MESA, Ariz. — MVP runner-up Javy Baez and right-hander Kyle Hendricks say they’d welcome the chance to discuss multiyear extensions, and they’re the likeliest to be approached the next time the Cubs start chatting up agents about extensions, which often happens about this time of year.
Not that such talks have gone anywhere for the Cubs the last few years.
But could the timing be right for a change in that trend after back-to-back years of slow, suppressed free-agent markets?
“In recent years, we’ve very quietly made runs at some of our players to get a long-term extension done,” team president Theo Epstein said. “We haven’t been able to.”
The notable exception was Anthony Rizzo’s seven-year deal in 2013. Kris Bryant, on the other hand, has chosen to leverage the arbitration process and is expected to test free agency when he becomes eligible after 2021 — after the additional year of control the Cubs assured by manipulating his service time as a rookie.
“It’s proven to be more difficult than we expected in some cases,” Epstein said.
But the deep freeze of the last two free-agent markets has sent a chill through a lot of potential free agents and is beginning to rile the union rank-and-file at large.
Third baseman Nolan Arenado, who would be the top free agent next winter, is reportedly in deep talks with the Rockies on a potential long-term extension. Phillies ace Aaron Nola, in his first winter of arbitration eligibility, signed away his arbitration years and potentially two free-agency years this month by agreeing to a four-year, $45 million deal that includes a club option.
“You might see that trend now with the way things are going,” said Cubs ace Jon Lester, an outspoken critic of the sudden shift in industrywide team behavior the last two winters.
Dozens of players, including stars Bryce Harper, Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel, remain unsigned.
“You’re almost getting punished to go through that process and become a free agent at 28, 29. And you’re fighting for three-year deals,” said Lester, who signed a six-year, $155 million deal in December 2014.
Neither Epstein nor other team execs will discuss their strategies, nor talk about plans for individual players.
But Hendricks, the youngest starter on the staff with a year left of arbitration, and Baez, with two left, are top targets because of their service levels and track records.
While neither has been approached to discuss offers yet, they said, there might not be a better time, given the current labor climate.
“You have to look at what’s going on around the league, for sure,” Hendricks said of players weighing extension offers against free agency. “You have to educate yourself on things that have happened in the past and what the market looks like now, then make the best decision possible.”
For the Cubs, the math isn’t hard to do. If they want to keep this group together and try to extend their competitive window, they’ll need to buy more pitching in the next two years. And expiring contracts alone might not provide enough room in a payroll budget that is already tapped this year and well beyond the $206 million luxury-tax threshold.
What seems certain is that Hendricks and Baez are willing.
“I’ve said that to them; I would love to stay here,” said Hendricks, who earns $7.4 million this year. “I’ve loved every second of my time in Chicago. I love the city, I love the fans, and just the opportunity they’ve given me, trading for me and having faith in me when I first got brought up. I don’t want to go anywhere else.”
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Baez, 26, made $5.2 million in his first winter of arbitration eligibility after making his first All-Star team last summer.
“I would love to stay here my whole career,” he said. “But we’ll see what happens on the business side.”