Friday Could Bring Clarity to Trade Market for Cubs, Other Teams

We’ll have more specifics as the day unfolds, so consider this a primer of sorts on the development of the offseason market. Friday marks the deadline by which teams and arbitration-eligible players must arrive at a salary figure for 2021 lest they be subject to a hearing presided over by a third party and the Cubs have four such players this winter: Kris Bryant, Javy Báez, and Willson Contreras, and Ian Happ.

Victor Caratini would have been on the list had he not been traded; Dan Winkler and Kyle Ryan agreed to pre-tender deals; Colin Rea also agreed to a pre-tender deal prior to his release. Oh, there’s also Zach Davies, who I often forget about as part of the return from the Padres.

We’ve been warned for years now of a coming reckoning, whether it’s within the organization itself or across the league as a whole. However, the widespread adoption of a file-and-trial strategy hasn’t taken place as foretold. Yet. This year may be different as owners’ purported losses combine with the shortened season to put players in a bad spot.

MLB’s arbitration process is pretty ugly by its very nature because an employer is openly arguing that an employee isn’t worth what he’s asking for. And because that value has traditionally been determined by counting stats, teams may be at a decided advantage this time around. Even looking at the numbers from a relative point of view will hurt a player who missed two weeks due to injury since that would be like missing 30-40 games in a normal season.

That’s why arb salary projections have varied so widely among experts, much like the numbers for free agency, and it’s part of what’s holding things up. Take Kyle Schwarber, for instance. There was obviously a market for his services, with the Nationals among at least six teams that showed interest. Schwaber ended up getting significantly more guaranteed money than he’d likely have earned via arbitration, but the uncertainty of his eventual salary meant the Cubs were unable to trade him prior to December 2.

While I still believe Jed Hoyer lost that particular multi-directional game of chicken, it’s clear that what happens Friday could go a long way toward establishing the potential trade value of several other players. Bryant getting $18.5 million instead of $20 million might not seem like much, but every little bit counts and that’s a difference of two rookie salaries and change right there.

Contreras is an interesting case because he’s still got one more year left after this one and arb salaries are based on what a player previously earned. His 2022 salary will still be incredibly reasonable even if he’s at the top end of his projections with around $7.5 million, but some models have him getting a very modest raise to just $5 million. Such a low number would make the All-Star catcher even more valuable as a trade chip than he already is.

Báez is a more complicated matter because his offensive production was at such odds with his Gold-Glove defense. He’s also the only one of the core position players to have engaged earnestly in extension talks with the Cubs, to the point that a deal had been considered somewhat close prior to the shutdown last spring. As doubtful as it is that we’ll see something done prior to spring training, the Cubs might try to extend Javy for a much more team-friendly total than they’d have been able to get a year ago.

Happ is in just his first year of eligibility and has enough club control that he’s probably not on the block just yet, not to mention the Cubs still have just two everyday outfielders as things currently stand.

Setting those players’ salaries isn’t the only development that will help to bring the market into focus, either. Jon Morosi reported Friday morning that DJ LeMahieu is finalizing an agreement to return to the Yankees, a domino that could trigger additional movement with other contenders.

Primarily a second baseman, the Dodgers were looking at the batting champ as a potential replacement for Justin Turner at third base. Failing that, they could pivot to the trade market in search of any number of third baseman who are reportedly being made available. Given their desire for a right-handed hitter in that role, Bryant and Eugenio Suárez top that list.

This is like one of those tile puzzles where there’s a piece missing and you’ve got to slide the remaining pieces around to form a picture. Though we may not know exactly what it is by the end of the day, Friday should see a bunch of pieces moved into place.

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