CHICAGO -- One of the driving factors behind the Cubs' inactive offseason has been the franchise's considerable arbitration class. The team's group of six is headed by star third baseman Kris Bryant, whose name has been attached to a bevy of rumors and speculation all winter.
Given the makeup of the current roster, and the potential cost of the arbitration-eligible players, the Cubs are at risk of exceeding the luxury-tax threshold for a second consecutive year. That is why trade rumblings have been and will continue to be more prevalent than free-agent talks for the North Siders as the 2020 campaign looms.
The deadline for exchanging proposed salary figures for one-year '20 contracts is noon CT on Friday. The Cubs typically try to reach an agreement with their arbitration-eligible players by that deadline, avoiding the hearing process. With or without a deal by the exchange date, teams and players can continue to negotiate a contract in the days and weeks leading up to a scheduled hearing.
The payroll situation
As things currently stand, the Cubs have roughly $135 million locked into the payroll, excluding a few split contracts handed out this offseason. Whether looking at Cot's Baseball Contracts or MLB Trade Rumors, this arbitration class projects to cost north of $40 million. Add in pre-arb players, the rest of the 40-man roster, bonuses and other financial obligations, and Chicago is closing in on $200 million.
The Competitive Balance Tax payroll (luxury tax) uses average annual value rather than just the 2020 salary figure to calculate the figure used by MLB. This year, the first CBT threshold is $208 million and the Cubs project to be right at the number or a little over with the current group of players. If the Cubs go over in '20, they will be subject to a 30% tax on the overage (the rate for being over two years in a row).
The Bryant situation
With Anthony Rendon (Angels) off the free-agent board, the baseball world is waiting to see where Josh Donaldson signs. Teams that missed out on signing either of those two might then shift attention to the trade market. That is why there has been a lot of noise about both Colorado's Nolan Arenado and Bryant this offseason.
One sticking point for Bryant is his ongoing service-time grievance, which is expected to have an announced resolution in the coming weeks. If Bryant wins his case, he would become a free agent next offseason. If Bryant loses the case, which many sources believe will be the expected outcome, he will be under club control through 2021. Projections by Cot's and MLB Trade Rumors have Bryant's '20 salary in the $18-19 million range via arbitration.
That situation would obviously impact the type of return the Cubs could get in a trade involving Bryant, so both Chicago and other teams are awaiting the outcome on that front. Once that is settled and Donaldson signs, more clarity about Bryant's future could arrive. That said, expect the Cubs to have a steep price on Bryant. While Chicago is trying to keep the long-term future in mind, the team still wants to contend in '20.
Báez tops the list of potential extension candidates within the current arbitration group. The shortstop is in his second year of arbitration eligibility, just turned 27 years old and has developed into an all-round talent and MVP candidate.
Contreras, who has emerged as one of the top catchers in baseball, looks like an extension candidate, too. But given that Contreras is in his first year of arbitration eligibility, there is less urgency to offer him a multiyear deal at this point in time.
While Bryant has expressed an interest to stay with the Cubs long term, the team knows it can be an uphill climb trying to reach a deal with agent Scott Boras.
Bryant and Contreras have been mentioned the most in the offseason trade chatter. If the Cubs do not view an extension with Bryant as realistic, it makes sense for Chicago to see if it can find a deal that would inject some impact prospects or young MLB talent into its system. Contreras is under control through '22, so that makes him an attractive piece for teams in need of catching.
Among the rest of the arbitration players, Schwarber is also a trade candidate. The left fielder had a robust second half in '19 (.997 OPS) and a career year (38 homers, 92 RBIs and .871 OPS), but trading his projected salary ($8 million per MLB Trade Rumors and $6.8 million via Cot's) would offer some flexibility. It would be one path to possibly trying to re-sign corner outfielder Nicholas Castellanos.
The Cubs' arbitration history
Under president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, who joined the Cubs' front office prior to the 2012 season, the North Siders have only gone to an arbitration hearing once. Epstein's team of negotiators has also established a strong reputation for reaching agreements by the deadline for exchanging salary figures.