The Rundown: NL Central’s Thrifty Ways, Cubs in Tough Negotiating Spot, Lester’s Departure Official, Searching for Meaning in Moves

Though there is no way collusion could be linked to one division, the lack of spending by the Cubs and their NL Central brethren on the free agent market is nearly criminal. As an entity, the five teams that make up the division have spent just $3.7 million, a good chunk of which is represented by the $1.5 million given to Austin Romine by the Cubs a little over a week ago.

Spending is down all across baseball and it’s obvious that most team owners are leveraging 11 months of the ongoing pandemic to justify a league-wide belt-tightening. Among Chicago’s closest rivals, only the Brewers are entertaining the thought of breaking open the piggy bank, as it has been reported that president of baseball operations David Stearns is mildly interested in free agent third baseman Justin Turner.

As for the rest of the division, it looks like the Cardinals aren’t planning on spending any money and may lose stalwarts Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, and Kolten Wong. The Reds appear intent on paring more payroll, and the Pirates are content to maintain the horse-and-buggy budget to which their fans have become wistfully accustomed. I suppose the big difference between the Cubs and their rivals is the boost those other teams receive from competitive balance benefits. Perhaps the lack of spending on the North Side is a silent protest by Tom Ricketts that screams to the league to eliminate or modify those types of entitlements.

That said, it is a worthless endeavor to try to analyze Ricketts’s current economic battleplan. It bears the façade of a rebuild, but Jed Hoyer hasn’t acquired much in the way of prospects, at least so far, with many publications indicating the organization still doesn’t include a single tier-1 prospect. Baseball Prospectus has been the kindest to Matt Dorey’s farm system, and even they do not rank a single Chicago minor leaguer in their top 60. Rather, the Cubs are simply dumping salary, something Jon Lester gingerly stepped around while trying to express a few niceties for his former employer.

Now that the Blue Jays have made moves to shore up their infield and rotation, Hoyer is left with one less potential suitor for Kris Bryant, which negatively impacts his current trade value. Waiting on a sweetheart deal for the slugging third baseman probably doesn’t help either. The Phillies recently re-signed J.T. Realmuto, so Willson Contreras will probably become a targeted commodity for many teams, and Kyle Hendricks has better-than-decent trade value because of his team-friendly contract.

Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez have rarely been mentioned this winter and both appear to be the team’s likeliest extension candidates, but Hoyer stated previously that the club and its potential free agents are nowhere close to common ground financially. As bad as this winter has been, the Cubs could kick off next year’s hot stove season with a bare-bones roster that may shockingly have the lowest payroll commitment in all of baseball. Right now, they’re on the hook for slightly less than $40 million for the 2022 season. That should be unacceptable by all fans, even those in favor of a rebuild.

The core members of the team that make it through this winter unscathed, along with pitchers Zach Davies and Craig Kimbrel, could be trade candidates by the July 31 deadline. Ian Happ and David Bote carry modest contracts, so they’ll likely draw interest from other teams, too.

In fact, the only untouchables on Chicago’s roster could be Nico Hoerner, who rightfully belongs in the minors right now, and Adbert Alzolay. Jason Heyward is likely immovable because of his contract, but the veteran right fielder could draw quite a bit of interest if Hoyer was inclined to include one of his better prospects — such as Brailyn Márquez or Brennen Davis — in a deal.

In other words, a fire sale means no reasonable offer will be refused. Based on Hoyer’s moves so far, and this is no indictment of the executive given what he may have been mandated to do, reasonable is a very fluid word. The president of baseball operations has no ace up his sleeve and is just about the only player at the table who has revealed his hand. That’s no way to favorably leverage any potential deal in his favor.

Cubs News & Notes

Odds & Sods

Speculation surrounding Bryant has historically carried more caveats than clarity, that’s for sure.

Thursday Stove

Masahiro Tanaka is returning home to Japan after seven seasons with the Yankees. The free agent pitcher has agreed to play for the Rakuten Eagles this season, which is where he started his professional career.

The Blue Jays and Mets made a trade yesterday, with starter Steven Matz going to Toronto for four prospects, including Sean Reid-Foley.

The hot stove has really heated up over the past week and a flurry of moves has provided new homes for many of  this year’s best free agents.

The Angels are not expected to pursue Trevor Bauer, but would like to beef up their rotation via trade. Cue the Contreras/Hendricks speculation.

Both the Mariners and Braves have two players among MLB Pipeline’s best outfield prospects. No Cubs players made the list.

The Mets have promoted Zack Scott to acting general manager, replacing the recently fired Jared Porter.

Portland and Charlotte could be the likeliest of candidates if league owners vote to expand.

The controversy surrounding Curt Schilling has exposed the many flaws in baseball’s Hall of Fame election process.

The fact that Jeff Kent has received very little support for induction is a better indicator.

Sliding Into Home

Our good friend and frequent contributor “Gator” is trying to organize an annual Rundown Rendezvous of sorts and you can email him here if you’re interested. I’ll collaborate with him to develop a game plan, then we’ll get the details out to those interested. I think it’s a wonderful idea, so let’s see if we can gauge the feasibility of such an endeavor.

Extra Innings

The race to the bottom of the NL Central is one of the more unappealing backstories of this winter.

They Said It

  • “We all kind of see what’s going on [with the Cubs]. You kind of see where they’re headed. That doesn’t mean they’re going to be bad.” – Jon Lester
  • “We did reach out and so did [the Cubs] and we talked and had a lot of good conversations. Just kinda the timeline on either side didn’t really work out…you reach a point where sometimes you need to move on and I think that’s where we were at on both sides.” – Lester

Thursday Walk Up Song

Loser by the Grateful Dead – Hoyer is holding eights and aces, the unluckiest of hands. Actually, the aces part is questionable.

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