The Cubs’ Big Three Is Back

The 2020 Cubs won the NL Central, but they did it in a fairly unusual way, getting minimal contributions from Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, and Javier Báez. In 151 combined games, their trio of stars combined for a mere 1.6 WAR, mostly coming from Rizzo (1.0); back when the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, Bryant alone racked up nearly eight wins. Last season, players like Ian Happ and Willson Contreras were the ones who propelled the team to October baseball, not the old core.

With Báez, Bryant, and Rizzo all set to enter free agency this offseason, the Cubs, as in many a heist movie, hoped to bring back the old crew for one last big score in 2021. But unlike many good yarns about high-stakes thievery, the Cubs largely ignored the supporting cast. The studio had cut the budget, an obvious necessity what with the Cubs playing in a tiny, small-market city, boasting merely the fourth-best attendance in baseball in 2019, and the reality that no owner in baseball history has ever made money. Yu Darvish was off to film a high-budget action movie in San Diego; the only primary member of the 2019 rotation still on the roster in ’21 is Kyle Hendricks.

Without much in the way of new blood, they needed their old core to shine one last time. And luckily for the Cubs, this is largely what has happened. In a similar number of games as the 2020 season, our troika of protagonists has combined for 4.8 WAR, tripling their contribution from the prior season. With the addition of Nolan Arenado, the Cardinals got most of the preseason NL Central ink but the Cubs have been more impressive at the box office.

The outlook has also improved for the three stars coming off disappointing seasons. Even superstars only have a few opportunities to sign a mega-contract, and nobody wants to hit free agency facing questions about their abilities. After losing much of their value in the projections from 2022 onwards, all three have clawed back much of their free agent viability.

First up on the podium is Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo struggled the least of the three in 2020, with a season that could be classified as ordinary rather than an epic disaster. Hitting .222/.342/.414 with a 103 wRC+, his worst line since his pre-breakout 2013, he still managed to snag a deserved Gold Glove at first. He likely lost the least value in 2020, but other factors probably already would have prevented him from landing a huge deal; Rizzo’s a couple of years older than Bryant or Báez, and first base hasn’t been a position with free agent sex appeal in several years.

ZiPS Projection – Anthony Rizzo (Pre-2020)
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2022 .263 .366 .447 476 67 125 27 2 19 75 61 86 5 119 3 3.7
2023 .258 .358 .434 454 61 117 25 2 17 68 55 79 5 113 3 3.1
2024 .253 .350 .412 430 55 109 22 2 14 61 49 71 4 105 3 2.3
2025 .248 .340 .392 383 46 95 18 2 11 50 40 58 4 98 2 1.6
2026 .238 .326 .370 319 36 76 14 2 8 39 30 44 3 88 1 0.8

If he’d signed an extension before 2020, ZiPS saw Rizzo getting a four-year, $87 million or five-year, $94 million contract after the 2021 season. Those are respectable, but not mind-blowing, figures. No team in baseball thinks that players peak in their 30s — okay, maybe the Rockies — and Rizzo will turn 33 before the end of the first year of his next deal. So the projections saw a player in decline, but one who could be a good starter on a playoff team for another three or four years.

ZiPS Projection – Anthony Rizzo (Pre-2021)
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2022 .259 .369 .458 474 68 123 24 2 22 80 64 86 7 116 3 2.9
2023 .253 .361 .443 451 62 114 22 2 20 72 59 80 7 110 3 2.4
2024 .247 .351 .420 429 56 106 19 2 17 65 52 72 6 102 3 1.7
2025 .242 .339 .397 360 44 87 15 1 13 51 40 56 5 93 2 0.9
2026 .235 .328 .365 285 32 67 11 1 8 37 29 40 5 82 1 0.2

After 2020, ZiPS no longer thought a five-year deal as likely, instead seeing a four-year, $65 million deal as the sweet spot, a loss of $22 million for Rizzo, or about a 25% loss in dollars from the previous contract. The risk of decline was suddenly a lot less speculative.

Rizzo’s WAR in 2021 is actually comparable to his WAR last year, but his bat has bounced back significantly, to the tune of a 124 wRC+. The difference is in defense, but there are reasons to think our WAR could be underrating him; his DRS is still positive, and via Statcast’s Outs Above Average, he’s leading the league at first base.

ZiPS Projection – Anthony Rizzo
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2022 .263 .370 .469 467 66 123 23 2 23 78 63 83 7 119 4 3.2
2023 .259 .365 .460 448 61 116 23 2 21 72 59 78 6 115 4 2.8
2024 .254 .355 .437 426 55 108 20 2 18 66 52 71 6 107 3 2.1
2025 .248 .346 .416 387 47 96 16 2 15 55 45 59 6 99 3 1.4
2026 .243 .334 .391 317 36 77 13 2 10 42 33 45 5 90 2 0.7

Rizzo’s done enough that, at least in the projections, he’s clawed his way back by about $12 million over a four-year contract, or slightly more than half his 2020 loss. The power output hasn’t yet been significant, but he’s improved his discipline at the plate, which has partially compensated; Rizzo’s swinging at fewer bad pitches and more good ones.

Moving onto Kris Bryant, his 2020 disappointment was at least partially fueled by a number of injuries. In a short, two-month season, Bryant had issues with his back, wrist, finger, elbow, and oblique, and even missed a couple of games due to gastrointestinal issues. The causes of these injuries varied, but they played a part in what was by far the worst season of Bryant’s career, a .206/.293/.351 debacle.

Coming into 2020, ZiPS was quite optimistic about Bryant landing a big deal when he hit the open market. There had been some questions about his loss of power in a 2018 marred by a shoulder injury, but he came roaring back in 2019, if not to the dizzying heights of his 2016-2017 peak.

ZiPS Projection – Kris Bryant (Pre-2020)
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2022 .254 .352 .460 500 83 127 30 2 23 61 63 137 4 118 -3 4.2
2023 .253 .349 .458 483 79 122 29 2 22 58 60 131 4 116 -4 3.8
2024 .250 .346 .446 464 73 116 27 2 20 54 56 122 4 112 -5 3.2
2025 .247 .340 .425 442 67 109 24 2 17 49 51 111 3 106 -6 2.5
2026 .243 .332 .406 419 60 102 22 2 14 43 45 100 3 99 -7 1.7
2027 .239 .322 .386 373 50 89 18 2 11 36 37 83 2 91 -8 0.9

This projection is valued by ZiPS at $136 million over six years. That’s down from the $182 million ZiPS projected before 2018, when Bryant was at his peak, but it comfortably exceeded the century mark. Then 2020 happened.

ZiPS Projection – Kris Bryant (Pre-2021)
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2022 .251 .346 .463 486 81 122 28 3 23 63 59 128 3 110 -3 2.9
2023 .249 .344 .451 470 77 117 26 3 21 60 56 122 3 107 -4 2.5
2024 .246 .338 .438 452 71 111 24 3 19 55 52 114 2 102 -5 1.9
2025 .242 .334 .426 430 65 104 22 3 17 50 48 104 2 98 -6 1.4
2026 .238 .325 .405 383 55 91 19 3 13 41 40 87 2 90 -7 0.7
2027 .234 .317 .377 316 42 74 14 2 9 32 30 67 2 81 -7 0.0

ZiPS no longer saw a six-year contract in the works, but to keep things apples-to-apples rather than apples-to-tacos, that is a $78 million valuation, nearly a $60 million hit for a 60-game season. That’s especially cruel to Bryant, who was always going to basically need seven years of service time to hit free agency rather than six due to the Cubs’ shenanigans. (I certainly don’t buy that they thought Mike Olt was superior for two weeks in 2015, though I can’t prove it.)

But in a stroke of good fortune, Bryant hasn’t just bounced back to his reduced level of stardom from 2019, he’s bounced straight past it, which I think violates the physics of trampolines. Apparently not getting the memo that the baseball is a bit deader this year, Bryant’s putting up the best batting average and slugging percentage of his career. Even at his MVP candidate peak, he didn’t put up a wRC+ of 156! While that will likely come back down to Earth somewhat, his resurgence, plus the fact that he’s remained healthy, means that his projections have come roaring back.

ZiPS Projection – Kris Bryant
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2022 .266 .356 .488 508 86 135 29 3 26 74 59 137 4 119 -2 3.8
2023 .263 .352 .485 487 80 128 30 3 24 70 56 130 4 117 -3 3.3
2024 .261 .348 .472 468 75 122 27 3 22 65 52 122 4 113 -4 2.8
2025 .256 .343 .446 446 68 114 24 2 19 59 48 114 4 105 -5 2.1
2026 .254 .337 .431 422 62 107 23 2 16 53 43 101 3 100 -6 1.5
2027 .245 .324 .406 387 54 95 19 2 13 45 36 87 3 90 -7 0.7

That’s not quite as neat as hitting Ctrl+Z in Windows, but the damage, at least in the projection’s eyes, has largely been undone. A six-year deal doesn’t sound preposterous, and ZiPS sees such a pact heading back over the century mark to $119 million.

That just leaves Javier Báez. Báez’s bat fell back a bit in 2019 from his near-MVP 2018 season, but he put up the best defensive season of his career after the Cubs fully committed to him as the team’s shortstop rather than moving him around as needs dictated. At the time, it looked like he was heading toward a monstrous payday.

ZiPS Projection – Javier Báez (Pre-2020)
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2022 .256 .295 .501 511 77 131 30 4 29 82 26 162 11 110 5 4.2
2023 .260 .298 .510 496 75 129 29 4 29 82 25 151 11 113 4 4.3
2024 .260 .297 .508 480 72 125 27 4 28 79 23 143 11 112 3 4.0
2025 .259 .296 .500 460 68 119 25 4 26 74 22 135 10 110 2 3.5
2026 .254 .290 .483 437 62 111 23 4 23 67 20 123 9 104 1 2.8
2027 .252 .287 .467 413 56 104 21 4 20 60 18 110 8 99 0 2.3
2028 .247 .279 .439 385 49 95 18 4 16 51 15 96 7 90 -1 1.5
2029 .242 .272 .411 355 43 86 15 3 13 43 13 82 6 81 -3 0.7

ZiPS projected an eight-year, $202 million contract for Báez. That’s below the deals that players such as Manny Machado, Francisco Lindor, and Bryce Harper landed, but unlike them, Báez wouldn’t hit free agency in his mid-20s. Báez was inevitably going to be a low-OBP hitter, but as valuable as a low-OBP hitter as you’re likely to find; playing well at shortstop while slugging .500 goes a long way.

Falling to a .203/.238/.360 triple-slash in 2020, Báez arguably had the worst season of the three players examined here. Always a free-swinger, the tendency served him poorly last year; with a little bad BABIP fortune, his OBP dropped through the danger zone straight into panic territory.

ZiPS Projection – Javier Báez (Pre-2021)
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2022 .267 .302 .502 536 81 143 31 4 29 90 24 161 11 106 2 3.3
2023 .272 .306 .532 523 82 142 30 5 32 94 23 153 10 114 1 3.7
2024 .271 .305 .527 505 78 137 28 4 31 91 22 146 10 112 0 3.4
2025 .270 .304 .523 486 74 131 26 5 29 86 21 137 10 111 -1 3.1
2026 .266 .297 .508 463 68 123 24 5 26 79 19 127 9 106 -2 2.4
2027 .263 .293 .484 438 62 115 21 5 22 70 17 114 8 99 -3 1.8
2028 .259 .288 .468 410 55 106 19 5 19 61 15 101 7 94 -4 1.3
2029 .253 .282 .435 379 48 96 16 4 15 52 13 86 6 84 -6 0.5

ZiPS always thought Báez was a good bet to bounce back but not completely, dropping its projection to a $175 million deal over eight years. This comes with a caveat: there have been some methodology changes since the final pre-2021 ZiPS, and the current pre-2021 projection is a bit better than it was back in December (I wanted, again, to keep it apples-to-apples). But even with a less impressive bounce-back 2021 projected, ZiPS still thought he’d get a $168 million contract after his 2020 season

Báez hasn’t become a scientific hitter or anything this season, but his power has suffered less than others’ with the new baseball. The OBP has recovered to “acceptably” brutal along with his BABIP, leaving Báez a path to stardom even while making a giant boatload of outs.

ZiPS Projection – Javier Báez
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2022 .271 .306 .511 546 83 148 27 4 32 93 23 174 17 109 2 3.8
2023 .274 .309 .538 522 81 143 28 4 34 95 22 161 14 116 2 4.0
2024 .275 .308 .549 506 79 139 26 4 35 95 21 157 13 119 1 4.0
2025 .273 .307 .548 487 76 133 24 4 34 91 20 149 12 118 0 3.6
2026 .271 .303 .529 465 70 126 22 4 30 83 18 138 11 112 -2 3.0
2027 .266 .297 .507 440 63 117 20 4 26 74 16 124 10 105 -3 2.3
2028 .260 .289 .473 412 56 107 17 4 21 64 14 110 10 95 -4 1.4
2029 .257 .286 .451 381 49 98 15 4 17 55 12 94 8 89 -6 0.8

Optimism has finally returned! Not quite to the pre-2020 valuation, mind you, but this Báez is one you can see a team in the right situation going over $200 million, at least if you gave ZiPS access to a Scrooge McDuck-esque vault of gold coins. His health, ability to play a solid shortstop, and that extra advantage from being a year younger gives him the edge over Bryant in the long-term projections.

ZiPS also sees more upside remaining for Báez, largely because his glaring weakness — plate discipline — is such a deep hole in his game that even becoming halfway acceptable could represent a significant across-the-board benefit. The computer sees Báez as similar in offensive ability to Alfonso Soriano around the time of the A-Rod trade (he’s the number-one comp), and Báez is easily the better defensive player.

Now, whether he’ll get that money is an open question. Wallets might stay closed if the CBA negotiations become an offseason worry, and I wouldn’t bet against that unless you gave me some pretty generous odds. Last year’s shortstops largely ended up with fairly team-friendly deals, and Báez will face competition at the position this winter – Corey Seager, Trevor Story, Carlos Correa, and Marcus Semien will also hit the market. But even if you’re not on Team ZiPS in thinking Báez can approach $200 million, I think we have strong evidence that he’s at least repaired most of the damage from the 2020 season.

There are a lot more reasons to be optimistic about the Cubs in 2021 than there were a few months ago, and three very big reasons in particular. The core of Chicago’s World Series Championship team still hits free agency this winter, so there’s still trouble ahead. Enjoy the party for now because, to alter a quote from Louis XVI, après eux, le déluge.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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jgawel
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jgawel

Wow, I would have figured ZiPS to have those figures flipped for Bryant and Baez.