CHICAGO -- There will be no stopping trade rumors from flowing about the Cubs this offseason. The team is in the midst of an offseason of transition and a slew of circumstances surrounding Chicago will only lend to speculation about players potentially on the move.
The Cubs' payroll already projects to be in the $200 million range before any offseason additions. There is a group of core players inching towards free agency after the '21 and '22 campaigns. The Cubs have a new manager in place in David Ross, missed the postseason for the first time since '14 and the club is trying to balance winning now with planning for the franchise's next era.
That is an equation that will add up to trade rumors and reports in the months leading up to Opening Day. Knowing that, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein made it clear to local reporters on hand at the General Managers Meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz., that he will not be tossing logs on the speculatory fire this offseason.
"The nature of any offseason is there are going to be rumors about your Major League players, and even your best players," Epstein was quoted as saying by multiple Chicago media outlets. "It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re true. No one knows how this winter is going to evolve -- even us -- we have no idea what will be available to us.
"Taking any name that comes up in a trade rumor with a mouthful of salt is appropriate -- not just a grain -- because I think they're usually untrue. Not that they come from a malicious place, but sometimes they can have real-world negative consequences for the player and his family, so we're going to do everything we can to operate respectfully.
"These guys whose names keep coming up in trade rumors have done a ton for our franchise. They're among the very best players in the world. And I don't want to do anything to make their lives more difficult. Most trade rumors out there are not true. We have no idea how this winter's going to go down."
With that in mind, here is a breakdown of the players most likely to keep coming up in trade rumors this offseason for the Cubs:
While a significant group within the Cubs' core is eligible for free agency after the 2021 season -- also the last year in Epstein's current contract with the franchise -- Contreras is entering arbitration this winter and is under club control through '22. He's an elite, offense-first All-Star, but his pitch framing continues to be an area of development.
With three years of control and signs of improvement last year in the framing department, another team with a need behind the plate might be willing to step up and make a blockbuster offer for Contreras. It could be the best avenue for the Cubs' to address some other needs. And, Chicago has a potential starter in Victor Caratini, who hit well (108 wRC+) and framed well (1.6 Framing Runs, per FanGraphs) last year.
MUST BE BLOWN AWAY
The clock has been ticking toward free agency for Bryant since the Cubs took him with the second overall pick in the 2013 MLB Draft. The third baseman won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in '15 and followed that with an NL MVP and World Series ring in '16. Injuries have hurt Bryant in the past two years, but he still posted a .903 OPS in '19 and made his third All-Star team in five seasons.
Bryant will be a free agent after '21, but replacing his package of elite offense, plus baserunning and defensive versatility would be a tall task for a Cubs team still intent on contending in '20. Expect rumors to swirl, but moving Bryant may ultimately not be in Chicago's immediate best interest. Interested teams also face the obstacle of his escalating salary and the possibility of him hitting the open market two winters from now.
Like Bryant, Báez is currently on target for free-agent eligibility after the '21 campaign. Epstein has noted that he will explore extensions with some of the Cubs' core group this winter. Báez might be the most realistic candidate to pen his name on the dotted line. Báez plays a premier position, has reached national stardom and is still affordable via arbitration. The Cubs have an up-and-coming shortstop prospect in Nico Hoerner, but he may project better as a second baseman. It would be stunning if Báez were moved this winter.
Schwarber could have a home in the heart of plenty of lineups, but the market will always be limited for a corner outfield bat of his attributes. Schwarber has made strides defensively, but expect any inquiring team to try to use his deficiencies in the field to their advantage in trade talks. Also eligible for free agency after '21, Schwarber took off in the second half last year, batting .280/.366/.631 after the All-Star break. He finished with 38 homers and 92 RBIs. The return in a trade may not be worth parting with that much offensive production.
Rizzo has a $16.5 million team option for '20, putting him alongside the rest of the core group that is marching towards free agency in two years. He just captured his third career Gold Glove at first base and only injuries got in the way of another year of 30 homers and 100 RBIs. Under new manager David Ross, Rizzo will be important for resetting the culture behind the scenes as one of the leaders in the room. Similar to Schwarber, any offers for Rizzo are unlikely to merit parting with the franchise icon.
Albert Almora Jr.
Almora experienced a tough year both offensively (64 wRC+) and defensively (minus five Defensive Runs Saved and minus 4.1 UZR/150) last season. The center fielder will be eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter. The Cubs will likely explore the market for Almora, but it's no secret that -- even at an affordable cost for '20 -- his stock has declined.
Chatwood is set to earn $13 million in '20. Even with a solid bounce-back campaign as a swing man, that salary will make him difficult to move for any substantial return. In '19, Chatwood was a valuable piece to the pitching staff, serving as a part-time starter and versatile reliever. The righty posted a 3.76 ERA with 74 strikeouts vs. 37 walks in 76 2/3 innings (33 relief outings and five starts). With needs in the Cubs' rotation and bullpen, Chatwood projects to have a home somewhere on Chicago's '20 staff again.
Russell, who will be 26 in January, will be eligible for arbitration this offseason, but the middle infielder is an obvious non-tender candidate. That alone will limit his value in any trade talks. Last year, he posted an 81 wRC+ and played an average second base. On top of that, Russell missed the first month while serving a suspension for violating MLB's Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Policy.
When teams sign players to team-friendly contracts, one of the motivations is to possibly create an attractive trade chip for down the road. Last spring, Bote inked a five-year, $15 million deal with team options for '25 and '26. Bote can play second or third base and has limited experience at short. In '19, he had a .785 OPS with a 106 wRC+.
Given the rough season Kimbrel just endured, the return for the closer would probably not be that spectacular. But, if the Cubs find themselves in real need of moving payroll, exploring the market for Kimbrel and the remainder of his contract ($16 million in each of '20-21 with a $16 million team option or $1 million buyout for '22) would make sense.
The Cubs picked up Quintana's $10.5 million team option and still have a need for additional rotation depth this offseason. Still, that's an affordable asking price for a veteran starter and moving Quintana could open up some payroll for a Chicago team potentially in need of shuffling some things around financially.
Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.