One non-specific answer during a nearly half-hour media Zoom session with Cubs president Jed Hoyer on Wednesday might have been the most revealing about the Cubs’ chances to extend any of their big-name pending free agents than anything else he said — if not about the organization’s larger intentions beyond 2021.
And if that’s the case, those chances don’t look especially promising, despite Hoyer’s assertion that he’s “very confident” he’ll be able to reach agreement with three-time All-Star Anthony Rizzo.
In fact, it may have less to do with Hoyer’s best efforts than ownership’s efforts to keep a lid on payroll during a pandemic and ahead of potentially contentious negotiations on a new labor contract.
Asked about extension scenarios with former MVP Kris Bryant and former MVP runner-up Javy Báez, Hoyer said:
“I would just say I’ve been in contact with both players’ agents, and we’ve had dialogue during the course of the spring.”
Those talks with Bryant’s agent, spanning the last three weeks, represent the first extension talks with Bryant in four years.
The club talked to Báez throughout last spring until the pandemic shut down the sport just over a year ago.
And we already know enough about talks with Rizzo this spring that we saw Rizzo in real-time Zoom declare Monday that he’s cut off talks after an unsatisfactory offer (believed to be no more than four years, $70 million).
Or, more precisely, don't.
As much as the Bryant revelation and Rizzo confidence might sound promising, consider that the sum total of talks with all three has resulted in one lowball offer to the one who projects as the easiest to sign.
And as the season starts Thursday, the clocks on all three decorated core players from the ’16 championship start ticking louder than they ever have, with little indication that the club seems willing to do anything about it.
“I don’t want to comment on every single guy, but obviously we weren’t able to reach extensions with this group during spring training,” Hoyer said. “But as with Anthony obviously we have a lot of great players that are in contract years, and certainly our hope is that we can have some of those players beyond 2021.”
Is it out of Hoyer’s hands? Hoyer’s best intentions to engage all three in talks in the months after replacing Theo Epstein as the baseball operations top boss might not matter as much as the Ricketts family’s intentions to rein in spending in the months after Tom Ricketts bemoaned the industry’s “biblical losses.”
“We’ve talked to him about this deal and his sincere hope is that we can get a deal done with him as well,” Hoyer said of Ricketts when asked about ownership’s role in the Rizzo talks.
Sincere hope sounds nice, especially alongside the Cubs’ lowest (non-prorated) Opening Day payroll in six years, barely three months after the salary-dump trade of Yu Darvish, the Cy Young runner-up who starts Thursday's opener for the Padres.
Hoyer’s desire to keep the club’s core players beyond 2021 definitely seems sincere, based not only on what he has said publicly but what insiders on both sides of talks have suggested.
There’s also a perception in the players’ camps that he doesn’t have enough financial bandwidth to push beyond a team-friendly deal, much less get aggressive — even with just $38.5 million in guaranteed salary commitments next year for three players.
Meanwhile, there’s as much projected revenue in this game moving out of the pandemic as there ever has been. And the Cubs, who charge as much for a ticket as anybody and who have a second-year TV network, make as much of that revenue as all but two or three teams in the game most years. And the next CBA is at least as likely to have much higher luxury-tax thresholds that might benefit bigger spenders as not/
And consider this: If Rizzo doesn’t get extended, or Bryant, who replaces those bats? Those gloves? Those presences in the clubhouse?
Nobody of that caliber looks as promising, much less on the near horizon, from the system.
And Báez? Sure, there could be a pool of as many as four or five All-Star shortstops to choose from in free agency next winter. But what will any of them cost? Especially after Francisco Lindor reportedly just got a $341 million extension from the Mets?
And what do you tell those fans paying the highest prices in baseball about why the big-market Cubs couldn’t bring back their favorite player?
If this is about that budget “range” Hoyer talked about in November and about purse strings loosening as higher revenue projections become firmer, then the Cubs are playing a dangerous game that might slow-play their best players right into free agency.
Which would be an exodus of, well, biblical proportions.