The Cubs have stated several times this offseason that they’re planning on competing in 2021, but their moves thus far resemble a team with a bigger focus on their future rather than their present.
Whatever route the Cubs plan to take, they can’t do either without building around a core player. Someone who can bridge the gap between the present and the future, especially with several members of the previous core set to become free agents at the end of the season.
Enter Javy Baez.
Despite the Cubs’ so-called financial issues, Baez’s forgettable 2020 season and looming free agency, it still would be in the best interest of both sides to get something done as they are better off together than apart.
“We have players on this roster that we’d love to have here for a long time,” president Jed Hoyer said earlier this offseason.
When the Cubs were building what would ultimately become a championship roster in 2012-14, the team decided to build around a young first baseman who would be a cornerstone of its success. That first baseman’s name was Anthony Rizzo.
While the situations are slightly different, the approach should be similar with their star shortstop. Baez, 28, has just entered his prime and having one of your cornerstones playing a premier position only helps their future roster construction.
By the time prospects like Miguel Amaya, Brennen Davis and Chase Strumpf are ready to play everyday in the big leagues, Baez will have just turned 30, and having an established All-Star shortstop to pair with a young core should help expedite the team’s retool.
Financially, a Baez extension wouldn’t put the team in a bind with money coming off the books at the end of the season. After various cost-cutting measures this offseason, the biggest being the trade of Yu Darvish, the Cubs have not only gotten under the luxury tax, but currently rank just 12th in MLB in team payroll.
According to Spotrac, it’s the first time the Cubs have been lower than fourth in MLB in payroll since 2017 and the first time out of the top 10 since 2015. With additional money coming off the books next season, finding the space to fit a new deal for Baez into the team’s future financial plans is more feasible today than it was over the last two years when the team was over the luxury tax.
For Baez, the appeal of getting a deal done early should be twofold. Most importantly, a contract extension offers him security, knowing that he’ll be a part of the Cubs’ future and be part of the next core that makes a deep postseason run. Getting a deal done prior to the collective bargaining agreement, which ends in December would add to that security, especially with a potential labor stoppage on the horizon.
The other side of that equation would be getting out of the way of what is shaping up to be one of the most talented free-agent classes we’ve seen. Unlike the Manny Machado/Bryce Harper class of 2018, next year’s free-agent class will include seven of MLB’s top 10 shortstops.
Baez will join Francisco Lindor, Trevor Story, Corey Seager and Carlos Correa on the market next offseason. Marcus Semien and Andrelton Simmons, who each signed one-year deals this week, also will be free agents.
Most free agents would wait things out and let someone set the market first before finding a deal. But based on recent free-agency trends over the last few seasons and baseball’s fluctuating economic landscape, there may be a benefit to jumping the market and getting something done as opposed to waiting and seeing who blinks first.
Here are the class’ base salaries for the 2021 season:
Lindor: $22.3 million
Semien: $18 million*
Story: $17.75 million
Seager: $13.75 million
Baez: $11.65 million
Simmons: $10.5 million*
Correa: $10 million**
**Arbitration estimate (Spotrac)
Lindor is the clear-cut and undisputed No. 1 shortstop in MLB and what he ultimately gets from the Mets via extension or in free agency should have little effect on the rest of the market. He’s also the only player on this list with the leverage to wait out the market comfortably.
After Lindor is where things start to get blurry. Story and Seager likely would follow, with Baez not far behind. Based on the upcoming salaries for this season and free-agent contracts that were signed last week, the going rate for a top-five shortstop will likely be in the $20 million average annual value (AAV) range. But because of all the things Baez does well, his value could be higher.
Here are a few metrics since Baez became a full-time shortstop in 2018:
Defensive runs saved (DRS)
Average Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+)
Baserunning runs above average (BsR)
Whether it’s right now or next winter, it’s clear that the Cubs and Baez are a match made for each other. Since Baez came into the league in 2014, his stardom has grown, and Chicago has become the perfect market for him to flourish into one of the game’s biggest superstars.
His effect also has come off the field. The Cubs’ 2021 international free-agent signee Cristian Hernandez, who scouts have come to know as “Baby A-Rod”, was very familiar with his new team because his favorite player happens to be Baez.
“I hope I never leave this city in my whole career, but anything can happen,’’ Baez said at the end of the 2020 season. ‘‘Hopefully, I [can] stay here my whole career.”
For a fan base in desperate need of something to smile about, that would be something everyone can agree on.