The Impossibility of Predicting Cubs’ Offseason Plans

The World Series has yet to begin, and already the internet has amassed a plethora of opinions about the Cubs’ offseason plans — some of which have masqueraded as fact. From notions asserting this core is all-but done together, to questioning the efficacy of breaking up the core, to impossible blockbuster trade proposals, there’s no shortage of ideas.

The sheer volume (and range) of speculation surrounding the offseason is entirely understandable, if not outright warranted. Since the end of 2018, Theo has sang the same tune(s): the offense is ‘broke’, major trades will be explored as part of a ‘reckoning’, a shake up of the coaching staff might be in order, financial flexibility disallows making moves in free agency, et al. To be clear, it’s been pleasant that Theo has addressed the media with transparency for nearly a decade. That said, we’ve seen precious little change with regard to roster construction since the Cubs fell in a 13 inning Wild Card loss to Colorado in 2018.

This year’s version of the State of the Cubs offered a similar transparency, with familiar phrases that continue to beat the same ole’ drum:

Theo Epstein’s 2020 end of season press conference. Courtesy of the Chicago Cubs official YouTube page.

2021 Maintains More Questions Than Answers

At some point, Theo’s openness (a candor that is much obliged) must be met with actual change. While there are certain impediments to said change — a depressed trade market last offseason, a perpetuous financial blockade from ownership, the vagaries introduced by a global pandemic — Theo’s words after yet another disappointing season’s end become tiring rather than inspiring.

Then, there’s the question of Theo himself, whose contract expires after 2021. Next season will almost certainly be the final season for Epstein at Wrigley, not because of animosity, but because he’s openly stated (on several occasions) that a decade is the appropriate length of time to run a front office. Whether his role simply transitions to Jed, or the Cubs explore new leadership with a different perspective, remains to be seen. I do believe that, regardless, Theo will leave the Cubs in good shape upon his departure — punctuating his legacy by creating the space for this team to remain competitive as his tenure expires.

Despite Theo’s plans for 2021 (and beyond), and regardless of whether or not a transition of power amounts to handing the President’s baton to Jed Hoyer or looking outside the organization, these questions only obfuscate the clear and present concerns about 2021.

As Always, it’s About Money

With several members of the core pacing through arbitration one last time, yet lots of money otherwise coming off the books, one question persists: How much will the Ricketts family let the Front Office spend?

The short answer? Probably not much. After making several cuts to administrative positions in September (one month after gutting scouting and player development departments) it’s clear ownership is looking to save money wherever possible. With zero fans at Wrigley in 2020, and the anticipation that capacity will be limited in 2021, a frugal approach seems legitimate at face value.

Dig a little deeper, however, and that frugality becomes a ruse. The Cubs have an estimated value in excess of $3 Billion, rendering Tom Ricketts’ sentiment in June about baseball not having much “fluid cash” generally (let alone the Cubs specifically) outlandish. But I digress…

Let’s look for a moment at the Cubs 2021 payroll obligations. Per Spotrac, the amount of money the Cubs will be subtracting from the books is significant. Repeat offenders of the Luxury Tax in 2020, the Cubs certainly won’t exceed it in 2021. Yet after projecting arbitration salaries, the Front Office could theoretically have as much as $40+ million to play with this offseason and still remain under 2021’s threshold of $210 million — projections made, at least, by Bleacher Nation.

Sticking with the projections by BN, the Cubs are looking at a post-arbitration payroll (against the Luxury Tax) of ~$169 million. If life were normal that roughly $40 million could be used to attack top-tier starting pitching and a competent contact hitter, all without taking a tax hit — now or in the future.

But nothing in 2020 is normal, as you know, and because of the cuts to baseball operations we’ve already seen the Cubs make, the unfortunate reality is that payroll, too, will be down. It’s entirely unknown what the Ricketts will set the payroll budget at; it’s also nearly certain it’ll be well shy of $210 million.

Are Trades or Extensions Possible?

There are five players on this team that maintain legitimate extension consideration. They’re the same players that have been involved in trade rumors. I’m going to run through them in short order:

Anthony Rizzo
Rizzo, whose team-friendly seven year, $41 million extension is set to expire after ’21, absolutely deserves a renewed contract that 1) reflects his tenure in Chicago while 2) cementing his career as one that’ll end on the North Side. With the Universal DH likely to become permanent, Rizzo can spend time there as age warrants extra rest, and as his defense begins to slip. He’ll also be just 32 next season, and as I’ve written before, his offensive peripherals in 2020 were in line with his career norms. A five’ish year extension, then, would still witness him as a near-everyday starter for the duration.

Keeping in mind that the Cubs don’t have much organizational depth at 1B, this seems like a no-brainer. In one of my few confident assertions, there’s no chance in hell the Cubs trade The Captain.

Javier Baez
Despite a year at the plate that was downright atrocious, Javy remains the face of the Cubs. While his offense has always been of hit-or-miss fashion, 2020’s regression should be viewed as more of an anomaly than portending a bleak future. Set to make ~$11 million in his last year of arbitration, an extension seems more-than reasonable. Javy is going to want money and contract length, but one can also sense a willingness to take a bit of a hometown discount.

As for his trade value, it’s hard to imagine teams taking on his rather large arbitration figure for one year while shedding valuable prospect capital. In short, the trade market for Javy doesn’t yield appropriate value for either buyer or seller. Javy is a bit of a lottery ticket, but he’s our lottery ticket, and he sure seems to win plenty.

An extension makes far too much sense. It also seems like a coin flip.

Kris Bryant
KB has been one of the premier hitters in baseball since his rookie campaign in ’15. However this past season was an absolute dud, injuries have nagged him, he’s hip to the ways that baseball is a business, and the Cubs have explored trading him in the past. The Front Office balked at trading him last winter, though, and his last year of team-control (at ~$20 million) after slashing .206/.293/.351 isn’t going to yield any favorable returns to the Northside.

Add it all up and it sure sounds like Bryant will be spending 2021 in Wrigley before testing the open market.

Willson Contreras
After another solid offensive campaign, coupled with a newfound ability to frame pitches, Contreras, unlike the rest of this list, is under team control through 2022. That, coupled with the depth the organization has at Catcher, seems to make Willson more of a valuable trade chip (should they sell) than an extension candidate. Yet keeping him in Chicago long-term also maintains value, as he can obviously spend time at DH while perhaps transitioning to left field as Miguel Amaya becomes ready for an everyday role.

If the Cubs make a blockbuster trade this offseason it will likely involve Contreras. But I’d put equal weight on him remaining in Chicago long-term.

Kyle Schwarber
The front office has long been bull’ish on Schwarbs, neglecting to trade him on several occasions that might’ve made sense. As he enters his last year under team control, he needs to improve upon his .188/.308/.393 slash if he’s to prove there’s still plenty of life in his bat.

Schwarber currently has no trade value, and the Cubs have no urgency to lock him up. This is going to be a wait and see approach with respect to his ’21 campaign.

Is Anything Predictable this Offseason?

Despite all of the armchair GM’ing and prognostications the internet has so willingly provided, there’s very little that can be predicted this offseason. We know the Cubs are unlikely to be big spenders in free agency, we know Theo is looking to maintain competitiveness in 2021 while leaving this team in good shape for the future, and we know there are several aspects of this roster that need shoring up.

Maybe we see a big name traded, maybe the Cubs surprise and land, say, a Marcus Stroman or a Michael Brantley. Perhaps the Cubs take advantage of down seasons and make good on some extensions of their core players. Are these all possible? Sure. Is there any certainty about anything the Cubs might do? Hell no.

To end in sober fashion: The recent offseason track-record of the front office is stagnant, they have an uncertain budget, and there’s a general lack of trade assets. If I were to predict anything for the offseason, I would bank on it being one of that’s both familiar and disappointing.

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

Featured Photo Credit: Jerry Lai, USA Today Sports

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