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Forecasting The NL Central: 5-Year Outlook For Chicago Cubs

Kris Bryant looks set to do a lot of celebrating over the next five years for the Cubs.
Photo by Getty Images

Over the past few weeks, The Point of Pittsburgh has been evaluating the 5-year outlooks for each team in the National League Central.  Next up are the Chicago Cubs.  The Cincinnati Reds’ outlookMilwaukee Brewers’ outlook, and St. Louis Cardinals’ outlook can be reviewed at your leisure.

Well, everybody, it’s been real.  But if you listen to every national pundit and fan of baseball, the rest of the NL Central might as well pack it in for the next 10 years because of the rise of the Cubs.  While it’s pretty plain to see that a 103-win team coming off a World Series looks set for a long time, but there are plenty of things that can happen, especially injuries.  So since we’re here and the Pirates have all this equipment, we might as well play a few games and see what happens.

Last 3 Opening Day Payrolls (via Cot’s Contracts)

  • 2014 — $92.7M (73-89)
  • 2015 — $120.3M (97-65)
  • 2016 — $171.6M (103-58-1)

The Cubs’ rebuild was perfectly executed by President Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer, but they’ve also been blessed with exceptional luck in that all of their trades have bore fruit and their key prospects have developed quickly and produced at a high level.  The Cubs were able to procure Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop for…Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger…seriously…back in 2013.  With a few tweaks here and there, the Cubs were able to turn Arrieta from a back-end #5-level pitcher into a dominant Cy Young-winning force in 2015 and still-awesome-not-as-dominant 2016 pitcher.  Pedro Strop has also been great in his own right as a setup man and closer.

SS Addison Russell was plucked from the A’s for better talent, albeit with short years of team control that wasn’t going to help the rebuilding Cubs, in Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel (who boomeranged back to the Cubs as a free agent).  The Padres gave up on 1B Anthony Rizzo in 2012 because they had to have the perpetually-injured Andrew Cashner.

In the draft, the Cubs lucked out when the Astros selected RHP Mark Appel as the 1-1 pick in the 2013 draft, allowing them to snap up 3B Kris Bryant, Destroyer Of Baseballs.  OF Kyle Schwarber made it quickly to the Majors in 2015 after being selected 1-4 in the 2014 draft and produced well, but promptly blew out his knee Opening Day last year.  He returned for the playoffs and was outstanding, hitting .412/.500/.471 in the postseason. C Willson Contreras has percolated up through the Cubs’ minor leagues and now looks like a perennial All-Star candidate.  His presence will allow the Cubs to part with soon-to-be-free agent Miguel Montero quite easily at the end of the season.

Current Cornerstones

There’s so many cornerstones on this team, they may as well build an octagon-shaped house.  Kris Bryant has 3B on lockdown for the foreseeable future for the Cubs.  He’s under team control through 2021, at which point uber-agent Scott Boras will cash in big-time on Bryant, whether it’s with the Cubs or elsewhere.  I don’t foresee a team-friendly extension on the horizon.  As a Super Two player, Bryant will get four expensive cracks at arbitration, but he will still be paid far less than he would get on the open market.

LF Kyle Schwarber should be back to full health this year and like Bryant is under control through 2021.  To me, he seems like a trade candidate (especially to an AL team where he becomes a full time DH), but he’s definitely in the Cubs short-term plans.  1B Anthony Rizzo is one of the top 2 first basemen in the NL and thanks to his ridiculously team-friendly extension he signed back in 2013, he’s locked in with the Cubs through 2019, with two team options for 2020 and 2021.  He would have to fall completely off the cliff for the Cubs to not entertain picking them up.  SS Addison Russell is (this is starting to become a pattern) under team control through 2021.  Like Bryant, he’s a Super Two and like Bryant he’s represented by Scott Boras.

Willson Contreras is under team control through 2022, so that’s new.  He’s also the one player that I’ve mentioned so far that may be most open to signing an extension deal in the near future.  He wasn’t a Latin American bonus baby, so the allure of securing his financial future could be great for him.  RHP Kyle Hendricks had a Maddox-esque season last year with his command and results.  He’s under control through 2020, so he’ll be hitting arbitration for the first time this offseason.  I could very easily see a 5 to 6 year deal looming for him.

LHP Jon Lester is signed through 2020 with an option for 2021.  He’s getting up there in years now (this is his age-33 season), so there’s a chance that by the end of the contract it could get dicey with his $20M/year deal.  But he’s extremely productive right now.

RF Jason Heyward is not getting the name-in-bold treatment to signify a cornerstone; rather, his contract is starting to look like an anchor, albeit not one that will drastically affect the high-revenue Cubs just yet.  His deal is for $28M each of the next two years, then drops to $20M-$22M the remainder of the deal through 2023.  As Bryant and Friends start to progress through arbitration and get paid real money, Heyward’s contract could start to tweak the payroll ever so slightly.

2017 Top 100 Baseball America Prospects

  • OF Eloy Jimenez (#14, projected level in 2017 — A+)
  • 2B/OF Ian Happ (#63, projected level in 2017 — AA)
  • CF Albert Almora (#64, projected level in 2017 — MLB)
  • RHP Dylan Cease (#97, projected level in 2017 — A)

Here’s the rest of the Chicago Cubs’ Top 10, as per Baseball America.

Some good news for non-Cubs fans: The vast majority of the Cubs’ high-end impact prospects are here already.  Albert Almora will be getting his feet wet via the bench this year, but I’ve never been overly impressed with his bat.  Ian Happ can hit, but doesn’t electrify anyone on defense and is crowded out at the moment by Ben Zobrist.

Eloy Jimenez appears to be a stud-in-the-making, possibly a Gregory Polanco-type for them, but he’s three years away from reaching Wrigley Field.

If you noticed in the Cornerstones section and now here in the Prospects section, the Cubs don’t have much in the way of pitching prospects that will be #1-#3-types in the pipeline.  It’s pretty easy to say that the Cubs have enough buying power to go get pitching in free agency, I suppose, but it’s still a potential crack in the armor that may affect them down the line.

5-Year Outlook

  • 2017 ($171.5M committed salary) — It’s pretty clear that the Cubs are on virtually everyone’s shortlist to be in the mix for another World Series appearance.  Barring injuries, they should coast to the NL Central title and get somewhere around 95-98 wins.  They have three-fifths of their 2017 rotation up for free agency at the end of year (Arrieta, John Lackey, Brett Anderson) so they’re probably going to go for it as much as possible and restock in the offseason.  As mentioned above, I could see an extension deal for Hendricks at some point of 2017 to create a bridge past 2020 in the rotation.  I didn’t mention super-utility guy Javier Baez up above in the Cornerstones because I’m just not sure I see him long for the Cubs.  I could see him packaged in the 2017 offseason as part of a deal for a pitcher, perhaps TB’s Chris Archer as has long been rumored.
  • 2018 ($85.3M committed salary)– Even with their rotation in flux heading into 2018, I’m sure the Cubs will be able to reload rather easily.  There’s no reason not to expect them to be strong again, but unless they can replicate the lost production of Arrieta, it’s possible they may backslide a couple of wins to the 93-96 range.  The good news for them is I don’t see any other team in the NL Central ready to vault over them.  Jason Heyward has an opt-out after 2018, but I can’t see the Cubs being that lucky to rid themselves of his deal.  This is the mega-offseason with perhaps the greatest free agency class of all time, so the Cubs will absolutely be players in the market.  Imagine Clayton Kershaw on the Cubs for a second.  Yeah.  In smaller news, this is when the Cubs could approach Willson Contreras about an extension.  It wouldn’t surprise me if Schwarber is traded in the 2018 offseason, especially to a team that doesn’t want to splurge in the deep-end of free agency.  If the Cubs think Ian Happ is ready for 2B, they might entertain trading 2B Ben Zobrist in the 2018 offseason with his one remaining year of team control.
  • 2019 ($71.8M committed salary)– Bryant, Russell and Hendricks are all entering their second years of arbitration for the 2019 season, so this is when the dollars are going to start to get a little real.  Bryant and Russell, as Super Twos, still have two years of team control remaining, but Hendricks would only have 2020 (if he hasn’t signed an extension).  If he hasn’t done a deal, there’s a chance the Cubs may flip him in the 2019 offseason to recoup some value for him.  Depending on what they haul in from the 2018 free agent class, I don’t see why the Cubs won’t remain strong.  If they haven’t replenished their rotation, this could be a weak spot, as Lester will be 35 this year and could be slowing down.  They’ll still be in the 93-95 range of wins, but the Brewers could be starting to close the game on them.
  • 2020 ($43.0M committed salary) — Eloy Jimenez should be ready for prime-time on Opening Day of 2020, which could inject some additional power and speed into the lineup at just the right time for the “graybeards” of the Bryant-Russell-Rizzo core.  If they’re both still here, both Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber will be in their 2nd years of arbitration and starting to cost real dollars.  If one or both are still here, maybe a small extension would be done for them at this point.  Not to be repetitive, but the Cubs should still be in the mix for a playoff spot and might still be extending their reign of titles in the NL Central.  If the 2020 offseason, the Cubs will have to decide if they want to trade the two Boras clients of Bryant and Russell, knowing that they’re going to test free agency and they may not be able to keep both.
  • 2021 ($31.0M committed salary) — This is the big inflection point year for the franchise.  If no extensions are done (unlikely), then this will be the last year of team control for Bryant, Russell, Baez, Rizzo, and Schwarber.  If not extended, Hendricks would have departed after 2020 as a free agent.  Most likely the Cubs are eating $10M to not pick up Lester’s team option for 2021.  This is either one last hurrah for the current core of the team or they’ll start to trade some of them off in an effort to squeeze out a couple more years of prime contention.  If the gang is kept together, they’ll at least be in the Wild Card hunt.  If they’ve locked a couple down, paired up with some liberal use of the free agent market, the Cubs could still keep this machine going.

***

We foresaw the Rise Of The Cubs a couple of years ago.  A sleeping giant in terms of revenue and payroll capacity, coupled with a strong farm system, and outstanding front office management is what has created this megalith that is blocking out all the sun from the rest of the NL Central right now.  Barring injuries, it’s very difficult to see a path to the division title for anyone else the next five years.  NL Central will have to scrap it out for Wild Card spots.

About Kevin Creagh (274 Articles)
Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.