A belief that Javier Baez will be extended by the Cubs at some point in 2020 isn’t exactly a groundbreaking take. Almost certainly the franchise’s most popular player, Javy provides an inexpressible joy to fans both on and off the field. Still just 27, he’s established himself as perhaps the most exciting player in the game, with a defensive acumen, huge swing, and overall charisma that’s impossible to replicate.
In short, the Cubs can’t afford to let Baez walk after 2021.
The inevitability of such an extension is largely an expression of outright faith, as I have no first-hand knowledge of how negotiations were going before MLB froze any roster transactions. This is, however, more than merely a gut feeling. Take the reality that, in an odd, maddening, frustrating Cubs winter of non-spending and trade speculation (yet again!), Baez’ name never materialized as a serious trade candidate. Or that he’s long expressed an interest and desire to play out his career in a Cubs uni — even if he understands the game as a business and could envision playing elsewhere.
Financially speaking, the Cubs currently have long-term flexibility even if their short-term outlook is (by ownership decree) bleak. Per Spotrac, the Cubs have ~$96 million in salary obligations in 2021 before the arbitration figures kick in. That arbitration list is long, impactful, and expensive. Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras, and Albert Almora will all be in at least year two of arbitration, while Ian Happ, Kyle Ryan, and Victor Caratini will commence their inaugural arbitration campaigns. Assuming the Cubs hold on to the vast majority of players still under team control, they’ll be paying a relative premium for several core players in various stages of arbitration.
Yet after 2021 the Cubs contract obligations are minimal, and locking up a face of the franchise is as doable as it is necessary.
While the Cubs will certainly find some wiggle room as contracts expire (Tyler Chatwood, the $15 million Jon Lester question, et al) they will also need to buttress the 25-man roster via free agency, the rotation in particular. Creativity, of course, will be paramount, so perhaps we’ll finally see some roster shakeup that’s been promised since the end of 2018. The fear of breaching the Luxury Tax in consecutive years is real, however, and we know for certain the Cubs won’t cross that line three years running. There’s also the question of what the front office might look like once Theo’s contract expires (after the 2021 season, fittingly in line with the majority of this core.)
And this circles us back to Baez.
Baez is the Face of the Franchise
Epstein’s tenure with the Cubs will endure because of 2016, even though some bad trades, free agent maneuverings, and administrative decisions over the past four seasons have soured that once pristine pedigree on the Northside. Even still, assuming Theo departs from the Cubs after his decade-long reign, he’ll want to leave the franchise in a place his successor can run with. A home grown, fan favorite superstar under a long-term contract fits the bill.
Realistically, Javy is 1) the most likely candidate to receive a mega-extension, 2) the best roster piece to extend a contract to, and 3) the player that would satisfy the fan base the most long-term. Certainly that third point isn’t an absolute, but it certainly won’t hurt matters that Javy happens to be the fan favorite.
I get some fans expect the Cubs to resign KB, too, yet every sign points to him inevitably walking. Coupling Bryant’s pedigree with agent Scott Boras, the ugly service-time manipulation of 2015 and its team friendly conclusion, and his experience as a player rep in the Union, it’s clear that KB both understands the business aspect of the game and is unafraid to seek out top dollar for his services.
Anthony Rizzo, meanwhile, could very well resign long-term — although another absurdly team friendly deal isn’t likely in the works. He’s as much of a linchpin to this organization as anyone else, for myriad reasons that need not be explained here. The lack of traction about an extension this off-season might portend trouble down the road, but I think this speaks more to the team’s current financial burdens than it does their interest in keeping The Captain on the Northside for the rest of his career.
Outside of Bryant — who will assuredly enter free agency — and Rizzo (who is poised to finish his career with the Cubs under an amicable contract) the Cubs don’t have any true superstar alternatives to sign long-term. This doesn’t ignore the impact of Schwarber as a possible long-term DH, or the value of a stud like Contreras. While I recognize the potential for Schwarber to become a long-term cog in the middle of the lineup, he isn’t in the same stratosphere as El Mago as an overall player. Contreras, for his gusto behind the plate and excitability and terrific bat, has a sordid injury history and may not stick at the catcher position as he approaches 30.
Baez’ breakout campaign offensively was certainly 2018, although his 2019 numbers offensively still produced a wRC+ of 114 and in his first full season at short we witnessed his true value with the glove. As he ages he’ll certainly lose a step or two, but we’re realistically looking at a player that will be elite defensively at a premium position for at least the next five seasons. After that, Javy will undoubtedly still provide defensive competency practically anywhere on the field.
And, to belabor the point, Baez is still just 27 years old. It stands to reason his offensive peak of 2018 was a harbinger, not a career high, and as he learns to temper his aggression just a touch we could see his OBP rise and strikeout rate drop while his power numbers remain consistent. It’s not outlandish to believe Javy has a couple of MVP seasons in front of him.
It’s hard to financially pinpoint what an extension for Baez might look like, especially given his contemporaries at short (Francisco Lindor in particular) are also staring at questionable futures. The Cubs don’t need a script to figure out the Baez contract saga, however. He’s indispensable, a singular talent that transcends his invaluable presence on the field.
A Javy Baez extension is, indeed, inevitable.
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