Javy Baez

Cubs still trying to break through on extension talks with current players

Cubs still trying to break through on extension talks with current players

SAN DIEGO — While the rest of the baseball world is occupying their time with free agent signings and trades, the Cubs have been waiting for their number to be called.

They've been trying to nail down extensions with key players that are only a couple years away from free agency, though nothing appears imminent on that front. 

Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber are all free agents after the 2021 season, leaving the Cubs two years to work out a deal or trade the player before losing them for nothing but a compensation pick. Willson Contreras is a free agent after 2022. Theo Epstein's front office reached a four-year, $55.5 million deal with Kyle Hendricks in spring training, extending his team control through the 2023 season.

The Cubs won't comment specifically on the current extension talks, but they'd ideally hope to wrap anything before spring training this year, so the players can focus solely on baseball by then.

"We always take the position of not commenting on extensions, but are we having those discussions? Yes," Jed Hoyer said Tuesday. "People focus so much on trades and free agent signings at these meetings, but all the agents are under the same roofs, also, and allows us to have those kinds of discussions. I'm not gonna specify who or what, but yeah certainly those conversations are ongoing."

Bryant has long been thought of as the toughest of the group to lock up long-term given that his agent, Scott Boras, typically advises clients to hit the open market and maximize their value. Boras reiterated Tuesday afternoon at the Winter Meetings he and Bryant are still open to extension talks with the Cubs.

Baez and Rizzo loom as the two most likely to extend their Wrigley Field stays, with the two emerging as the faces of the franchise in their own ways.

As the Cubs try to navigate an offseason where they're "serving two masters" (trying to compete in 2020-21 while also enhancing the long-term future of the franchise), a potential extension would check both boxes in a major way. If Hoyer and Theo Epstein knew Baez would be locking down shortstop and the middle of the lineup for the next six seasons, they could breathe a bit easier thinking about the big picture and long-term health of the franchise. 

At the same time, they can't operate as if anything is a certainty. Bryant could decide he likes the Cubs' offer and make Chicago his baseball home forever. Baez could conclude the opposite. 

It's what makes this particular offseason so tricky for the Cubs.

"We have to be able to have parallel tracks in our mind," Hoyer said. "We have to be able to do multiple things at once. It doesn't make it more difficult. We have a lot of really good players. We've had them for a long time. When we talk to these players about contracts, there's no player that we talk to that we haven't had a conversation with at some point before about a contract. 

"We've talked about these players for five years in some way, shape or form. When we sit down with these players, we're not covering a ton of new ground. We've already been over a lot of it. I think we're able to have parallel tracks."

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Epstein: Cubs 'not gonna force anything' on trade market this offseason


Epstein: Cubs 'not gonna force anything' on trade market this offseason

SAN DIEGO — In recent weeks, the expectations surrounding the Cubs offseason have crescendoed to the point where the question is not if they're going to trade a core player, but when

The writing has been on the wall teasing a major move, both from the Cubs themselves and from word around baseball published in national and local reports.

Following a disappointing 84-win season that somehow ended in a fashion that made the tail end of 2018 look like a smashing success in comparison, Theo Epstein called for change in every corner of the organization. That's manifested itself in a new manager, a new coaching staff, a complete restructuring of the player development and scouting departments and even a shakeup on the training staff. 

But as of yet, the roster remains unchanged — apart from the handful of players that hit free agency after the World Series ended. 

A team's 25-man (now 26-man) roster is constantly evolving, but if the Cubs return largely the same team that crumbled down the stretch last year, how can that bring about the change they desire? Then again, what's the point in making a move just to make a move?

"We're not gonna force anything," Epstein said Monday on the first day of MLB's Winter Meetings. "We're not gonna make change just for change's sake. I do think we can benefit from some change in certain areas and we are interested in pursuing some opportunities — opportunities to get better immediately and opportunities to make our future healthier as well. 

"But you can't force anything. You have to be realistic about the market that you're in and what opportunities come, but there are a lot of promising leads out there. Obviously we haven't gotten anything to the point of consummating a deal yet, but we're at the early stages of the offseason for us at this point, still."

In other words, the Cubs aren't going to sell off Kris Bryant or Willson Contreras or anybody else just to shake up the roster. They're only going to do it if some other team meets their asking price or returns fair value for the player they'd be trading away. 

That being said, the Cubs probably could use a shakeup to their core of players. Maybe "complacent" is too strong of a word to use regarding how the team has struggled to reproduce 2016's epic World Series run, but it also might be the best word to sum up the "winner's trap" Epstein detailed the day after the season ended

Everybody knew the bill would come due for the Cubs like this eventually. That's what happens when you have a wave of prospects all make their big-league debut around the same period of time — they all run out of club control at the same time. Coupled with the looming expiration of Anthony Rizzo's team-friendly contract and the tail end of the Jon Lester and Jose Quintana deals and the window is closing on the Cubs. 

If the last couple seasons had gone differently, maybe there would be an easier case to be made that the Cubs shouldn't be thinking about selling off parts and changing the roster and instead, adding to the group and going all-in for another couple championship runs before the window of contention runs out.

But watching the way the last two Septembers have unfolded and examining how the Cubs have fallen short of expectations each season, it's been apparent something had to be done differently. Epstein's front office can no longer simply expect the talent they have on the roster to carry the team into another National League Championship Series or beyond.

That's why they're focused this winter on not only improving the wins column for the 2020 team, but also looking at the bigger picture. They are not going to mortgage the future to go all-in on only the next two seasons.

That makes for a tricky and complicated offseason. It's hard to envision the Cubs being a better team in 2020 if they get rid of players like Bryant or Contreras. But it's also become clear that they're not just an addition or two away from being a legitimate World Series contender, so they need to focus more long-term.

"It's often the case where you're trying to serve multiple masters," Epstein said. "Or you have to manage different parts of the roster, manage different windows, different periods of time, try to build health in the organization, put an emphasis on young players while simultaneously polish the major-league roster. It's not that uncommon. 

"We knew this day was coming where we'd be reaching a period where we had just a couple years left of control on a lot of really good players and there were always gonna be challenging decisions that came along with it. We're just getting closer to that period of time. But it's something we've all been thinking about for a long period of time. It's not sneaking up on anybody."

When the MLB Winter Meetings were last in San Diego, the Cubs made waves by adding Joe Maddon as the manager and Jon Lester as the big-name free agent. With Bryant and a slew of elite prospects exploding onto the scene in their first big-league seasons, the talk around this franchise started including a word that is not thrown around lightly in sports. 

Fast forward five years and the Cubs are clearly not in the midst of a dynasty. Four straight trips to the playoffs, three straight trips to the NLCS and a World Series ring are nothing to sneeze at, but all those accomplishments are going on three or four seasons old at this point. 

The new world order in Cubdom is trying to serve those two masters Epstein spoke about — competing in a wide-open division in 2020 while also ensuring the longer-term health of the franchise is in a better spot than it currently sits. 

Cubs 'open-minded' on where Nico Hoerner fits in 2020 equation

Cubs 'open-minded' on where Nico Hoerner fits in 2020 equation

The MLB offseason is a month old, but we still don't have any clear answers on what the 2020 Cubs roster will look like.

So much of that depends on the trade market and who Theo Epstein's front office deals away and what they get in return. 

One of the other major contributing factors is Nico Hoerner and how the Cubs view him. Will the impressive rookie make the Opening Day roster? Will he see more work at second base or center field or both? 

At some point next year, it seems likely Hoerner will be the everyday second baseman with Javy Baez manning shortstop. That path was made simpler when the Cubs parted ways with Addison Russell earlier this week. 

But will the Cubs want Hoerner to start the year in Triple-A Iowa — a level he skipped over in September when he was tasked with filling in for the injured Baez — to continue his development?

"It's a great question and I don't think one that I can answer that well right now," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said last month. "All I can say is that his timetable obviously was faster than we ever expected being in a pennant race and necessity of Javy going down and Addy going down, it sort of forced our hand to do that. And Dixon Machado was injured. We put Nico in a really challenging spot and he couldn't have responded better. His makeup, competitiveness is fantastic; his poise was really impressive. 

"Clearly he exceeded our expectations in that spot. What that means going forward, I can't answer at this point. But I think it's safe to say we hold him in incredibly high regard and whatever number of games in September that he played in — I'm still incredibly impressed that he can go from being at home to starting the next night and performing the way he did."

The 22-year-old former first-round pick hit .282 with 3 homers and 17 RBI in his first 20 big-league games while playing solid defense at shortstop and earning praise from veterans in the clubhouse for his energy, work ethic and the spark he provided the team down the stretch. 

If Hoerner was a shoo-in to make the Opening Day roster, that would change the equation for the Cubs this winter as they look to build their 26-man squad. But 20 games isn't a huge sample size and he may well need more time down in the minor leagues to refine his offensive approach and defensive versatility.

"We haven't figured that out yet," Epstein said at the GM Meetings. "I think you could make strong arguments on both sides, whether he should be part of the club on Opening Day or a little bit more seasoning [in the minors]. I think a lot will depend on what else we do and yeah, sure, what type of spring training you have might be a factor as well. We're not at the point where we're ready to make that decision yet, but we're open-minded."

As it stands right now, the Cubs' position player group is pretty locked down everywhere but second base and center field. Barring a trade that opens up another hole on the roster, those are the two spots Epstein's front office will look to upgrade this winter after subpar production in 2019. If they felt confident enough in Hoerner to pencil him in as the starting second baseman, that would erase a need and allow the front office to focus on outfield and the pitching staff.

Hoerner might also be a factor in the center field equation. He got some work there in the minors last season and started a game in center on the final weekend of the MLB season in St. Louis.

The Cubs still have Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ on the roster to play center field and they can also shift Jason Heyward over there if there's a corner outfielder that makes sense to add this winter. 

At second base, there's still a long list of names even after Russell's departure — David Bote, Daniel Descalso, Tony Kemp, Robel Garcia and maybe even Happ could be in the second base picture. 

Hoerner has the most upside out of that group (the Cubs don't view Happ's long-term position on the infield), but the rookie is also currently the top backup to Baez at shortstop and figures to play multiple positions under new manager David Ross.

"He needs more reps," Hoyer said. "Obviously there's rough edges that we can smooth out there, but the fact that he's willing to [play multiple positions] says a lot about who he is as a competitor. I think he has a chance to be good at one position, but he also has a chance to move around the diamond and really help us in a lot of ways that way, too.

"He's not a finished product and defensively, he'll continue to get better and better. Defense in the big leagues is something that keeps improving with instruction and reps. But I thought he handled himself really well."

Offensively, Hoerner is exactly the type of hitter the Cubs are looking for as they attempt to diversify the lineup. He is contact-oriented with elite hand-eye coordination and an ability to battle with two strikes and put the ball in play. Hoerner also uses the whole field and has a line-drive approach — skills that should help an offense that has too often been all-or-nothing the last couple seasons.

That all adds up to Hoerner slotting in as an important long-term piece of the puzzle and the Cubs eventually handing him the keys to an everyday role, though that might not be from Day 1 of the 2020 season.