One more big free agent in the works for the Cubs once the labor lockout ends?
A half-hour negotiation with David Ross on a contract extension?
And another selloff at the trade deadline — if not as shocking as in 2021 — for another Cubs roster built for a selloff?
Or how about Marcus Stroman leading an overachieving Cubs team into an expanded 2022 playoff field, with a few trade-deadline additions along the way?
With the start of the New Year comes NBC Sports Chicago’s annual bold predictions for the lockout duration and what comes next for the Cubs — in other words, David Kaplan’s, Gordon Wittenmyer’s and Tim Stebbins’ annual exercise of throwing darts in a hurricane.
Listen to the full discussion on all the predictions on the Cubs Talk Podcast (link below).
How long will the lockout last?
KAP: I don’t know when talks are going to start, No. 1. And at this point in time I truly think they are so tone-deaf on both sides — owners and the commissioner on one side, players and union leader Tony Clark on the other — that I don’t think we’ll reach an agreement until Feb. 21.
TIM: I’ve been saying I don’t think it’s going to affect spring training. Now I might go along with Kap, but differently in the sense that I think they can get a deal done by the first spring game but that I don’t think that game will be played obviously. The sides reportedly have talked twice since the lockout started Dec. 2, but none of those talks have been on economic issues. I’m going to go with the last day in February.”
GORDON: Yeah, to your guys’ points, whenever they get deal done, they’ll have to allow at least another week or so just to open camps. And I think they’re going to need at least a month to get close to bridging their huge economic differences. It also figures to be a bitter process with ugly leaks, making a monthlong process sound pretty optimistic. Spring training will get delayed for sure, and I think long enough that the season won’t start any sooner than mid-April.
Do we think an extension for manager David Ross gets done before a CBA deal is reached?
KAP: I think it’s a bad look if they’re worried about taking care of that stuff. So I think they probably will have a handshake deal but won’t announce it until after there’s a CBA.
TIM: Yeah, if they announce a Ross extension before a new CBA’s in place, in theory because it’s not player-related, we might assume there would be a press conference, right — some kind of opportunity to talk to Ross. As Kap is implying, they wouldn’t be able to talk about the CBA, and a conversation with Ross would tend to include a lot of that talk: "How do these guys prepare?" "How do you prepare as a manager without being able to communicate with players?" Usually with the Cubs they talk about extensions in spring training, and that’s probably when this happens: Camp opens, and here we go.
GORDON: I keep looking back to the end of the season when Ross and Jed Hoyer both were very casual and breezy in talking about their preliminary discussions. Neither was concerned about something getting done, and there’s no indication of any tension that would suggest a problem. I don’t think money’s an issue, and the length is probably going to be pretty standard, a couple of years. It’ll probably take a half-hour to get done once they decide to talk numbers, and then probably gets announced immediately after the new CBA is done.
How much more do the Cubs add to the roster once the lockout ends and the next free agency frenzy begins?
KAP: I think they add fairly significantly in terms of numbers of players, and I think there’s at least one really big move — whether that big move is as big as Carlos Correa or a big smaller for less money and shorter terms with Trevor Story. Someone like that will get done. I don’t think they’re going 10 years on Correa, but if he said, “I’ll take a seven-year deal and give me an opt-out,” I think they would do that. And if not something like that, I do think they could make a move for Trevor Story and rebuild their bullpen on the fly and then add one more player. That’s probably what they do.
TIM: I think they grab a veteran or two for the bullpen, maybe a substantive name for the back end, a middle- to back-end guy who’s got experience to put with the young arms we already see out there. And then you need a bat; and a shortstop. Correa is the perfect answer there, but I’m not sure how realistic that is. Maybe you look at the outfield for another potential power bat.
GORDON: Obviously, the shortstop is the key. And so is the economic system that winds up in the new CBA. I’d be shocked if that luxury tax threshold isn’t at least significantly higher. And if that’s the case, there are going to be teams out there that are prepared to spend, which means when it comes to Correa somebody is going to offer him what he wants. And that’s going to put him out of the Cubs’ comfort zone. Story becomes the guy then, and his market at that point could get too rich fast for the Cubs’ appetite. So I see a bunch of short-term deals. I do see them adding numbers, but I don’t see the big one.
So how much guaranteed money does Correa wind up getting from somebody when it’s all said and done?
KAP: Corey Seager got $325 million for 10 years. I think Correa will sign for $340 million.
GORDON: I’ll go higher than that. I was going to suggest $350 million, and that’s a decent estimate for the current system under the last CBA. A few teams already have landed their big shortstops, with Texas signing Seager, and Detroit spending $140 million on Javy. So there’s fewer potential bidders, but the new system could allow the bigger market teams more freedom to spend. I think $350 million, even $360 million, could be his number for a 10-year deal.
TIM: It depends on what the new luxury-tax system is, but my baseline starts with him getting more than Seager. The first number that jumps out at me is $345 million. That would give him more than Francisco Lindor [10 years, $341 million from the Mets].
Who signs first among the big ex-Cubs still out there: Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber or Nick Castellanos?
KAP: Schwarber. I just have a gut feeling that he’s going to the Phillies or the Red Sox, one of those two and that a deal was close before the lockout hit.
TIM: I’ve always been a Schwarber defender when everyone wants to put him in the DH box. But that is the expectation coming out of this CBA negotiation: that we’ll have a universal DH. And we already saw teams like the Phillies and even the Rockies linked to him before the lockout, so I think he’s going to have a fiery market for teams that want to act quickly on a lefty bat. And any qualms people have about him playing in the field go out the window with the DH in place.
GORDON: Agree that we all expect the DH to be there. And even though I don’t think that’s a huge philosophy changer for NL teams seeking a bat, it definitely doesn’t hurt Schwarber’s market. He was already in hot talks with the Phillies. So I have a hard time arguing with your logic on this one, Kap — which might be a first. Maybe more compelling to watch is how the market plays out for the three others. I think Rizzo is the last of the group to sign unless he aggressively makes himself available to somebody on a team-friendly deal, and Bryant might be right behind Schwarber with a hot market, given his versatility and impact bat.
Finally, as we sit here right now, with the players locked out in early January, what’s the likeliest outcome for the Cubs — winners or losers, buyers or sellers?
KAP: I don’t think they’re winners. I don’t think they’re losers. I think they’re better than people expect them to be, but they’re not like a really, “Oh, my goodness, they’re buying at the deadline.” Maybe they’ll buy a reliever, but they’re not investing big. I’ll be surprised if they’re selling to the degree that we’ve seen.
GORDON: Way to go out on a limb, big guy. They traded nine guys, including five All-Stars, leading up to the deadline last year.
KAP: I’m talking about like what we saw in ’12, ’13, ’14. Scott Feldman comes in and, bam, he was signed to be traded. They’re looking to build something a little quicker than that.
GORDON: They’re built to sell off again. Back on those years, one of their big rebuilding tools was the flip-guy method. Now it seems to be flip teams, flip rosters, until they get the pieces that they want to stick in place. They look like they could compete early like they did last year, but maybe try to weather a mid-season rough stretch this time and try to make an expanded playoff field. If Stroman’s pitching well, and can win a Game 1 for you, that gives you a chance in any series (especially with Kyle Hendricks in one of those first two games).
TIM: I agree that with all the short-term deals, like you said, Gordon, it’s kind of made to sell. But what does the playoff picture look like? If it’s 14 teams or even 12? The Cubs went 4-15 against the Brewers last year, and you’ll have an uptick there in some areas. With Wade Miley, Hendricks and Stroman, there’s a possible scenario — don’t get me wrong; it would take a really, really good scenario — where that’s 15 wins apiece. They have some pieces where they could be there, depending on the size of the playoff field, but even if not, I don’t think we’ll see the roster get blown up.