Remember “The Plan,” as it was? Step 1: Strip the team of aging veterans, expiring contracts, and anyone not expected to be around for the eventual “window of contention,” send out for prospects where available. Step 2: Acquire affordable veterans with upside to spin for prospects at the trade deadline. Step 3: Acquire as much young talent through the draft and international free agency as possible. Step 4: Supplement the core with free agents and trades at just the right time. Step 5: Win the World Series.
For the most part, you know, things actually went according to The Plan. The Cubs are now in the thick of a competitive window with one World Series win already in the can, and several more opportunities to prove they can do it again. But if they’re going to return to the promised land, that necessarily requires a an often forgotten Step 6: Keep some of the core together with manageable contract extensions.
Perhaps the only thing more certain to Cubs fans than signing Bryce Harper this winter (LOL) was getting one or more members of the “core” position players to sign an extension. You know the names:
- Kris Bryant
- Javy Baez
- Kyle Schwarber
- Willson Contreras
- Addison Russell
You could also include Albert Almora and Ian Happ, but they haven’t been around as long/might not have the same upside as the players listed above, and, thus, carry a reduced sense of urgency for an extension. (Anthony Rizzo, of course, signed his extension long before the Cubs were competitive with this group.)
But we’re five seasons removed from Baez’s debut (2014), four seasons removed from Bryant, Russell, and Schwarber’s debut (2015), and three seasons removed from Contreras, Almora, and Happ’s debut (2016) … and the Cubs have zero extensions in place. What’s the deal?
Well, it’s not for a lack of trying (via Sahadev Sharma at The Athletic): “I won’t talk about any one player specifically, but I will say that in recent years we’ve very quietly made runs at some of our players to get a long-term extension done. We haven’t been able to. That doesn’t mean we won’t, but it’s proven more difficult than we expected in some cases.”
Although I’m a disappointed to find that the Cubs have struggled to extend any of those young position players listed above, I’m not particularly shocked. We’re seeing fewer and fewer players opt for big extensions at this stage in their careers, in general, and that’s especially the case for players who have already made some money. All but one of this group of Cubs are a first-round draft pick who received a big multi-million dollar bonus at the very start of his career. And some of them have already earned huge dollars along the way.
Signing Bonus, Total Career Earnings
- Bryant: $6.7M, $19.7M
- Russell: $2.6M, $7.3M
- Almora: $3.9M, $5.2M
- Schwarber: $3.1M, $5.0M
- Baez: $2.6M, $4.7M
- Happ: $3.0M, $4.1M
- Contreras: $850K, $2.5M
And just because, here’s the projected 2019 earnings for the arbitration eligible players (via MLB Trade Rumors): Bryant ($12.4M), Baez ($7.1M), Russell ($4.3M), Schwarber ($3.1M).
By the end of the 2019 season, Kris Bryant will have earned over $30M and will probably be set to make another $30-$40M over the remaining two years of his team control. It’s no surprise he’s not itching to sign an extension. He might have earned $60M by the time he’s a free agent. That’s a freaking ton for a guy in that situation.
Really, everybody but Willson Contreras has earned legitimate long-term, generation-changing money already (he’s close, no doubt). If anyone would be open to an extension from a financial perspective, it’s him.
But that actually proves to be a very complicated story, as Sharma laid out. Per Sharma’s sources, the Cubs approached Contreras about an extension last offseason, but Contreras declined. From there, “Some believe he allowed doubt to creep into his head that he’d missed an opportunity,” and that doubt impacted his play over the course of the 2018 season.
In addition to that doubt, Sharma suggests that the financial and political crisis in Venezuela, Contreras’ home country, of which he is very proud, might have been weighing on him heavily during the season. It’s always difficult for me to play armchair psychologist, but I can understand. Contreras is an emotional guy, and maybe the last year was exceptionally tough on him.
(That whole article is full of interesting stuff, by the way.)
It’s also worth noting that Contreras caught way more innings than anyone in else in baseball last season:
- Contreras: 1109.2
- Jonathan Lucroy: 1066.1 (43.1 fewer innings caught)
- Yasmani Grandal: 1037.1 (72.1 innings)
- Yadier Molina: 1017.2 (92 innings)
- Tucker Barnhart: 991.0 (118.2)
So I’m sure it’s a combination of a lot.
But the point remains, what do the Cubs do now? With him, and the rest of the position players, as it relates to extensions?
Well, here’s my take: despite his rough second-half, I still think you try to extend Contreras again this winter. Perhaps he’ll be a little more willing after struggling in the second half and experiencing a little regret after not signing one earlier. And maybe the Cubs can even save a little money on the deal (not that you’re necessarily rooting for that, but it’s a factor) while finally locking up one member of the core long-term.
Contreras gets to put his mind at ease and secure a financially stable future for himself and his family, and the Cubs get a young, All-Star catcher with some work to do, but a ton of upside and a huge following in Chicago. We love us some Willson. Sure, he might always have the pitch framing problems, but I think he’ll probably hit well enough and play good enough defense to largely cover up for that. And guys out there have improved their framing skills dramatically. It does happen.
As for the rest of the group, well, that’s a little tricker. But before we dive into it, I’d like to point out that Epstein did suggest that they might take another run at extending some of these guys. So this is not entirely academic. Okay, so …
There’s no way you’re extending Addison Russell right now (for on and off-field reasons), and I just don’t think Kris Bryant is going to accept an extension (indeed, there were reports that he’s already turned them down). Ian Happ is sufficiently far away from free agency (not until 2024!) that you can afford to wait and see what he turns into, and I’m not sure Albert Almora needs to be extended right now, either.
Which brings us to Schwarber and Baez, both of whom I think deserve serious extension consideration, and could probably be convinced to stay on the right deal. The Cubs have shown an extreme sense of dedication and interest in Kyle Schwarber (even bringing him into the draft room when he was injured throughout 2016), and Javy Baez was the team’s MVP in 2018. If you can lock those two guys up, do it.
There’s a chance Schwarber could be included in trade talks this winter and maybe that throws a wrench into things (you don’t want to extend a guy and then immediately trade him), but I sure hope and expect him to stay put.
As for Baez, the hitch there is that he had such a huge breakout season as he heads into arbitration that he might want a chance to do it again in 2019 before giving up any future free agent years. Still, it’s worth a try.
So as far as extension candidates go on the positional side, I’d say the three that make the most realistic sense are Contreras, Baez, and Schwarber. The Cubs will keep on trying.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.