The 2020 Chicago Cubs are competing for a division title. Come the winter, two of the team’s top stars could be on the market.
Although the Cubs are atop the National League Central, this season has made it clear Chicago is desperate for young, impact arms in the rotation.
Jon Lester is almost certainly in his final year with the team. The veteran left-hander has a 9.26 ERA while giving up eight homers in his last five starts. Lester has also lost nearly a full tick in miles per hour on each of his pitches and is hanging breaking balls, hardly a good sign for a “command” pitcher.
Right-hander Alec Mills has had an up-and-down season, and Tyler Chatwood’s injury concerns overshadow his positive start to the campaign.
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In essence, Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks are the only arms providing steadiness in the rotation, both this year and in the future. So, how can the Cubs best fill out the staff? At the outset, it would be easy to say the Cubs should be aggressive in free agency.
Chicago should be able to save $38.5 million this winter by declining Lester’s team option ($10 million buyout) in addition to both Chatwood and Jose Quintana becoming free agents. This seemingly gives the Cubs a little more spending flexibility.
Unfortunately, the free-agent market for starting pitchers is weak this winter: Trevor Bauer and Marcus Stroman are likely the top two names available.
Additionally, the Cubs lack quality arms in their pipeline. Adbert Alzolay and Brailyn Marquez should figure into the rotation at some point, but they are among the few standout arms in the system.
This brings us back to Bryant and Contreras.
Bryant is having a horrific year (.577 OPS), but he is still the same guy who ranked third in fWAR between 2015 and 2019, per FanGraphs. The former NL MVP also has a positive ultimate zone rating (UZR) both at the hot corner and in limited innings in the outfield. He is also regarded as one of the best base runners in the game.
Contreras’ value would seemingly be through the roof. He is one of the best hitters at the catcher position, and also ranks 10th in framing, per Baseball Savant. The 28-year-old is under team control through 2022 and would be quite the prize for any team that misses out on J.T. Realmuto.
Much has been made about the summer of 2022, when Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber will all be free agents.
It seems like Baez and the Cubs will eventually agree to an extension, and Rizzo–a franchise staple–will almost certainly be staying in Chicago. The Cubs could try to trade Schwarber, but he could have limited value if the universal DH is discontinued.
In other words, Bryant seems like the likeliest out of that group to be traded, and Contreras might have the highest value. Chicago can also at least point to depth behind the dish with Victor Caratini and (eventually) Miguel Amaya.
Whether dealing Bryant or Contreras is the “right” decision is up for debate. But the Cubs’ pitching needs are glaring, and dealing one or both stars might be the best way to add future value in the rotation.