As the Cubs seek to improve a 95-win team without adding significantly to an already bloated payroll, the same names are usually bandied about in trade rumors.
Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr. and Addison Russell went through this last year, so no doubt they’re used to it. None has reached his potential yet, so their trade value isn’t as high as it should be for a former first-round draft pick.
Should the Cubs part with one of their All-Stars, getting back more talent than they’d receive for a lesser player and sending a shock wave through the organization?
That’s unlikely to happen, of course, even as President Theo Epstein insisted Wednesday night at the general mangers meetings there are no “untouchables” on the Cubs roster.
“We’ve never operated with untouchables,” Epstein said. “I think it sends the wrong message. The guys who (would be), given what we’re trying to accomplish, (it) would be virtually impossible to envision a deal that would make sense to move them. But I just don’t believe in operating with untouchables because why limit yourself in any way?
“There are guys that are so important to us on the field and in the clubhouse, it would be going backwards through whatever lens, narrow view or long view, of moving most guys. There are players that’ve almost made themselves untouchable, but it’s semantics.”
Consider those four virtual untouchables, along with Kyle Hendricks and veteran Jon Lester, who has a no-trade clause. Jason Heyward has a partial no-trade clause, giving him the ability to block trades to 12 clubs in 2019-20. Besides, his contract makes him virtually unmovable, just like Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood.
Everyone else should be fair game this winter.
Epstein admitted they’ve “very quietly made runs at some of our players to get a long-term extension and haven’t been able” to consummate a deal.
“That doesn’t mean we won’t,” he said. “But it’s proven more difficult than we expected in some cases.”
Rizzo may be the most underpaid Cub aside from Baez, who made only $657,000 during an MVP-caliber season and should earn between $6 million and $7 million next year in his first year of arbitration.
Rizzo signed a seven-year, $41 million deal in 2013 that includes option years of $14.5 million in 2020 and 2021, a contract that’s a significant bargain for the Cubs in light of escalating salaries since ’13.
That’s why most players are willing to wait for free agency, knowing a mega-deal is possible. It’s no secret the Cubs have tried to extend Bryant, whose agent, Scott Boras, usually lets his clients enter free agency. Bryant will reach after 2021.
“KB is really focused on bouncing back from the year that he had, the injury issue he had, and having a big season,” Epstein said of possible extension talks. “I’m not saying we won’t, but our focus right now is on helping our guys have big years this year.”
Other than Heyward’s $184 million deal, the Cubs have prioritized starting pitchers when shelling out the big bucks. Lester, Darvish and Cole Hamels will combine to make $62.5 million in 2019. In comparison, the entire White Sox roster on Aug. 31, before rosters expanded, totaled $71.3 million.
The Cubs have drafted plenty of pitchers the last seven years, but none has developed into a major-league starter in Chicago.
“Of course we want more out of our homegrown pitching, and I think we will have more going forward,” Epstein said. “But we also built around homegrown bats and built a nucleus that way, knowing that in our minds the right strategic move was to develop bats and acquire pitching that was already good or about to become good, and more known commodities.
“If you look at our pitching record, it’s really good. It’s expensive.”
Epstein said Monday “the time for that talent to translate into performance is now … or else we’re going to be looking at some hard realities and the need for a lot of change going forward.” That could be interpreted as a message to his young players: It’s time to start producing or you’re gone.
But Epstein said Wednesday he wasn’t trying to send a message but was simply being honest about the business of baseball in 2019.
“I don’t believe in sending messages through the media,” he said. “I just believe in communicating — not in the media (but) directly with players — about where we think they should be in their careers and validate the things they’re doing really well and identify the things they need to do better and try to work with them to make sure that happens.
“They all understand that like all of us, their careers depend on performance. … It’s a business. That’s the reality.”