Contending in 2021 was a bit of an afterthought for the Cubs this previous offseason. But right here we’re, just a few days into June, and the membership sits alone in first place in the NL Central, one-and-a-half video games forward of the Cardinals and three up on the Brewers.
It’s not a totally stunning growth, however it’s fairly surprising. Why? Let’s take a fast look again at how the entrance workplace people operated this offseason.
They gave longtime rotation anchor Jon Lester a $10 million buyout to depart, fairly than paying him $25 million to pitch for the membership in 2021. They non-tendered Kyle Schwarber in early December, which means they selected to not provide a contract to a participant who hit 94 homers for the workforce from 2017 to 2019, regardless of that he was beneath membership management. Lester and Schwarber each wound up signing with the Nationals. The Cubs let Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood depart by way of free company. Individually, of course, there have been causes for all these selections, as a result of of prices and/or declining manufacturing.
But simply in case their “to contend or not to contend” motivations had been murky, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, they traded ace Yu Darvish — the right-hander had a 2.01 ERA with 93 strikeouts in 76 innings in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and completed second in the NL Cy Young race — to the Padres for back-of-the-rotation starter Zack Davies and 4 prospects who’re a good distance from huge league prepared.
The sign was clear. The Cubs would possibly contend accidentally, or as a pleasant bonus, however contending was not the entrance workplace’s major concern for 2021. They spent a bit of cash, on nostalgia — bringing again 35-year-old Jake Arrieta on a one-year/membership choice deal — or on a roll of the cube — slugging outfielder Joc Pederson on a equally structured contract.
And but, right here we’re in June and the Cubs are in first place. It’s nice … kinda.
The success truly creates a bit of a dilemma. There was a purpose the Cubs weren’t in “contend now” mode this offseason. The core group that led the franchise to the 2016 World Series title won’t be round for much longer. They jettisoned Lester and Schwarber a 12 months sooner than they needed to — getting nothing again for them, in phrases of prospect or draft-pick compensation — and the record of impending free brokers is daunting.
Let’s have a look at the acquainted faces who may very well be enjoying elsewhere comparatively quickly.
3B Kris Bryant: Free agent after 2021
Bryant’s resurgence this season — he was not good in 2020 — is as huge a purpose for Chicago’s success as any. Bryant, in his Age 29 season, is on the quick record of MVP candidates in the NL by way of the first two months of the season, sporting a slash line above the .300/.400/.600 plateaus for most of the season.
SS Javier Baez: Free agent after 2021
Baez, in his Age 28 season, makes issues occur, with Exhibit 2,133,534 being the play that made all the spotlight reels towards Pittsburgh final week. Like Bryant, Baez was not good in 2020, however is correct again up towards his profession ranges — 123 OPS+, 14 homers and eight stolen bases in 50 video games.
1B Anthony Rizzo: Yep, free agent after 2021
It’s beginning to turn into clear why the Cubs had been wanting forward as an alternative of solely at 2021, proper? So many mainstays as short-timers. Rizzo, who’s a pair of years older at 31, has solely 5 homers to this point this 12 months, however his on-base proportion (.377) is correct at his profession common (.372) and so is his OPS+ (134; profession common is 129). Like Baez and Bryant, Rizzo has been significantly better in 2021 than he was in 2020.
C Willson Contreras: Free agent after 2022
Contreras, in his Age 29 season, has 9 homers and a 122 OPS+, with a 1.7 bWAR by way of 49 video games this 12 months. And a massively missed half of the “Baez Play” towards the Pirates was Contreras racing all the approach from second base to house plate in the time it took Baez and first baseman Will Craig to tango their approach from first to house. An extremely aggressive, alert hustle play from Contreras.
Closer Craig Kimbrel: Free agent after 2022 (if Cubs choose up 2022 choice)
Kimbrel wasn’t half of Chicago’s World Series title, of course, however he’s in his third 12 months with the Cubs. The first two had been principally disasters — 6.00 ERA and 6.0 BB/9 in 41 mixed outings, with 4 blown saves in 19 alternatives — however he’s been actually good this 12 months. This is classic Kimbrel, with a 0.78 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 23 innings.
Will the Cubs purchase or promote?
The Cubs, as at present constructed, completely may win the NL Central. This is just not a division the place it’s going to take 100 wins to safe a title. It’s solely potential that the division champ winds up with 91 or 92 wins. The Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers — all three groups enter play Thursday inside a pair of video games of one another — are all very flawed groups. The Reds are gifted, however already 5 video games beneath .500 and 7 out of first place, they usually have contract points of their very own, primarily Nick Castellanos’ opt-out after this season.
A division title could be nice, of course. But getting by way of the NL playoffs and to the World Series — with the Dodgers and/or Padres as big hurdles — is a a lot completely different problem than successful the NL Central. It’s exhausting to think about these Cubs stepping into the World Series as at present constructed. They’d want an ace like, I dunno, Yu Darvish.
And the alternative price may very well be nice. They already misplaced Lester and Schwarber with none type of return in any respect. Not getting something again for Schwarber, notably, exhibits the potential price of ready too lengthy; keep in mind when AL groups salivated over the thought of having him as their DH? They can not repeat these errors with Bryant, Baez and Rizzo, too. Not in the event that they wish to stay common World Series contenders.
Even getting draft-pick compensation for Bryant and/or Baez — Rizzo doesn’t appear prone to get a qualifying provide heading into his Age 32 season — appears like a less-than-ideal state of affairs, particularly with the uncertainty of what guarantees to be a contentious offseason when the collective bargaining settlement between MLB and the MLB Players Association runs out.
For the long-term well being of the franchise, it’s fairly clear that the greatest course of motion is to commerce as many of the productive veterans as potential. Bryant and Baez, notably, would fetch an honest return from contenders wanting so as to add bats in a 12 months when offensive manufacturing is down throughout the board. Contreras, along with his further 12 months of membership management and an influence bat from the catcher spot, has so much of worth. And what contender wouldn’t pay so as to add Kimbrel to the again of the bullpen whereas chasing a World Series title?
But can the Cubs actually commerce away these gamers — gamers who meant a lot to the most iconic workforce in the previous 100-plus years of franchise historical past — whereas the workforce is in first place, and even near first place?
That could be a troublesome tablet for Cubs followers to swallow, particularly as the season strikes on and Wrigley Field will get again towards full capability. “Welcome back, fans! We traded all your favorite players!” isn’t precisely an important slogan for a banner.
For now, there’s no huge rush. Maybe the Cubs will come again to earth a bit, and that bullpen — a set of 30-something pitchers, principally, which has been excellent — hits a tough stretch. Maybe they fall behind the Brewers and Cardinals by early July and trades turn into extra palatable. Maybe.
That’s why, as they are saying, they play the video games.