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As the Cubs dismantled their roster over the last two years, one of the biggest criticisms was their inability to retain the core players from their most recent run of success.
This time around, the Cubs appear to be working to correct that issue.
“I’d say that we’ve taken the first steps,” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said Monday during his season-ending press conference about the possibility of extending current Cubs. “As you guys know, we’re not going to talk about it once we do, but certainly there are players that we’d love to keep in a Cub uniform for a long time. Hopefully, we can work hard on those and get some across the finish line.”
It’s not that saying the Cubs don’t extend any of their players was ever truly accurate.
Anthony Rizzo signed a seven-year, $41 million extension (plus two club options) in May 2013, and he blossomed into a three-time All-Star, a four-time Gold Glove Award winner and essentially the face of the franchise. Kyle Hendricks signed a four-year, $55 million extension in 2019 while he was in the midst of posting the 10th-lowest ERA among starters from 2014-20.
But beyond that, talks with players from the 2016 World Series core haven’t amounted to any more extensions:
- Kyle Schwarber wasn’t even tendered a contract after a disappointing 2020 season
- Talks for a second extension for Rizzo broke down before last year, neither he, Kris Bryant nor Javier Báez signed another deal with the Cubs and all three were traded at the 2021 deadline
- Willson Contreras is not expected to be offered an extension as he enters free agency next month
- Though Hendricks did sign that extension after the World Series, he hasn’t been the same pitcher over the past two seasons, and the Cubs will have to make a decision on his future as he enters his last year under contract in 2023
In hindsight, there’s an argument that not paying some of those players will hold up well. But the fact remains that when good players come around, it’s wise for teams to try and keep them around. For example, look at what the Braves have done with their own core players.
The situations are different, as those six players were extended at various points in their careers. But all played huge roles in Atlanta winning 101 games and claiming the National League East crown this season, and for at least the next three seasons, all will be a part of what should be a strong Braves core.
Hoyer has stated since the beginning of the rebuild that the Cubs want to create a system that can sustain a winning ball club for longer than the last window of contention, and in late August, he indicated that Atlanta locking up key players is something the Cubs will try to emulate.
“I think what the Braves have done is fantastic,” Hoyer said then. “They had a group of players that wanted to stay there. They’ve been aggressive and locked those guys up, and their core is as good as almost anyone in baseball. It’s really impressive. Certainly, when you think about spending money or building a team, we absolutely have people in house we want to extend beyond where their arbitration years are. That’s no question.”
Asked again about in-house extensions a little over six weeks later, Hoyer didn’t back off that stance. So, the question now becomes: which players could earn extensions as soon as this offseason?
The scope of that group is not entirely known, but perhaps the two most obvious candidates are the two players Hoyer was asked about specifically on Monday: Nico Hoerner and Ian Happ.
Though they’re at different points in their respective careers (Hoerner, 25, is arbitration-eligible for the first time this offseason, while Happ, 28, is entering his last year of club control), both were among the Cubs’ biggest success stories of 2022.
Hoerner came into the season with question marks surrounding his long-term fit at shortstop, but all he did was put himself squarely in the NL Gold Glove conversation at the position by finishing the year with 11 defensive runs saved and 13 outs above average (per FanGraphs). On the offensive side of the ball, Hoerner posted a career-low (and sixth-lowest in the majors) strikeout rate of 11 percent and career highs in contact rate (86.6 percent) and home runs (10), which all played a part in showing he’s a strong fit near the top of the order.
But what stood out the most about Hoerner is his potential as a leader on future contenders. With most of the old core gone, Hoerner stepped up as a leading voice in the clubhouse as the Cubs went from being a team on a near 100-loss pace to winning 12 of their last 15 games and 39 of 70 games in the second half.
Hoerner’s role may change with the Cubs expected to be players in the free agent shortstop market. But even then, Hoerner’s willingness to do whatever is asked of him is one of the main reasons Hoyer is interested in making sure he stays in Chicago for a long time.
“Hard to imagine a young player more focused on the team than Nico,” Hoyer said. “He actually gets mad when you talk about him, which is pretty amazing. He wants to talk about the Cubs, he wants to talk about winning, he want to talk about the culture. So, it’s pretty easy with him. As long as you’re talking about winning and what can make us great, Nico is totally on board. He’s an incredible teammate, and I’m glad he’s a Cub.”
Happ’s situation is a bit more complicated.
Happ was involved in trade rumors at the deadline this year, and he’d previously stated just after the All-Star break that his camp hadn’t been engaged in extension talks. The fact that he could be a free agent next winter and the fact that many of the Cubs’ top prospects are outfielders also have to be considered in the process.
But Happ has always stated that he wants to remain a Cub, and even though he was considered a potential non-tender candidate as recently as last July, he may have played his way into the long-term picture in 2022.
Hoyer mentioned that Happ’s career had been marked by “really high highs and really low lows,” but a season in which slumps never really emerged saw him rack up 3.5 fWAR, post a 120 wRC+ and a career-low strikeout rate of 23.3 percent and earn his first All-Star nod.
“He made a very concerted effort with his swing and his mentality to even that out,” Hoyer said. “I think he did a fantastic job, and I think that there’s no reason that he can’t continue to do that.”
Happ’s career had also seen him constantly moved around the outfield (and even into the infield at times), but this year, he had the opportunity to stick mainly at one spot. And with that comfortability, Happ finished with 13 defensive runs saved in left field and is among the favorites to take home the Gold Glove.
His breakthrough on the field in 2022 may have given the Cubs reason to extend him by itself, but like Hoerner, it may come down to his own rise as a leader.
“I think part of it was the fact that we had the trades last year, he stayed here and he took a real leadership role,” Hoyer said. “I think he saw that those veterans that had been part of the ’16 team were gone, and he stepped into that void.
“His voice was fantastic. It was all about winning. It was all about developing guys. … I thought he really found his voice from a leadership standpoint, and it was really, really gratifying to see that. I’m excited he’s a Cub.”
Time will tell whether Hoyer follows through and extends either or both of Hoerner and Happ. But if the Cubs want to compete next season and beyond, those two players showed this year that they could play integral roles in doing that.
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