The 3 Core Cubs Players Theo Epstein Should Extend This Offseason
Between Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, and Willson Contreras, which players should Theo Epstein and the Cubs extend this winter?
It’s obvious some changes are needed this offseason after a third consecutive season in which the Cubs have not made the NLDS in the midst of their competitive window. While I brought up last month that trading Yu Darvish is an avenue Theo Epstein should explore for a fast-paced rebuild, it’s probably not going to happen (read the article as to why).
The more likely scenario is extending two or three of ‘the core’ (Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras, and Kyle Schwarber) and trading the others either this offseason or at next season’s trade deadline. But the question is: who? Which of those five guys should the Cubs extend? I dive into the pros and cons of each below.
If there’s any Cubs player that would be labeled “Mr. Cub” since the great Ernie Banks, it’s Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo exhibits perfect off-the-field characteristics, is beloved by both Cubs fans and the media, and is without a doubt the leader in that clubhouse. Make no mistake, Anthony Rizzo is the face of the Chicago Cubs organization (regardless of what the cover of MLB The Show might indicate).
Oh, and he’s a pretty damn good baseball player too. In his nine seasons with the Cubs, Rizzo has had a wRC+ lower than 117 just twice (2013 and 2020). He’s also been between 134 and 155 five times. That puts Rizzo among the top 10-30 hitters in MLB each of those seasons. Rizzo has not only been the most consistent of this core, he’s been as consistent as any player in MLB since 2014. Those are the facts.
The Cubs Should Not Overlook Rizzo’s Defense
While Rizzo’s noted back issues are a legitimate concern, especially for a player that will be reaching age 32 once he hits free agency, he plays a position that is father time-friendly. At first base, you can still be exceptional defensively as you age and lose athleticism. This is because, with the exception of the lateral movement needed to field balls hit toward second base, most of the position’s defensive value requires little movement (i.e. picking balls in the dirt).
It’s also not like Rizzo’s defensive worth up to this point in his career has been due to his athleticism. He already excels at the aspects of the position that do not fade with age. Because of this, I firmly believe Anthony Rizzo will be largely the same defensive player in five years as he is now.
Other than Rizzo’s history with back injuries, there’s really no downside to extending him. In addition to what I’ve already stated, Rizzo is the type of hitter profile the Cubs need more of. Compared to the rest of the Cubs’ lineup since 2018, Rizzo has a relatively high contact rate (81.8% to the team’s 74.6%) and a relatively low swinging strike rate (8.3% to the team’s 11.9%). Getting rid of Rizzo does not solve the Cubs’ lineup diversification issue; it amplifies them. Extend him, Cubs.
Kris Bryant has been the best player of this core in totality and it’s not particularly close. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s in the Cubs’ best interest to extend him. Because there are so many factors for and against committing long-term money to Bryant, he deserved an entire article for himself.
After a brutal 2020 campaign, Cubs fans are much less confident in Javy’s future with the organization than they were at this time last year. This is no surprise, as 2020 highlighted all of Baez’s plate discipline and inconsistency issues. If we’re being realistic, I believe Baez is much closer to a league-average hitter than he is an elite hitter, as I wrote about last month.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean Theo Epstein should trade him or let him walk after 2021. As I stated in that article, Baez is arguably the best defensive shortstop in MLB. After leading his position in DRS in 2019, he finished third in 2020. Baez is the only shortstop to finish in the top four both seasons. Ergo, best defensive shortstop in MLB.
While shortstop obviously doesn’t bode well with father time due to the lateral movement the position requires, I envision it not being as much of an issue with Baez. This is because I don’t think Baez’s athleticism is the driving factor behind his defensive prowess. It sure helps, but Baez’s quick hands and cannon for an arm contribute far more. He’s as smooth as it gets at shortstop, and I don’t believe that will fade much with age. He’s also been very durable in his career, with the exception of the end of last season. While some regression is likely, I believe Javier Baez will still be a top tier defensive shortstop five years from now.
The Cubs Likely Cannot Replace Baez’s Skillset
It’s also worth noting that Baez will likely be much cheaper than most Cubs fans realize. This is largely because of what I wrote about in the aforementioned article. Baez is a career 101 wRC+ offensive player. Nothing about that fact warrants top dollar.
However, Baez’s defensive capability at a premium defensive position, along with his elite baseball instincts, makes his skillset the hardest to replace among the core. An elite defensive shortstop who puts up good (not great) offensive numbers is an invaluable asset. Theo Epstein and the Cubs should extend Javier Baez.
To me, Kyle Schwarber has been far and away the biggest disappointment of this core (aside from Addison Russell, of course). Schwarber was nothing short of miraculous his rookie season in 2015. He posted a 131 wRC+ and hit five home runs in that postseason run to the NLCS. Think that’s not a big deal? This tweet proves otherwise.
Kyle Schwarber also came back to DH for the Cubs in the 2016 World Series after a “season-ending” ACL tear in April. While most players would struggle mightily, he posted a jaw-dropping .971 OPS. Theo Epstein deemed that a “heroic act” in his end-of-season press conference. Schwarber saw only one week of live pitching before performing at the highest level under the most pressure-filled circumstances. I mean, that is truly an incredible feat. Schwarber was viewed as a once-in-a-decade type of hitter after that 2016 postseason, and rightfully so.
But ever since then, he’s just not lived up to that bill. After a very down 2017 season in which he hit only 3% above league average, Schwarber put up a modest 115 and 120 wRC+ in 2018 and 2019. Those are very good offensive performances, but not close to what he was thought to be. Cubs fans started to see that “once-in-a-decade” type of potential again after the trade deadline in the 2019 season. Schwarber posted a 159 wRC+, the best two-month stretch of his career.
Kyle Schwarber’s Bat just Hasn’t Been Good Enough
I, along with many Cubs fans, expected Schwarber to carry that sensational two-month performance into the 2020 campaign. Nope. Instead, he turned in the worst results of his career, accumulating a 90 wRC+ and a .701 OPS. Schwarber’s struggles this past season are also indicative of this entire lineup’s downfall the past three years. Way too much swing and miss; not enough consistent contact.
To make matters worse, Schwarber actually has a worse career contact rate (72.2 %) than the Cubs as a whole since 2018 (74.6 %), which is second-worst in MLB in that timeframe. So, to put it bluntly, not only has Schwarber underperformed relative to his expectations, he’s also the type of hitter profile Theo Epstein and the Cubs need to move away from.
There are extraneous circumstances that could change my mind on Kyle Schwarber’s future with the Cubs. Is the DH going to be permanent in the NL? Is the shift going to be banned? A yes to either of these questions significantly alters Schwarber’s long-term value, as he is still a below-average defender (albeit much improved) and hits into the shift at an infuriating rate. But if I’m Theo Epstein, I’d need a yes on both of those questions to keep Kyle Schwarber around after 2021. If you’re going to struggle at tracking down fly balls to the extent you need a defensive replacement in every close game in which the Cubs have a lead, your bat needs to be lethal. Schwarber’s hasn’t been.
Willson Contreras has the highest trade value, by far, of the core due to having one extra year of service time (he’s not a free agent until after the 2022 season). He’s also the only player of this core that seems to improve, whether offensively or defensively, every single offseason. Because of this high market value, like Kris Bryant, Willy deserved an entire article for himself.
Theo Epstein and the Cubs Have Themselves to Blame
While the focus of this article is to convince you that Theo Epstein and the Cubs should extend Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo, and Javier Baez, there’s one fact that should not be overlooked: The Cubs are at fault for putting themselves in this position.
From an organizational standpoint, you should never allow your entire positional core to reach free agency at the same time. Why didn’t Theo Epstein extend or trade one or two of these guys in the past couple of offseasons? I don’t know.
But his negligence in that regard has put the Cubs in an almost impossible position this offseason. The future of this organization is very uncertain, but it’s Theo’s job to put his best foot forward and set the Cubs up for future success. Get it done, Theo.