We know that Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, and Willson Contreras will be coming back to the Cubs next year. So will Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Jose Quintana. But for many of the Cubs who helped the team reach the NLCS for the third straight year in 2017, the future is less certain.
We’ve already seen several changes to the coaching staff this offseason, and it’s another reminder that even with success, you can’t be content to sit still. With rising salaries, free agency, and volatile performances at the major league level, change is inevitable. The Cubs are not the best team in the National League right now, but with the right moves, they can be World Series contenders again in 2018.
Here are twelve players from the 2017 roster who may not be back next year:
John Lackey: We haven’t heard an official announcement yet, but many are speculating that he will retire. He did his part to help the Cubs win the World Series in 2016, but this season it looked like he was nearing the end of the line. If he does want to keep playing, perhaps a rebuilding team would want to sign him to eat up some innings and provide a veteran presence on a young roster. But at this point, he’d be a number five starter at best on the Cubs. Unless he’s willing to take a ridiculously cheap one-year deal and fight for a spot in the starting rotation, he won’t be coming back.
Chances he comes back: Less than 5%
Jake Arrieta: It looked like his career was quickly unraveling during the first half, but he recovered and had a solid second half. And there’s the classic catch-22: He’s re-earned a big payday and will now get at least a four-year deal. Someone may even offer him five years. But it won’t be the Cubs. Arrieta could still be a solid #2 type starter, but he doesn’t have the ability to go deep into games he once did. I’m sure the Cubs would love to bring him back, but some desperate team will be willing to overpay and the front office will not be going into a bidding war. They likely will seek out a potentially cheaper free agent alternative; Alex Cobb of the Tampa Bay Rays is a logical candidate.
Chances he comes back: 20%
Wade Davis: Theo Epstein & Co. have shown, to this point, that they’re not willing to overpay for relief pitching, which is the most unpredictable part of building a major league roster. But given the bullpen’s inconsistent performance and less than inspiring showing in the postseason, they might have to roll the dice and spend some money on the bullpen this offseason. There’s no obvious in-house candidate to try at closer; Carl Edwards, Jr. may be a possibility some day, but he doesn’t look like he’s ready at this point of his career. Last year, the team pulled off a brilliant move by trading the fading Jorge Soler to Kansas City for one year of Davis, who had an All-Star season as the Cubs’ closer. But it’s not likely that another deal like that is out there. It sounds like the front office will make a strong effort to re-sign Davis and probably are more willing to pay him market value than they are for Arrieta. If they miss out, former Twins closer Brandon Kintzler, who spent the latter part of this season with Washington, may be a cheaper, albeit not as highly regarded, alternative.
Chances he comes back: 50%
Brian Duensing: This one-year signing didn’t get much attention last offseason, but he put together a nice season, posting the second-lowest ERA in his nine-year career and pitching his most innings since he became a full-time reliever in 2013. He’ll almost certainly get a multi-year deal, and given the lack of major-league ready pitching depth currently in the Cubs’ system, I think they would be willing to give it to him. But they’re not going to overpay, either.
Chances he comes back: 50%
Hector Rondon: Two years ago, he was one of the most effective closers in the league. But he hasn’t been the same since the team traded for Aroldis Chapman in July 2016 and he was moved into a setup role. Rondon is arbitration-eligible, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they decide to non-tender him, which would make him a free agent, and give another team a chance to get him back on track. I’m getting the impression that the Cubs don’t see him as part of their long-term plans.
Chances he comes back: 50%
Justin Grimm: Here’s another arbitration-eligible player who was great in 2015 but hasn’t been consistent since. His high walk rate, which he got away with early in his career, seems to be catching up with him. In this case, it would actually be a surprise if the Cubs do offer him a contract for 2018. A change of scenery would likely be best for him at this point.
Chances he comes back: 10%
Alex Avila: Justin Wilson, who is under contract for next season, was considered the more important player in the midseason trade with the Tigers. But the Cubs ended up needing Avila when Willson Contreras went down with an injury shortly after the trade. It would be nice to bring Avila back as a bench player, but with Contreras now the established starting catcher, no one could blame Avila for seeking more playing time elsewhere.
Chances he comes back: 0%
Jon Jay: Like Duensing, Jay was an under-the-radar acquisition last offseason. But he had a great year as a part-time outfielder and now is likely in line for a multi-year deal. It would be great to bring him back, but it may be difficult because there figures to be many teams interested, especially given his postseason experience.
Chances he comes back: 30%
Ian Happ: Now we’re getting into the trade possibilities. Since the Cubs no longer have the farm system to pull off another Aroldis Chapman or Jose Quintana type trade, they’re at the point of their plan (year six) where they will have to start trading from their major league assets to fill their holes. Happ still has a lot to learn at the major league level but had a great rookie season when we consider that he probably could have used some more seasoning in the minors. Given his versatility, it looks like he’s on track to become Ben Zobrist with more pop in his bat. I would hate to see Happ go, but at this point he may have the highest trade value of anybody in the organization besides Rizzo, Bryant, Contreras, and Hendricks, who are going nowhere. If the Cubs are hoping to trade for a front of the rotation starter, Happ may have to be part of the deal.
Chances he comes back: 60%
Javier Baez: I still think the Cubs like Baez too much to part with him, but the rumors are going to persist. We know he plays great defense and is a decent run producer, but as we saw this postseason, he still gets impatient at the plate and will never take the next step in his career if he can’t learn to be more selective. If the Cubs were going to trade him, last offseason would have been the time to do it, as his atrocious postseason showing this year probably hurt his trade value. However, that would not have gone over well with the fans, as he is still one of the team’s most popular players. I just don’t see the Cubs moving him at this point, though if they find another team who loves him more than they do, it’s certainly possible.
Chances he comes back: 80%
Addison Russell: A year ago, Russell seemed untouchable, but he took a giant step backward this year and now his future seems uncertain. There’s still plenty of time for him to turn it around, but when we consider that he only plays one position (shortstop) and his inability to get on base, he may be the most expendable of their young players. If they trade Russell, they could easily move Baez to short and get Happ ready to become the everyday second baseman. However, Russell, by himself, will likely not be enough to bring in a difference maker for the starting rotation. The guess here is that they will hold onto him and hope he shows some progress next year, but it’s far from a guarantee. I’m sure he could be had for the right price, and given his tumultuous season on and off the field, a change of scenery might be good for him.
Chances he comes back: 70%
Kyle Schwarber: Like with Baez, Schwarber’s trade value was sky high last offseason, and also like with Baez, trading Schwarber would not have been popular with the fans. But if they were going to trade Schwarber, they probably waited too long to do it. Yes, he did show some improvement in the second half, and yes it is still too early in his career to make any long-term judgments. But his performance last year only reinforced the perception that many already had of Schwarber: that he’s a one-dimensional power hitter who is a liability on defense. At this point, I’m not sure the Cubs would get the return for Schwarber that would justify trading him. They may be better off holding onto him and seeing if he can develop into the more well-rounded hitter we saw glimpses of in the 2016 World Series. Not to mention, he did hit 30 home runs last year despite his struggles. That being said, they are going to have to trade somebody to get the pitching help they need, and the organization may decide that trading Schwarber to an AL team gives them the best chance to improve their roster moving forward. I would rather see them do that than trade Happ, who has more long-term value for this team.
Chances he comes back: 50%
Brian Johnston is the author of the book The Art of Being a Baseball Fan, his story of following the 2015 Chicago Cubs, available on Amazon. He lives in St. Joseph, Michigan with his wife and two children.