Before I sat down to write this article, I first turned on some moody instrumental music, my “breakup playlist” for tonight’s purposes. The deadline for clubs to tender/non-tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players for the 2021 season has come and gone. As expected, the Cubs have made some decisions that will not sit well with much of the fanbase. The breakup of the 2016 championship core has officially begun, and I have to admit I’m more than a little salty about it.
Despite an overabundance of (silly) speculation that the Cubs would decide to non-tender 2016 MVP, Kris Bryant, they chose to offer him a contract. I’m not sure the Ricketts would have been safe in Chicago had they not. Other “non-surprises” included Javier Baez, Victor Caratini, Willson Contreras, and Ian Happ. Again, even though the ownership seems to be comfortable crying poor, a non-tender to any of these players would have been beyond egregious. As Baseball Dugout writer Austin Bloomberg wrote earlier, the following are the projected salaries from MLB Trade Rumors for these players:
Additionally, the Cubs announced that they had come to terms with Colin Rea, Kyle Ryan, and Dan Winkler for the 2021 season, avoiding arbitration. Though the details on those deals have not yet been disclosed, MLB Trade Rumors projected the following salaries for the 2021 season:
When considering the players not tendered contracts, these last three—Dan Winkler in particular—are baffling. More on that in a moment.
Four players were notified that they would not be offered a contract. The first was not a surprise. Acquired mid-season in 2020, Jose Martinez was a disappointment, to say the least. As the joke goes, I had exactly as many hits for the Cubs as Martinez did on the Northside. Despite his lack of production (unless you count wearing out opposing shortstops with a barrage of routine ground balls), I made the argument in this past week’s episode of the Northside Show that Martinez may still have been worth tendering a contract. His salary was projected at $2.1M.
A quick glance at Martinez’s career numbers against left-handed pitching shows his potential value. He posted a career .307/.382/.534 and 145 wRC+ against LHP. The Cubs have struggled mightily against quality left-handers. At $2.1M, it seems as though Martinez could have filled a need at a relatively inexpensive price tag (when you consider that the veteran minimum is $563,500). Was his wRC+ that stood 45% better than leave average worth that $1.5M over the league minimum? Considering their options to replace him in the system (or lack thereof), one would have had a strong argument in favor of bringing him back.
The second name on the non-tendered list that I found interesting was Ryan Tepera. While his numbers from 2020 don’t explode off the page—3.92 ERA, 31 SO, 12 BB, 3.34 FIP, 1.403 WHIP—he features a cutter that is pretty darn-near unhittable.
Tepera’s projected salary came in at $1.2M, tied with Kyle Ryan and close to Dan Winkler. Both Kyle Ryan and Winkler were retained while Tepera was not. Kyle Ryan is a leftie, so that, of course, brings extra value, but tendering Winkler instead of Tepera just doesn’t make sense. By the numbers, Tepera was the better option by far, and unless Winkler secretly paid the Cubs to bring him back, it doesn’t seem as though the cost was that different.
Beyond Martinez and Tepera, we reach the breakup stage. While both could have potentially provided value, their stays with the club were short-lived. The same cannot be said of Albert Almora and Kyle Schwarber. Both were members of the 2016 World Series team, and now they are simply former Cubs.
Let’s start with Almora. He was selected sixth overall in the 2012 Amateur Draft. In fact, he was Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer’s first draft pick for the organization. He was touted as a plus defender with solid contact skills. His bat never truly developed, but he did provide above average defense. Had Joe Maddon not so stubbornly ran Almora out at the top of the lineup card as often as he did, perhaps Amora’s tenure with the Cubs would have been more palatable. As it was, Almora never came into his own. What’s worse, the organization (i.e., Maddon) insisted on giving Ian Happ’s innings and at-bats to Almora far too often. Still, this Cubs fan will never forget that it was Albert Almora’s gutsy call to tag from first on a particular deep fly ball off the bat of Kris Bryant in a particular Game Seven that set the table for Ben Zobrist’s franchise-altering swing.
I am sad to see Almora go, but that is mostly due to nostalgia. At a projected $1.575M, his 2021 salary could have been swallowed by a more financially viable club (if the Ricketts are to be believed). Still, at this point, he was little more than a fourth outfielder/defensive replacement. Perhaps he will find an opportunity for a better fit and get his career back on track. The final and most notable player to be non-tendered, however, is much more difficult for me to swallow.
I am not sure that there will ever be a “feel good” story that will compare to the narrative Kyle Schwarber wrote for himself in 2016. Coming off a rookie campaign in 2015 that saw Schwarber blast 16 HR en route to a 1.6 WAR, the sky was the limit for the young catcher/outfielder (yes, he was still in the catching mix back then). Schwarber was already a legend. In the 2015 Wild Card game, he blasted a bomb into the Allegheny River off Pirates ace Gerrit Cole. Then, Schwarber launched a gargantuan blast off Cardinals lefty Kevin Siegrist, which landed on top of the Wrigley Field scoreboard in right field in the clinching win of the NLDS.
Just a few games into the 2016 season, Kyle Schwarber suffered a devastating knee injury costing him what appeared to be the entire year. As the Cubs fought their way through the 2016 playoffs, the rumors began to spread that the Cubs just might activate Schwarber if they were to reach the World Series. Sure enough, the team clinched a spot against the Indians, and Schwarber was activated. The Ohio native had seven hits in seventeen at-bats, including the single that started the tenth inning rally in game seven.
Yes, as fitting as it is, it was Schwarber that Albert Almora came in to run for. Schwarber’s single started the most incredible inning in Cubs history, and Almora’s run put them ahead. Now, four years later, these two once-promising members of the “core” are just former Cubs. It is a difficult pill to swallow, all the more so for Kyle Schwarber. Teams were actively trying their hardest to acquire him just a couple short seasons ago, but Epstein was convinced that the big slugger was a pivotal piece to the Cubs future. Now he is only a wonderful memory of something great.
Maybe that is how I need to remember him. Many Cubs fans are rightfully angry to see Bam Bam dumped so unceremoniously. Yes, Hoyer said the “right things” about the door being open for an extension and that Schwarbs is a Cubs legend, blah, blah, blah. I don’t want to hear that right now. I’m still listening to my breakup playlist. I need to be angry, to be sad. I need to grieve.
An unbiased look at the numbers shows that Schwarbs was not living up to his lofty potential. His 2020 campaign was so dreadful I dare not post the numbers, but there were still signs. Since coming back up from the minors in 2017, he had posted a 120 wRC+. Isn’t a Cubs legend (Hoyer’s words) that is still a 20% better hitter than league average supposed to be worth the $7.1M he was projected to make? Don’t the Cubs play in one of the largest media markets in the country? Are the Ricketts truly this poor?
I cannot be convinced that this is addition by subtraction. Don’t bother trying that argument. Schwarber might not have been a star, but he had an elite eye and game-changing power. Yes, he was streaky, but how does eliminating his bat from the lineup (particularly against RHP) and replacing him with nothing make the team better? A trade I could understand, even if the Cubs had to eat money in the process, even if that trade brought back an underwhelming prospect. At least there would have been an addition, not just subtraction. Do we genuinely feel that Cubs fans can trust this ownership team to reinvest that $7.1M they saved back into the payroll? I, for one, do not. It seems just as likely that the money saved by non-tendering Schwarber is going to go back into the owners’s pockets. It is just hard to see these head-scratching moves and feel like I should offer Jed Hoyer and this ownership group my trust.
Ah, oh well. As the saying goes, it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. I’ve never been ashamed to admit that I have an irrational love for Kyle Schwarber. I can’t just erase 2015/2016. He will always be a Cubs legend in my eyes. Maybe the team will still be good—or even better—without him, but this breakup hurts. Now, if it’s alright with you, I’m going to turn up my playlist, play YouTube clips of Schwarber’s postseason feats, and cry myself to sleep.
Featured Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
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