This segment has previously been reserved for playoff odds (85.8 percent per Baseball Prospectus) and other statistical folderol, but I chose to focus this time on something even more theoretical: contract extensions. That topic is, after all, the soft, white underbelly of the Cubs’ success. Part and parcel with a nucleus of young talent is the eventual need to pay those players at a level commensurate with their value, which baseball’s salary structure dictates will be a massive leap from their current salaries.
Consider that Kris Bryant’s $1.05 million is the highest ever given to a second-year player (based on service-time guidelines). That might sound like a lot for you — not for me, though, since bloggers get fat paid — but it’s a pittance when compared to the MVP’s career production. Using a relatively conservative estimate of $7 million per win created, Bryant’s 15 fWAR (6.6 as rookie, 8.4 last year) has been worth about $105 million to the Cubs.
But even an extension offer in that low nine-figure range would be laughed off by a player who could be worth as much as four times that by the time he’s eligible for free agency in 2022. And based on what we learned from SI’s Tom Verducci, that may have been exactly what happened this winter. Verducci reports that the Cubs “made runs at extending several of their young players,” but “every one of those efforts ‘got nowhere.’”
The Indians similarly struck out with phenom shortstop Francisco Lindor, himself a member of the ’22 free-agent class, who recently turned down a deal reported to have been around $100 million. While such a payday would represent a significant raise over what he’ll get through the next few years of discretionary raises and arbitration, Lindor doesn’t want to sell himself short of what he might be able to earn on the open market.
That’s the real draw, particularly when viewed in light of the air that’s about to be pumped into the free-agent bubble after this season. With players like Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, and maybe even Clayton Kershaw commanding monster deals, the market figures to skyrocket for younger guys who still have years to go before they see such greenery.
As Verducci notes, Harper and Machado are the real keys because of their relatively young ages upon reaching the upcoming free agency period. Just look at what we saw with the bidding for Jason Heyward, who, at only 26, was pulling in offers in the $200 million range. We could see numbers twice that come December, which is exactly why Bryant and Co. are choosing to forego extension talks for at least another year.
When it comes to the Cubs in particular, this shift in the market could present some very serious issues. In addition to Bryant (who will be 30 when he hits free agency), they’ve got Addison Russell (28) and Kyle Schwarber (29) to lock up, among others. It is not inconceivable to think that that trio alone could be worth a combined $85-100 million in average annual value, nearly half of the competitive balance tax threshold ($210 million in 2021).
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the Cubs have those players all under wraps for at least four more years at staggeringly low salaries (again, based on the value of their production). It’s also possible that the luxury tax bar for 2022 will be set significantly higher by the next CBA, thus allowing the Cubs more breathing room to fill out a decent roster while still allowing the aforementioned group to swim around in their Scrooge McDuck money.
All things considered, I can’t imagine any of these guys seriously discussing an extension until maybe 2020 or so. Scott Boras, who represents both Bryant and Russell, has said that he and Theo Epstein have talked about the MVP’s fit with the Cubs and that they’re “on the same page” in that regard, but that there’s been no real movement in terms of a true valuation. Boras has also speculated that perhaps three of the top seven members of 2021-22 free agent class will actually come close to the open market.
So this is all really a non-issue for at least the next several months. Once we see where the market goes this winter, however, things may start to get a little interesting.