CHICAGO -- Kyle Schwarber was one of the early pieces in the construction of a Cubs core that changed the course of the franchise's history. He played a role in Chicago's World Series triumph over Cleveland four years ago, ending the Cubs' 108-year title drought.
Now, Schwarber has gone from Cubs hero to surprise free agent.
On Wednesday, Schwarber and Albert Almora Jr. were among the four players non-tendered by the Cubs, who are trying to balance contending in 2021 with planning for the future. Part of that process includes keeping the current payroll realities in mind, given the toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on MLB and its clubs.
"Listen, he's always going to be a Cubs legend," Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said of Schwarber. "There's no question about that, as he should be."
There had been some speculation that Bryant might be at risk of being non-tendered, but that was unrealistic given his track record and potential to return to form when healthy. Bryant's stock might be low, but the Cubs could still look to trade the '16 National League MVP to open up payroll and address some needs. Or, the Cubs could keep Bryant in the fold for another run at the NL Central title.
Selected with the sixth overall pick in 2012, Almora was the first pick of the Theo Epstein era on the North Side. The goal early on was to build a foundation via position players and the Cubs continued that process by trading for Anthony Rizzo (2012) and drafting players like Bryant (first round, 2013), Schwarber (first round, 2014) and Happ (first round, 2015).
The plan worked, too, as a young Cubs team stormed out of a rebuild and into the playoffs by 2015. That ignited a run of five playoff berths in six seasons, in which Chicago won three division crowns, reached at least the NL Championship Series three times and won the World Series in '16.
In the '15 NL Wild Card Game, it was Schwarber who famously launched a Gerrit Cole pitch into the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh to help Chicago move to the Division Series. Six days later, Schwarber deposited a homer atop the towering right-field scoreboard at Wrigley Field in a Game 4 win over the rival Cardinals that sent the Cubs to the NLCS.
One year later, Schwarber staged an unforgettable return from a severe left knee injury, rejoining the Cubs for the World Series against the Tribe. He hit .412 in the Fall Classic, including a three-hit showing in the classic Game 7. In the 10th, Almora replaced Schwarber on the basepaths and scored the go-ahead run on Ben Zobrist's opposite-field double.
Those moments are etched into Cubs lore, but Schwarber projected to earn around $9-10 million via arbitration this offseason, so the non-tender helps create some flexibility, while also creating an opening in the outfield as the Cubs plot their offensive plans.
Hoyer did not rule out trying to re-sign Schwarber, but a player with his power profile will undoubtedly garner interest from other clubs. That will especially true if the designated hitter remains in play in the NL, creating another potential role for Schwarber beyond left field.
"It was a hard conversation. I called Kyle," Hoyer said. "Expressed that we're definitely going to keep the door open. We have and will continue to talk to [his agent] about ways to bring him back. So, I wanted to express that to him, but also to express that if that doesn't work out, just all the affection we've had for all he's done. I don't think the door is closed, but we had a good conversation."
Schwarber was the fastest to 100 career home runs among all players ever to debut with the Cubs, and his career rate of 14.9 at-bats per home run is second to only Sammy Sosa (12.8) in club history. In parts of six years, he hit .230 with an .816 OPS, but the outfielder labored in the shortened 2020 campaign (.188/.308/.393 in 59 games).
Happ's emergence as the everyday center fielder in 2020 -- earned with a strong showing (.866 OPS in 57 games) -- pushed Almora into a bench role. Almora had only 34 plate appearances in 28 games in '20, hit .167 in those opportunities and finished the season at the Cubs' alternate training site.
"We've known each other for a long time," Hoyer said. "That's one of the things, when you draft and develop these guys, you build meaningful relationships with those guys and it makes those conversations that much harder."
Cubs claim Stock
The North Siders claimed righty Robert Stock from the Red Sox on Wednesday, bringing another option into the bullpen picture for '21. The 31-year-old turned in a 4.24 ERA in 52 games between the Padres and Red Sox from 2018-20, striking out 67 and walking 31 in 63 2/3 innings. In 2020, Stock had a 4.73 ERA in 10 games for Boston while averaging 96.8 mph on his fastball, per Statcast.