bryant, Baez, and Rizzo. Not if they want to remain regular contenders for the World Series.
Even getting selection compensation for Bryant and / or Baez – Rizzo doesn’t seem likely to secure a qualifying offer ahead of his season at 32 – looks like a less than ideal situation, especially with the uncertainty of what promises to be a controversial offseason when the collective agreement between the MLB and the MLB Players Association expires.
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 competitors 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 strong stick from the wide receiver point, is very valuable. And what competitor wouldn’t pay to add Kimbrel to the back of the pen while chasing a World Series title?
But can the Cubs really trade these players – players who have meant so much to the most iconic team over the past 100 years of franchise history – when the team is in first place, or even close? first place?
It 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’ve traded in all of your favorite players! isn’t exactly a good slogan for a banner.
For the moment, there is no big crowd. Maybe the Cubs will come back to earth for a bit, and this bullpen – a collection of pitchers from their thirties, for the most part, that has been exceptional – is having a hard time. Maybe they fall behind the Brewers and Cardinals in early July and the trades become more acceptable. Perhaps.
That’s why, as they say, they play games.