5 questions for Cubs after non-tender moves

December 3rd, 2020

CHICAGO -- In his first press conference as the Cubs' new president of baseball operations, Jed Hoyer made it clear that some changes could be coming. He stressed the importance of keeping an eye on the future, while also trying to contend again next year.

The first real change arrived on Wednesday night, when the Cubs non-tendered slugger as part of a series of moves that set the foundation for the next few months for the reigning National League Central champions.

Here are five questions that came out of Wednesday's decisions:

1. Is this really the end of Schwarber's time with the Cubs?
Here was the official comment on that question from Hoyer:

"We're definitely going to keep the door open."

Schwarber was under contract for $7 million in 2020 (before pro rata) and was likely going to make something in the $9 million to $10 million range for '21. That might have been an easy tender decision in the past, but the Cubs -- like many teams this offseason -- are looking for ways to cut some costs in the wake of losses.

There is no question that Schwarber has been streaky throughout his career, and his subpar 2020 showing did nothing to help the decision.

In 224 plate appearances in '20, Schwarber hit .188/.308/.393 with 11 homers, six doubles and 66 strikeouts against 30 walks. In the final 60 games of '19, Schwarber had 222 plate appearances. In that sample, the slugger hit .285/.374/.622 with 16 homers, 13 doubles and 52 strikeouts against 24 walks.

So, which Schwarber could the Cubs count on getting in 2021? The answer is somewhere in the middle, and Chicago determined that it was not worth the cost through arbitration. But by keeping the "door open," Hoyer is making it clear that a more club-friendly deal would be of interest.

That is all well and good, but there is no question that Schwarber will have options as a free agent with a plus power tool. He is only 27 years old and has averaged one homer per 14.9 at-bats in his career. Schwarber has also performed exceptionally well (.981 OPS in 24 games) in the postseason. There is mutual interest, but a reunion with the Cubs may not be in the cards.

2. With Schwarber and non-tendered, what does this mean for the Cubs' outfield?
Well, one glance at the 40-man roster right now makes it very clear that the Cubs need to acquire some outfield help this offseason. At the moment, Chicago has Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and a whole lot of questions.

The move with Schwarber does create some flexibility in how the Cubs can tackle this situation, though. Happ claimed the everyday job in center with a great 2020, but he could easily shift to left field. That would allow Chicago to cast a wider net in both trade and free-agent conversations.

The Cubs did experiment with rookie Nico Hoerner in center field in '20. If Chicago wants to keep that as a possibility, it could open up a search for offensive help via second base. Heyward has experience in center, but the Cubs have prioritized keeping him in right field.

3. Was there ever a chance was going to be non-tendered?
File that possibility more under public speculation than reality.

Bryant is coming off a forgettable, injury-marred '20 season (.206 with a .644 OPS in 34 games), but the track record is still there. Trying to evaluate the abbreviated '20 campaign is hard enough. In Bryant's case, you have to keep in mind that he dealt with a back issue in Summer Camp, left elbow, wrist and finger issues and a right oblique setback. The hard-hit rate plummeted (31.9 percent, per Statcast), but Bryant was never himself.

So, the Cubs really have three options here. They can keep Bryant and count on his return to production with the goal of making the playoffs again. The second option would be to deal him at the Trade Deadline in '21. Or the third and more immediate scenario, the Cubs trade Bryant this offseason in an effort to acquire controllable pieces with the future in mind. Non-tendering Bryant and getting nothing in return other than salary relief was not a realistic option.

4. What impact did other decisions have on the pitching staff?
Right-hander Colin Rea was a spot starter and reliever for the Cubs in '20. By signing him to a one-year deal, Chicago maintains a layer of rotation depth. Rea is definitely a candidate to be stretched out as a starter in the spring. If a rotation job isn't in the cards, he could try to make the bullpen.

Right now, the Cubs have three starters essentially locked in with Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks and Alec Mills. Adbert Alzolay is also a leading candidate for a starting role in '21. Rea offers depth, but expect the Cubs to try to reel in some rotation help (and depth) this offseason.

On the bullpen front, Dan Winkler and Kyle Ryan -- who both avoided arbitration with one-year deals, like Rea -- are leading contenders for jobs. Robert Stock, who was claimed off waivers from Boston, would be in a position to compete for a spot, too. The bullpen is one area where the Cubs have a long list of internal candidates at the moment.

5. How was the Cubs' payroll impacted by Wednesday's moves?
The four players who were non-tendered (Almora, Schwarber, José Martínez and Ryan Tepera) might have commanded up to around $15 million combined through arbitration based on various projections. That helps the Cubs take an initial cost-cutting step as the team maps out its '21 picture. What we don't know is where the Cubs' payroll ceiling stands right now. There are too many uncertainties still in play, so all Hoyer has said is that he is operating with "a range" in mind.

Right now, there are nine players under contract for nearly $94 million. The five remaining players who are eligible for arbitration could net around $40 million in total. Combine that with buyout costs, pre-arb players and other considerations, and Chicago's current payroll projection climbs somewhere in the $150 million to $155 million range. That would, of course, change with any trades, which could very well be coming.