A Cubs winter that has been all about unsavory money issues just soured a little more Friday when the team was unable to reach agreement at the filing deadline with outfielder Ian Happ and is preparing for just its third arbitration hearing since 1993.
Happ, the Cubs’ union representative, took a hard line in his first winter of arb eligibility during the most unpredictable offseason for cases since the earliest years of the 47-year-old process — one major-league official calling the challenge of finding comparisons and negotiating positions after a 60-game season “bizarre.”
Most eligible players still ended up with 2021 agreements by the end of deadline day, including the four other eligible Cubs who entered the day unsigned: third baseman Kris Bryant ($19.5 million), shortstop Javy Baez ($11.65 million), newly acquired starting pitcher Zach Davies ($8.63 million) and catcher Willson Contreras ($6.65 million).
One agent who went through the process Friday said that despite the unprecedented challenges on both sides, teams seemed to be flexible and sympathetic to the context of the short season and COVID-19 impact on players.
Bryant and Baez, who have five All-Star selections, an MVP award and an MVP runner-up finish between them, each had miserable offensive seasons in 2020 but got raises of $900,000 and $1.65 million, respectively, over their 2020 base salaries.
Both are entering their walk years before free agency, as is Davies (who was acquired from the Padres in last month’s Yu Darvish salary-dump trade). Contreras is under club control through 2022.
Happ, who was in early MVP conversation halfway through the short season before slumping, was one of only 13 players who did not reach agreements with their teams in time to avoid filing for arbitration hearings.
The sides ultimately finished the day officially $850,000 apart, with Happ filing a figure of $4.1 million; the Cubs, $3.25 million.
Arbitrators must choose one figure or the other after hearing arguments from both sides.
Although sides technically have until a hearing starts to avoid that process and reach a settlement, all 30 teams have adopted in recent years “file-and-trial” policies that cut off negotiations once figures are filed, with rare case-by-case exceptions. The Cubs say they do not expect this to be one of those exceptions.
The Cubs are 5-2 all-time in arbitration hearings, including beating reliever Justin Grimm in 2018 and shortstop Ryan Theriot in 2010 in their only two hearings since Mark Grace lost to the team in 1993.
With spring training camps scheduled to open in about a month, health and safety permitting, Friday marked the final significant deadline for payroll matters, particularly as teams measure spending ability in a very slow-moving winter with a lot of revenue uncertainty still in play for 2021.
The Cubs still have not added a significant player to the organization since the departures of Jon Lester and Jose Quintana to free agency, Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora to a non-tender decision and Darvish and Victor Caratini in a trade.
Friday’s agreements mean the cost-cutting Cubs have 12 players signed to big-league contracts for a total 2021 commitment of $119.89 million, before including Happ, pre-arbitration players and anyone they might add from the outside.
All but Jason Heyward (2023), Kyle Hendricks (2023) and David Bote (2024) are signed only through this season — providing as much roster flexibility as uncertainty long-term.
For a team that won the National League Central in 2020 and insists it expects to compete again in 2021 despite payroll-slashing behavior to the contrary, Friday’s events leave two big questions beyond the results of Happ’s hearing:
How much room in the budget do the Cubs have now to add anything of significance to fill rotation, bullpen, outfield and catching needs?
And how many of those who signed Friday will survive the winter trade market to open the 2021 season?
For how close the baseball calendar is to the start of spring training, the offseason for the Cubs might just be starting.