Call it generic. Call it lazy. But the comparison that immediately came to mind when the Chicago Cubs began their fire-sale last week was to that of the end of The Godfather. The heads of the Five Families picked off one-by-one as Michael Corleone takes his place atop his father’s criminal empire. Once the dust cleared, it was nothing but Michael at the top, power that he never wanted, in his grasp.
And while Tom Ricketts isn’t newly in power as owner and chairman of the Cubs, his fingerprints are certainly all over what transpired prior to last week’s trade deadline.
One by one, the remaining members of the team’s core—some of the only holdovers from the team’s 2016 World Series title—were picked off and jettisoned to new locations. Anthony Rizzo found his way to the New York Yankees, while Javier Báez joined him on the other side of town with the New York Mets. Kris Bryant later followed, heading across the country to the San Francisco Giants.
Of course, there were a handful of other notable deals sprinkled in there. Craig Kimbrel and Ryan Tepera were traded to the crosstown Chicago White Sox (albeit in separate deals), Jake Marisnick to the San Diego Padres, and Joc Pederson to the Atlanta Braves. Not necessarily in that order.
But the focal point here, and as it likely should be, is the handling of contract negotiations and subsequent trades of the big three: Bryant, Báez, and Rizzo. At least to varying degrees, the Cubs were reported to have attempted to reach contract extensions with the trio of impending free agents. Leading up to the deadline, there was still talk that the team could seek to extend at least one of Báez or Rizzo before they hit the open market this winter. None of that materialized, and Jed Hoyer’s first major mark as general manager will now be the trade of three of the most popular players in franchise history within 48 hours of each other.
Now, the purpose of laying things out here is not to litigate the returns they got for their three infielders. Many will tell you that Hoyer fared well in the prospects he was able to acquire, young as they may be. That’s great. I suppose there’s plenty of merit in the philosophy regarding impending free agents and being able to bring in prospects as compensation rather than losing them for nothing beyond a compensatory draft pick. Especially when your team is as far out of contention as the Cubs are.
And there’s probably some validity to questioning whether or not long-term deals would have been the right move for Rizzo’s ailing back or Javy’s massive strikeout rate. Sure. I’ll buy that. But the words that spilled out of Hoyer’s mouth on Monday raised some doubts about how he’s handling his business with players and may very well present some longer-term implications for a team that definitely is not entering a full-scale rebuild.
From Jordan Bastian, who is on the Cubs beat for MLB.com:
On a Zoom with Cubs media in DC, Hoyer says he feels the organization “sped things up” in terms of creating more prospect and financial currency. Still feels this is not a long “rebuild” situation.— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) July 31, 2021
With extension talks/offers stalled with core, path seemed clear. More⬇️ pic.twitter.com/KW3gof9Eir
As vomit-inducing as it might be to hear an executive wax poetic about “years of control,” there’s some truth here. Especially when you talk about taking some of the top-tier players from your franchise, assessing the situation, and instead of hampering them down in a rebuild, you allow them to chase a title with a contending club for the remainder of the year. That’s fine!
Here’s Hoyer on Monday:
Hoyer: "That will probably be my greatest source of frustration from this era...I put my head on the pillow every night knowing we put our best foot forward. The extensions we offered these guys will hold up exceptionally well…against the open market....— Jesse Rogers (@JesseRogersESPN) August 2, 2021
...I don’t know why guys didn’t want to sign.I don’t know why guys didn’t want to even counteroffer, often times. Every one of these guys would say they wanted to stay in Chicago, 'we wanted to be a Cub,' but then we would sit down and do negotiations, that wasn’t how they acted"— Jesse Rogers (@JesseRogersESPN) August 2, 2021
Hoyer mentioned Lance Lynn as an example. And he's been in Chicago 15 minutes compared to the Cubs players. Signed a 2 year extension. Only Kyle Hendricks signed up on the n.side.— Jesse Rogers (@JesseRogersESPN) August 2, 2021
This is...messy. Naturally, there are a couple of issues here.
While they may not have quite the level of candor in the front office since Theo Epstein left, there’s one thing that the organization has been very transparent about: their finances, something that’s not unique to the Cubs.
Bill DeWitt Jr, owner of the St. Louis Cardinals, claimed last June that owning a Major League franchise was “not very profitable.” And the Cubs have been at the forefront of the lack of spending we see throughout the game in recent years. They spent the last few winters buying incredibly low, and it was only because of a slight uptick in available funds that they were able to bring in players like Joc Pederson or Jake Arrieta.
One of the sport’s largest markets with supposed new television network revenue aside, there just wasn’t money to extend the core. Or, at least, an amount that the front office was comfortable with. Something to that degree has been the company line for the last few years. Yet, Hoyer decided on Monday to take it upon himself and declare it wasn’t so much a dollar amount, but the fact that they simply did not act like they wanted to return during negotiations.
So which is it? You really can’t have it both ways. You either want good players in your city for the long term or you want to tear it all down so you can pay peanuts to your guys under extensive “team control.” As a person who operates largely in shades of gray, this one is fairly black and white for me. It’s parting shots at three immensely popular players that all stated a desire to remain in Chicago; they simply wanted to be fairly compensated to do so.
Invoking Lance Lynn after his two-year extension is another questionable decision by Hoyer here. Lynn is 34 and will be 35 next season; he’s in sort of a twilight even as he gobbles up innings with the best of his starting pitcher counterparts. He’s also playing for a contender at the start of their championship window. The three players the Cubs traded still have a lot of years in their respective bats, even with Rizzo’s wonky back. They’re not mid-30s guys who have landed all over the country in various trades over extensive careers. Not to mention the fact that Rizzo had already taken a massive discount on his first extension when he re-upped for seven years and $41 million. The context between Lynn and the Cubs’ trio renders such a comparison entirely invalid.
It isn’t necessarily about the trades themselves. Again, plenty of outlets will indicate to you that the Cubs did fine, and perhaps, from a personnel standpoint, moving on and starting fresh in the lineup made some degree of sense. But the issue here is far more severe than the trades in a vacuum.
There’s an obvious unwillingness to invest in the on-field product. We’ve seen it transpire over the last few years and even more so when not even one of the three can agree to a longer-term deal. And when it doesn’t work out, the general manager is going to take potshots, despite someone like Báez saying he’d re-sign in Chicago even after the trade.
That doesn’t necessarily sound like an organization that marquee free agents would want to play for, even if the team was willing to invest in them. Especially when such treatment occurs after blatant service-time manipulation when it comes to Bryant’s specific situation.
So you don’t want to pony up the dough for your face-of-the-franchise types. You don’t want to invest in supplementary talent to surround those guys with, and you haven’t exactly proven to be a bastion of player development. What exactly does this accomplish for Jed Hoyer and his front office? What exactly are you hoping to accomplish here?
Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.