Cubs: Free Agents, Club Options, and Arbitration Outlook

With the ALCS wrapping up last evening, and the decisive game seven of the NLCS just hours away, we are quickly turning the corner to what will be an interesting MLB off-season. The Cubs have several questions they need to answer, from whether or not they finally trade from the core, how they’ll assess the open market under budget constraints, and what becomes of the Front Office with Theo Epstein in a lame duck 2021 season.

We will be covering all of that (and more!) this off-season, but today’s focus is on impending free agents from 2020’s roster. Along with player eligibility in each category, I’ll proffer my best guess as to what becomes of each player.

(We’ve already covered the White Sox situation here.)

A few important dates before we get started:

  • October 24-28 – Conclusion of the 2020 World Series. Teams will have five days to decide on team options; free-agency begins five days after the conclusion of the World Series.
  • December 2 – Deadline for offering arbitration eligible players a contract. Players who do not receive a contract offer or arbitration offer will be non-tendered and become a free-agent.
  • December 6-10 – MLB Winter Meetings, Dallas, TX

Impending Cubs Free Agents

Tyler Chatwood

Chatwood’s three year tenure with the Cubs was disappointing, to be generous. Injuries and ineffectiveness haunted his first two years, and while he showed considerable promise early on in 2020, a back strain (and subsequent forearm strain) effectively ended his year.

All told, the three year, $38 million Chatwood received was a whiff. Don’t expect the Cubs to re-sign the polarizing veteran.

Jose Quintana

Lost in all of the hoopla of who the Cubs parted with to acquire ‘Q’ back in 2017 is the durability and effectiveness he had long showed, complete with a team-friendly contract. Certainly those numbers didn’t entirely play out according to plan, but his durability mostly remained while serving as a rotation stalwart.

Of course, Quintana injured his thumb this off-season washing dishes — one of the wild, I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening injuries that tend to follow around big leaguers.

While I don’t think ‘Q’ pitches on the Northside in 2021, I won’t rule it out entirely. At age 32 next season, he’ll still offer back-end rotation intrigue, but it’s hard to assess what sort of contract he’ll command — and how many suitors will be kicking the tires on the established southpaw.

Andrew Chafin

A trade dealine acquisition, Chafin showed some promise for the Cubs. Yielding just one earned run in four appearances (3 IP), he also made the playoff roster, making one scoreless appearance against the Marlins.

The Cubs will need some lefty ‘pen help in 2021, but considering Chafin’s pre-Covid salary of $3.04MM in ’20, it’s hard to envision the Cubs “affording” him should the market be competitive.

Jeremy Jeffress

Jeffress was one of the most valuable members of the 2020 squad. While he walked too many batters (13.6 percent), failed to generate a ton of strikeouts (19.3 percent), and drastically outpitched his peripherals (1.58 ERA, 4.09 FIP), he was nonetheless an absolute weapon at the back-end of the ‘pen.

Recent inconsistency (along with questionable peripherals) dampen the market value for the 33 year old, and should allow the Cubs to make an honest effort to bring him back for 2021.

Photo: Associated Press

Cameron Maybin (OF)

Maybin was a nice addition for the Cubs at the trade deadline. The veteran outfielder can more-than-capably play all three outfield positions, and in 52 AB’s for the Cubs he stole three bases, hit .250/.304/.354, and appeared to provide a bit of a spark for a team that needed it.

The Cubs reserve outfield mix is in a bit of flux for 2021, so pursuing Maybin on a cheap, incentive-laden deal (with perhaps an option year) makes quite a bit of sense for the Cubs this winter.

Jason Kipnis (2B)

Kipnis made good on the minor-league deal he signed with the Cubs, providing a big offensive spark early in the season. He struggled down the stretch, however, and Nico Hoerner should see what essentially amounts to a full-time role in 2021 (not to mention the need to find David Bote at-bats).

Kipnis would need to embrace a reserve role on-the-cheap to return in 2021, a scenario I consider a coin flip at this point.

Billy Hamilton (OF)

Hamilton was a fun late-season addition for the Cubs, providing impossible speed and superb defense as a late-inning replacement. The Cubs need offense in ways that words can’t express, however, and Hamilton simply can’t hit the baseball.

I wouldn’t entirely rule out the Cubs inking him to a deal, but it doesn’t appear likely.

Pedro Strop (RP)

The Cubs quietly picked up Pedro on a minors deal after his ugly season with the Reds prompted his release. He never appeared for the Cubs in 2020, but I mention him because I envision a scenario in which they re-up him on a minors deal laden with incentives.

Should he ever rejoin the big leagues on the Northside and perform with any semblance of the pitcher he once was, it’d be a nice redemption story for one of the best relief pitchers in franchise history.

Josh Phegley (C)

Phegley started the season on the Cubs roster, largely because the 30-man configuration promoted the idea of having a third catcher with a defensive pedigree. Somehow he was enlisted for the Cubs in the playoffs as well, despite hitting a mere .063/.167/.250 in just 18 regular season plate appearances.

There’s not much value for the Cubs moving forward. I’d be shocked if he resigns with the club for 2021.


Club Options for 2021

Jon Lester (SP) – $25MM, $10MM Buyout

It’s quite obvious the Cubs won’t be exercising the hefty club option for Lester. This is a team that needs to clear payroll wherever it can, and Lester’s contract is one of the largest avenues to do so. While the $10 million buyout isn’t exactly light, that number does not impact the team’s Luxury Tax in 2021 (Buyouts are preemptively rolled into the existing contract upon signing). This offers the front office some flexibility to re-sign Jon for an incentive-laden deal, on top of that nifty $10 million he’s already set to receive. I imagine a one year contract in the neighborhood of $7 million, with an option for 2022, is a decent starting point, and hopefully comes to fruition.

Lester is no longer an Ace, but he’s seeking career win 200 — and wants it to happen on the Northside. Frankly, it’s hard to believe any other legitimate contenders will be serious suitors for the fringe Hall of Famer. If the Cubs offer Lester a shot at that career milestone, saving ~$18 million against the Luxury Tax in 2021 along the way, it would signal respect for a Cubs legend while pragmatically addressing the back-end of the rotation.

Photo: Ezra Shaw, Getty Images

Anthony Rizzo (1B) – $16.5MM, $2MM Buyout

This is a no-brainer and needs little discussion. Rizzo’s option will be exercised, with expectations both sides will discuss a long-term extension this off-season.

Daniel Descalso (2B) – $3.5MM, $1MM Buyout

Descalso’s tenure with the Cubs was an unmitigated disaster. While the contract wasn’t an albatross, he provided little value on the Northside. With no playing time in 2020, and an abysmal .173/.271/.250 triple slash in 2019, Descalso’s -0.8 fWAR as a Cub was a bitter disappointment — and a reminder that the bargain bin in free agency isn’t, well, always a bargain.

Descalso will be bought out for $1 million, and will have to see what the market bears for a 34 year old veteran infielder with a recent injury history.

Arbitration-Eligible Players

The Cubs have a number of arbitration eligible players, including members of the core reaching their final year of arbitration prior to free agency in 2021. MLB Trade Rumors recently published their predictably accurate assessment of arbitration raises. While this gives us some clue of 2021’s numbers, until those numbers are officially reached we won’t know how much money the front office will have to work with in Free Agency — without crossing the Luxury Tax threshold.

Kris Bryant (3B) – $18.6MM* in 2020 (Arb year 4 in 2021)

Javier Baez (SS) – $10 MM in 2020 (Arb year 3 in 2021)

Kyle Schwarber (OF) – $7.01 MM in 2020 (Arb year 3 in 2021)

Willson Contreras (C) -$4.5 MM in 2020 (Arb year 2 in 2021)

Jose Martinez (1B/OF) -$2.12 MM in 2020 (Arb year 2 in 2020)

Albert Almora (OF) – $1.57 MM in 2020 (Arb year 2 in 2020)

Kyle Ryan (RP) – $975K in 2020 (Arb year 1 in 2020)

Ryan Tepera (RP) – $900K in 2020 (Arb year 3 in 2020)

Dan Winkler (RP) – $750K in 2020 (Arb year 4 in 2020)

Ian Happ (OF) – $624K in 2020 (Arb year 1 in 2020)

Victor Caratini (C/1B) – $592 K in 2020 (Arb year 1 in 2021)

*All 2020 salaries are based on a 162-game schedule, not adjusted for the 60-game 2020 season.

Non-Tender Candidates

Jose Martinez (1B/OF)

What seemed to be a pragmatic acquisition at the deadline, Martinez hardly lasted on the Cubs roster. He went hitless in 21 AB’s for the Cubs, accumulating seven strike outs in the process.

While those numbers are downright tragic, Martinez was only with the club for a week before they optioned him to South Bend (before recalling him near season’s end). That the Cubs gave up a young, competent infield prospect (Pedro Martinez) for Jose, and then summarily dismissed him, was an odd move — and, potentially, a frustrating one long-term.

It’s highly doubtful the Cubs offer the ~$2 million arbitration salary Martinez will command in 2021.

Albert Almora –

After Almora was optioned to South Bend, the writing was on the wall his tenure in Chicago was nearing its end. The Cubs’ first round pick in 2012 (the inaugural draft of the current regime), Almora’s bat simply never developed as expected — despite his brilliant defense. This is especially troubling when you consider some of the players the Cubs missed out on in that draft, but I digress.

All told, Almora hit .271/.309/.398 for the Cubs, with a not-terrible 85 wRC+. The past two seasons, however, those numbers look like this: .230/.270/.366, 61 wRC+.

It’s a sad end to a Cubs career full of what-ifs. At the very least, Almora provided one of the best memories of Game 7:


Dan Winkler –

Winkler put up a sturdy 2.95 ERA in 18.1 innings this season, and should also command a salary only slightly north of $1 million. He’s a non-tender candidate, however, because his FIP (5.32) and walk rate (14.5 percent) suggest regression is on the horizon.

I wouldn’t be altogether shocked if Winkler is tendered, and he’s a much more likely option at this point than Martinez or Almora. They also will focus on tendering contracts to Ryan and Tepera ahead of him, and need to shave salary wherever possible if they are to re-sign Jeffress.

Qualifying Offer

The qualifying offer has been set at $18.9 million for the 2021 season, but don’t expect the Cubs to extend that offer to any eligible free-agents.

All contract information courtesy of Spotrac and Baseball-Reference.
All stats courtesy of Fangraphs.

Featured Photo Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski, USA Today

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