The Nationals and Cubs have some deep connections, if only for this year.
While they do share some history having faced off in the 2017 NLDS, the biggest ties between the two clubs can be found sitting in the third-base dugout at Wrigley Field this week. Starter Jon Lester and outfielder Kyle Schwarber made their official returns to Chicago on Monday, bringing back feelings of nostalgia rooted in the 2016 World Series title they won together.
Five years removed from that curse-breaking championship, the Cubs’ core may be on its way out. After Lester and Schwarber departed last offseason, Chicago now has to determine whether to make a push to keep star infielders Anthony Rizzo, Javier Báez and Kris Bryant past this season. All three former MVP candidates are set to hit free agency this winter.
Few people understand the position the Cubs are in better than Lester, who decided not to re-sign with the team after its offer fell short of his market value. The Nationals reportedly signed him to a one-year, $5 million deal with a mutual option for 2022 and deferred signing bonus, though the Cubs are still paying him a $10 million buyout this season. Lester said on a Zoom call Saturday that he understands why Chicago may have to move on from its core players.
“It’ll be weird if all three of those guys leave and become free agents and go somewhere else,” Lester said. “It’ll be definitely weird seeing them in different uniforms but that’s, unfortunately, the nature of what we do. The Cubs have a business to run and they have to do what they feel is necessary to set them up for the future whether it be financially or guys on the field.
“It’s a hard thing to separate but hopefully those guys are all there and it’s kind of a [moot] question and they continue to have that core and move forward. But I’m sure it’ll be very hard to keep all three of them there. Definitely a little different Cubs look if all three of them aren’t there.”
Chicago’s front office underwent a transition from famed executive Theo Epstein to longtime GM Jed Hoyer atop the baseball operations department and Hoyer has already made several early signature moves. In addition to declining Lester’s option, the Cubs also traded starter Yu Darvish to the San Diego Padres and non-tendered Schwarber over the winter.
Schwarber landed in Washington as a result of the Cubs looking to save some money. After he signed a one-year, $10 million deal with the Nationals, Chicago replaced him with Joc Pederson and his $7 million salary for 2021. The outfielder, who homered in the series opener Monday, called the decision to re-sign a “personal choice” that each of the three potential free agents will have to make.
“It’s a good group of ballplayers,” Schwarber said Monday. “First off, you look at the makeup on the guys. I think the makeup is unbelievable. I believe that good teams start with good people and you look at the three guys there and they’re all unbelievable people and I think the talent speaks for themselves. They’re really good ballplayers and they do it on a consistent basis.
“As those guys move on, they move on and if they don’t and they stay in Chicago that would be great too. That’s a personal choice for them and I think at the end of the day that people should be…happy that you got to watch those guys play in a Cubs uniform for as long as they have. Like I said, we all did special things there and they’re one year away from not possibly being there so it is what it is.”
It would probably be a long shot for another Cubs reunion in D.C. next year. Neither Lester nor Schwarber are locked up past this season and the Nationals would have to be willing to pay a premium price for any of those big names to add them to the roster. Bryant makes the most sense as a hybrid third baseman and outfielder; he's off to a hot start entering play Monday with 10 home runs and a 1.032 OPS in 37 games. Rizzo would be a candidate to sign if MLB brings the designated hitter to the National League this offseason (allowing him to replace Josh Bell at first base) while Báez could be considered insurance in case Trea Turner leaves after 2022.
Cubs fans had their first chance to thank both Lester and Schwarber on Monday, giving each a standing ovation in their first at-bats. As much as it was “business decisions” that prompted the pair’s respective exits from Chicago, Lester admitted to battling some emotions over the offseason that left him wondering what could’ve been.
“It’s natural, I had to get over some stuff leaving Boston,” Lester said. “I think the fan and the people don’t understand was what we do, what we invest in the places that we’re at. Chicago was my home for six years. We have a house there; my kids have grown up there…The hard part about this game is the business side. You have to separate your heart and business and sometimes that can be difficult.
“I think it’s only natural as a human being to go through a phase where you question certain things. But once you separate that and realize that hey, it’s a business and they need to make a decision, I need to make a decision and we go our separate ways. It is what it is. Like I said, I think it’s only natural.”