As of this writing, the future of the Chicago Cubs roster and payroll may rest with contract decisions regarding key players on their current team.

According to FanGraphs, the Chicago Cubs have a projected 2021 team payroll of $159M. That represents a reduction from the estimated 2020 payroll of $199M.

In the 2021 listing of current baseball team values, Forbes valued the Chicago Cubs at $3.36 B. That ranks them behind only the New York Yankees at $5.25B, the Los Angeles Dodgers at $3.57B and the Boston Red Sox at $3.46B.

The Ricketts family, with Tom Ricketts serving as the Cubs Chairman of the Board, must make some serious decisions regarding a host of pending free agents. Three of those players are iconic baseball stars that were part of the Cubs World Series Championship in 2016.

If their contracts are not extended, the three most prominent Cubs players facing free agency include:

Javier Baez-SS-Age 28-current salary $11,650M

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Kris Bryant-3B/OF-Age 29-current salary $19.5M

Anthony Rizzo-1B-Age 31-current salary $16.5M

It remains to be seen if the Cubs want to sign any or all of the three? In fact, president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer may recommend taking a pass on any or all, choosing to stock his future rosters with younger and/or less expensive players.

Compounding the pending free agent issues is the fact the Cubs farm system is not ready to replace any of their pending stars. The system has young players not quite ready to graduate to the big leagues. Losing any of the three could cause obvious gaps in the club’s roster.

From this scout’s perspective, a case can be built either for retaining each, or moving on.

Javier Baez:

Baez, 6-0, and 190 pounds, was selected in the 1st round of the 2011 MLB First Year Player Draft out of high school in Florida. He was the No.9 player chosen, selected behind shortstop Francisco Lindor, who was taken by the Cleveland Indians. 

The right-handed hitting Baez received a $2.625,000 signing bonus, well over the MLB recommended $1,962,000 amount for that slot. At the time of the draft, Baez was reputed to have the best bat speed in the draft, drawing comparisons to Gary Sheffield and Hanley Ramirez, two players known at the time for incredible bat speed and bat control.

When this old scout first saw Baez in the 2012 Arizona Fall League, he was only 19, and had a serious flaw in his very aggressive and powerful swing. He would “twitch” his hands before the pitch arrived at the plate. The net result was tardiness in his swing. Scouts wondered if the alleged bat speed was a myth?

Since those early years, Baez has corrected his swing path and has become a formidable power hitter. However, concerns continue about his high strikeout rate. In 2019, baseball’s last full season, Baez struck out 156 times in 561 plate appearances. 

Baez has been a National League All Star twice, in 2018 and 2019. In those two seasons, Baez was in the Top 10 in National League Wins Above Replacement (WAR) values. He drove in 111 runs in 2018, while hitting 34 home runs. 

In the shortened 2020 season, Baez won a National League Gold Glove at shortstop.

Baez is coming off a rather mediocre short season. In the 2020 60-game season, he played in 59 games, and hit .203 with a poor .238 on base percentage. He hit eight homers and drove in 24 runs in his 235 plate appearances.

If a veteran player is not identified to assume the position, the Cubs don’t have a prospect in their system ready to take over at shortstop should Baez leaves via free agency.

The 2021 shortstop free agent class was reduced by one player when Francisco Lindor signed a 10-year contract extension with the New York Mets worth $341M. Highly regarded shortstops Carlos Correa (Astros) Corey Seager (Dodgers) Trevor Story (Rockies) and Baez could all enter free agency, unless their team extends their current contracts.

It is being reported that Astros shortstop Carlos Correa turned down an Astros offer of $120M for a six-year contract extension. Baez and his representatives may feel Baez is worth even more.

So far this season, the strikeouts continue for Baez. As of this writing, he has struck out in 17 of his 39 plate appearances.

Career Stats: 2,747 plate appearances-.264 batting average-.304 on-base percentage in parts of eight seasons

Kris Bryant:

A big, right-handed hitter at 6-5, 230 pounds, in the early days of his career, Kris Bryant was often compared to outfielder Bryce Harper. They grew up and played baseball together in Las Vegas.

For comparisons, Harper was drafted as the 1st player taken overall by the Washington Nationals in 2010. Bryant was chosen as the 2nd player taken in the 2013 draft.

Again comparing the players, Bryant earned a $6,708,400 signing bonus from the Cubs. The pick value was $7,790,000, so the Cubs actually saved some money. Harper had received a bonus of $6,250,000 in 2010, when the slot value was $4M.

Bryant has not reached Harper’s notoriety or fame, but Bryant is still a quality major league player. It is highly doubtful Bryant can match the 13-year, $330M contract Harper received from the Philadelphia Phillies when he became a free agent in 2019.

Bryant and the Cubs were embroiled in a grievance filed by Bryant. He claimed the Cubs 2015 decision to open the season with Bryant at Triple-A was a manipulation of his service time, intended to delay his free agency by one year. The Cubs won the grievance. Bryant actually accrued 171 days of major league service time that year, one day short of the requirement for an official year of service. 

Now, Bryant can become a free agent following this season.

Bryant has played both third base and left field for the Cubs in parts of seven big league seasons. 

Bryant was named the National League Rookie of the Year in 2015.

A three-time All Star, Bryant hit 26, 39, and 29 home runs in his first three seasons. He drove in 102 runs in his second season, his highest total ever.

Bryant was named the National League Most Valuable Player in 2016, when he hit .292 with 39 homers and 102 RBIs, his career best. He also led the National League in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) with 7.3 on defense and 6.4 on offense. He was named the NL Hank Aaron Award Winner as well, which honors the best hitter in the league.

As is the case with Baez, replacing Bryant at third base may prove difficult if a veteran player is not identified for the role. The farm system can’t be counted upon to produce a third base prospect quite yet.

Bryant looks like a very confident hitter so far this season. He’s off to a great start, with three home runs already in the books.

Career Stats: 3,292 plate appearances-.280 batting average-.380 on-base percentage in parts of seven seasons.

Anthony Rizzo:

Left-handed hitting Anthony Rizzo has played parts of 11 big league seasons, all but one with the Cubs.

Rizzo is 6-3, 240 pounds. He was chosen by the Boston Red Sox in the 6th round of the 2007 draft out of Marjory Stoneman-Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

In 2010, the Red Sox traded Rizzo to the San Diego Padres in a deal for first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Two years later, the Padres sent Rizzo to the Cubs for outfielder Kyung-Min Na and pitcher Andrew Cashner. Neither are actively playing.

Rizzo made the National League All Star Team three consecutive years beginning in 2014.

In 2016, he won a National League Platinum Glove as the league’s best fielder.

A Silver Slugger Award winner in 2016, Rizzo finished the season with 32 home runs. It was his third of four consecutive seasons hitting at least 30 home runs.

In 2019, MLB’s last complete season, Rizzo finished with 29 doubles, three triples and 71 RBIs. However, in the shortened 2020 60-game sprint, he hit just .222 with an on-base percentage of .342.

Like Baez and Bryant, Rizzo would be difficult to replace. Again, if a veteran is not identified, the farm system may not be ready to produce a “ready for prime time” first baseman.

So far this season, Rizzo is struggling to get going. He has just four hits in 40 plate appearances.

Career Stats: 5,456 plate appearances-.269 batting average-.371 on-base percentage in parts of 11 seasons.

Conclusions:

There is other unsettled business that could complicate Cubs roster matters. In addition to the nucleus of Baez, Bryant and Rizzo, catcher Austin Romine, infielders Matt Duffy and Eric Sogard, outfielder Jake Marisnick and pitchers Zach Davies, Brandon Workman and Dan Winkler are all pending free agents.

The Cubs have to decide the value of each high profile player to the future of their franchise.

Baez, Bryant and Rizzo have track records of success, but an argument can be made regarding the level of financial commitment, if any, that makes sense for each.

They also have to determine a path forward for each of the other seven players currently in the last year of their contracts.

The Cubs are a large market club that generates high expectations from fans.

It will now be up to Jed Hoyer and his staff to evaluate each of their potential free agents and make a recommendation to ownership about the path forward for players eligible for free agency at the conclusion of the season. That could be a daunting task.