For a reigning division champ, our 2021 Cubs predictions are a bit underwhelming. In 2020, the Cubs won the NL Central for the first time since 2017, but suffered a crushing first-round postseason sweep at the hands of the Marlins. The offseason moves of trading Yu Darvish and Victor Caratini in return for a few prospects have made the front office’s intentions clear, and we take a look at some 2021 Cubs predictions that focus on who the rebuild might target next. The primary goals: shedding payroll and rebuilding the farm.
Willson Contreras won’t reach free agency until 2023, making the 28-year-old an enticing trade piece. Offensively-minded catchers are always valuable on the block, and Contreras has plenty to offer.
Contreras has a career .265/.351/463 slash line (113 OPS+), headlined by a great 2019 season. In that year, he finished the season with an .888 OPS, good for a 127 wRC+: best of all catchers with at least 400 PA on the year—that’s better than Yasmani Grandal, J.T. Realmuto, and Gary Sanchez.
Since reaching the big leagues, Contreras’ primary fault has been his defensive catching, with the primary issue of pitch framing. Prior to the 2020 season, he made huge strides in his pitch framing, adjusting his catching position to great effect. Of course, we already know he has a cannon for an arm that he’s proven time and time again:
Contreras would be a great addition to any team with a championship window for the next couple years. For their part, if the Cubs are committing to the rebuild it makes sense to part ways with Contreras, in the hopes that prospect Miguel Amaya can take the reins in the next few years. The Cubs’ biggest need is to rebuild their farm system, and a Contreras trade could do just that.
It’s felt like Groundhog Day for a few years now but yes: Kris Bryant is on the trade block. While rumors of a KB trade have been circulating since 2017, it seems 2021 could actually see the third baseman on the move in the midst of the Cubs’ rebuild.
Bryant had a disappointing 2020 season for sure, but it’s somehow overshadowed what has been an incredibly consistent and valuable player. Take a look at some of KB’s career accolades (keep in mind, he only just turned 29):
- 2015 NL Rookie of the Year
- 2016 NL MVP (and World Series champ)
- Three-time All-Star
- Since 2015, Kris Bryant is the sixth-best position player by WAR per Fangraphs
- Only one season (2020) with a sub-100 OPS+; without 2020 he has a career .901 OPS
Injuries have resulted in his two worst seasons: 2020, where he only played 34 games and never got going offensively, and 2018, where he played in 102 games and still put together a 125 wRC+ season.
Bryant’s trade value has never been lower, yet he could provide top-tier value for a team in 2021 before becoming a free agent in 2022. He’s a plug-and-play elite third baseman for any team looking to contend immediately, and could be a solid candidate for an extension or re-signing with that team. He also has the positional flexibility to shift into the outfield, and has even seen some time at first base.
From the Cubs perspective, the front office would surely love to dump the second-highest chunk of their payroll. They’re looking to get whatever value they can out of their All-Star third baseman, which most likely means one thing: prospects. The Cubs’ farm system is thin, especially at pitcher, which means any trades will be with a team with prospects to spare.
2021 Cubs Predictions: Remaining Moves
What else could be in store for the Cubs’ front office? Both Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez will become free agents at the end of the 2021 season, but could be moved to a win-now contender. Craig Kimbrel still has two years left in his contract, but it seems unlikely that any team will be willing to pony up for a $16 million-per-year aging reliever; however, in his last 14 appearances of 2020, all but one of them were scoreless.
The Cubs then have three contracts that could be particularly attractive to suitors: David Bote, Ian Happ, and Kyle Hendricks. Hendricks is the clear front runner, as he’s locked up for three more years at $14 million each. The Professor has been a consistently valuable mid-rotation piece for the Cubs, and at times has even looked ace-like. If the Cubs are taking the rebuild seriously, Hendricks is unlikely to be on the payroll by the time they’re ready to contend.
Happ had a breakout 2020 after putting together a quietly impressive 2019 that saw a lot of time back at the Cubs’ AAA-affiliate in Iowa. If Happ’s 2020 (131 wRC+) is for real, he’d be a valuable piece for any team with his positional flexibility and several years of team control.
David Bote recently signed a five-year, $15 million deal that positions him as a cheap utility player for the next four seasons. He can slot in anywhere in the infield and has a career OPS over 1.000 as a pinch hitter, including this memorable walk-off grand slam against the Nationals in 2018:
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