Cubs’ Arbitration Estimates Vary Widely Due to Uncertainty, Could Have Several Non-Tenders

The arbitration process is usually pretty straightforward, but the shortened season and stunted financial environment have created a great deal more uncertainty than usual. The biggest issue is that how player performance will be weighted, particularly with counting stats, since Major League Baseball and the players union apparently don’t have an agreement on that matter. It’s easy to imagine teams highlighting a player’s low home run and RBI totals while at the same time downplaying his high average and OBP as functions of a small sample.

We’re likely to see at least two clear trends this winter, the first of which is the rise of the file-and-trial approach in which teams present a lower bottom-line salary figure and essentially force a hearing. Though it’s been talked about for the last couple of years, it hasn’t gained a ton of momentum. That should change as teams look to save money and player agents have no real precedent to counter.

The second, more obvious development is likely to be a wave of non-tenders for lower- and mid-tier players entering the latter seasons of their arbitration eligibility. Given how depressed the free agent market figures to be, teams will likely see more value in outside acquisitions than in giving a raise to a guy they feel they can easily replace.

The Cubs have only gone to the arbitration table one time under Theo Epstein’s leadership, “winning” their case with Justin Grimm in 2018, so the file-and-trial thing doesn’t really fit them. We could, however, see several non-tenders from among the group of 12 eligible players as Epstein looks to create as much room in the budget as possible in order to reshape the roster around the fringes.

While it’s certainly possible the Cubs could swing some big trades and finally break up their position-player core, the value they’d get in return is lower than it’s ever been. The safer bet, one that probably won’t go over well in light of the front office’s words from the last two or three offseasons, is that the team will seek to add depth and offensive diversity in less dramatic ways.

One way or the other, the Cubs will have to trim more payroll than just what they’ll lose to the expiring contracts of Jon Lester, José Quintana, and Tyler Chatwood. Wait, they’ll need to cut more than $49 million? Yes, because they’re still projected to be at around $117 million before adding in arb salaries and Anthony Rizzo‘s $16.5 million option. I’m assuming that neither Lester nor Daniel Descalso will have their options picked up, though it’s still possible the former returns on an incentive-laden deal.

Rizzo puts the Cubs at roughly $133.5 million, leaving them with over $76 million in clearance beneath the $210 million competitive balance tax threshold they’re almost certain to view as a hard cap. But the big problem is that arb salaries could cost them anywhere from $52.4-63 million based on MLB Trade Rumors’ estimates. That’s at least a $10 million increase over last year’s total, much of which comes from new additions.

For those without a calculator handy, that could mean just $13-24 million available to replace those three pitchers and more.

MLBTR’s projections include three different models of their standard algorithm, only two of which are shown below in order to get the highest and lowest range. The most notable wrinkle is that Kris Bryant‘s salary remains unchanged from 2019 in each iteration, proving that this wasn’t a manual process. I’m sure some folks out there believe that’s what should happen based on his production, and the arb process does actually allow for a decrease in salary, but that almost never happens and won’t in this case. What I’m saying is that you can probably bump his figure up to at least $20 million or so

Below are the estimates for all 12 of the Cubs’ arb-eligible players, with who I consider right now to be the most likely non-tender candidates in bold.

Aside from Bryant, the only other one on this list I have a bit of an issue with is Schwarber, who I don’t think would be in line for that much of a raise even in an optimistic scenario. I suppose Willson Contreras getting a 48% bump could be considered out of the ordinary, but his salary is still so low in comparison to his value that the final number isn’t shocking in the least.

Many fans probably want to throw Schwarber and Bryant out there as possible non-tender options, but I just can’t see the Cubs making such big salary dumps. Hence, every one of the players I highlighted is someone who is set to make less than $3 million next season. Hell, Martinez is the only one of the group projected at more than $1.6 million at the high end.

Thing is, none of those players offers something that can’t be found in free agency at an equivalent cost, particularly when you consider the increased payroll certainty of a short-term deal. That’s a very cold way of viewing matters, but it’s what Epstein and the Cubs are going to have to do this winter. Almora has been worth -0.8 fWAR over the past two seasons, meaning the team would effectively have been better playing a man down on the roster for the 158 games he was in uniform during that time.

Martinez still has an option left and he’s actually got another year of control after 2021, so it’s possible the Cubs could hold onto him in the hopes that he figures out how to hit again. But if the NL doesn’t maintain the DH for next year, he’s a man without a position who will go down as a very poor deadline pickup.

As for the bullpen guys, well, there’s not much to say. Winkler had flashes of plus stuff, but his peripherals were far worse than his 2.95 ERA and he wasn’t consistent at all. Even though Rea’s velo was up a little in a bullpen role, he just doesn’t miss bats. Ryan likewise failed to fool many hitters and was eaten alive by left-handed hitters, not exactly a great sign for a lefty who throws from such a unique arm slot.

That extra scratch will help the Cubs to acquire the rotation depth they talked about needing to add from the outside, which could mean filling out the bullpen from within. Finally. Lefty Burl Carraway and righty Michael Rucker figure to be contenders for a new-look relief corps that absolutely needs to feature more hard throwers who can get swinging strikes.

Would you have imagined four years ago that we’d be sitting here trying to find ways for the Cubs to squeeze out an extra million bucks in order to fill out their roster? While the conversation will inevitably turn to talk about how Epstein screwed them with some of those big contracts or trades that look lopsided in hindsight, the fact of the matter is that this offseason is going to be really weird for everyone involved and the Cubs have some work to do.

Can they get it done with what they’ve repeatedly admitted will be a limited budget? We’ll find out soon enough.

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