Talk of MLB Expansion Highlights Uncertainty for Cubs Beyond Next Season

There’s been some talk the past couple years about Major League Baseball expanding, with interested groups drumming up funds and support in their respective cities. Former Cub Darwin Barney is part of an outfit trying to bring a team to Portland, while former MLB executives Dave Dombrowski and Dave Stewart are leading the charge in Nashville. Facing “biblical losses” of $3.1 billion due to the pandemic and saddled with mountains of debt, the league and its owners could see expansion as an easy way to bring in $8-10 billion in franchise fees.

If baseball does expand, I hope they go bigger and add four teams rather than two. Going smaller is obviously easier and would not dilute the talent pool as much, so it’s also possible to add two teams one year and then add two more later. That’s what happened during the last round of expansion, with the Rockies and Marlins added in 1993 then the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays came five years later. 

New teams would have to build their organizations from the ground up, adding a rookie league and four full-season affiliates, along with possibly starting up a Dominican Summer League team or two. That would be good for Minor League Baseball, which is set to lose more than 40 affiliates next season as MLB clamps down on spending.

But teams don’t just draft and incubate players in the minors for several years before starting play, to the key event in this process would be the expansion draft. Each new franchise would select 35 players already on major league rosters, with the exception of minor leaguers who have less than four years experience and have not played in the majors. Though it won’t happen this winter, a brief MLB Trade Rumors article about who the Cubs would protect got me thinking what could happen down the road.

Let’s say MLB opts to grow via expansion and holds a draft at the end of the 2021 season. The Cubs would only be able to protect 15 players from the active roster for the first round, then could protect three more every round thereafter. As things currently stand, however, the Cubs only have 15 total players — depending on options — from among the current roster who are signed for 2022. That number drops to 12 for 2023, though things will obviously shift as prospects are promoted

If MLB and the owners get really desperate, expansion in either 2021 or 2022 could help the Cubs in a big way from a financial perspective. Provided they get their $200-300 million from the franchise fees prior to 2022, they’d be in a much better position to re-sign several of their would-be free agents or go out and find new players from somewhere other than the clearance aisle. But that’s all just hypothetical and, while it’s more realistic today than it was a year ago, it’s still a bit of a stretch.

What this little exercise really shows us is that the Cubs are going to need a whole lot of ballplayers after next season. Top hitting prospects like catcher Miguel Amaya and outfielder Brennen Davis are getting closer, but they are probably most likely to arrive in 2022. That means either replacing big chunks of the roster through trades and free agency or developing a lot more prospects in short order.

The Cubs are actually in pretty good shape with the pitching staff over the next couple of years. They have three starters locked up and Theo Epstein has said they’ll seek depth from outside the organization, but several other pitchers are getting close and should be able to help soon in either the rotation or the bullpen. With Cory Abbott and Brailyn Marquez almost ready along with a large collection of power arms from the last two drafts, the Cubs might have waves of pitching at the perfect time.

Though nothing is ever certain when we look two or three years into the future, the Cubs have several expiring contracts from among their core players and their president of baseball operations. That only increases the cloudiness of our crystal ball, particularly once you throw the idea of expansion into the mix, so it’s anyone’s guess as to how this will all play out.

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