COVID-19 has affected Cubs' finances — and they face key decisions on Anthony Rizzo, Jon Lester and other free agents
CHICAGO — The World Series has ended, but the Chicago Cubs have been planning for the 2021 season since their elimination from the National League playoffs earlier this month.
Their plans will be impacted heavily by the COVID-19 pandemic that already resulted in about 100 layoffs in the baseball and business operations departments.
The team already has prepared for limited crowds at Wrigley Field even if Mayor Lori Lightfoot lifts some restrictions on public gatherings in time for the season, which will impact projected revenues.
Here’s a look at the most urgent decisions they must make as free agency starts.
1. Anthony Rizzo’s option
The Cubs are expected to pick up the $16.5 million option on first baseman Anthony Rizzo for 2021 within the next five days.
If they don’t, Rizzo would receive a $2 million buyout and become a free agent — something that would reflect their financial stress.
The Cubs already have earmarked $75.51 million for five players for 2021. That does not include Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber — whom each can become free agents after 2021 — Rizzo and Willson Contreras.
Rizzo, 31, suffered a dip in run production like many of his fellow sluggers. But he stayed injury-free and rallied his teammates despite the lack of fans.
He’s perhaps the biggest pillar in the Cubs’ community relations department, so it wouldn’t be surprising if his representatives and the Cubs reach an agreement on an extension before he’s eligible to become a free agent after next season.
2. Jon Lester’s buyout
The $10 million buyout is virtually a formality because Jon Lester fell well short of reaching the innings threshold for his $25 million option to be automatically vested for 2021.
Lester, 36, has expressed a strong desire to stay with the Cubs but knows he might have pitched his last game at Wrigley Field in a home uniform last month.
Team President Theo Epstein admitted at his season-ending news conference that the team will need to seek starting pitching outside the organization. Lester is part of three-fifths of the rotation that might not return in 2021.
The front office values Lester’s contributions over the last five seasons and will have to consider if he can continue to provide quality innings moving forward.
Manager David Ross, pitching coach Tommy Hottovy and associate pitching coach Mike Borzello provided a thick blanket of comfort for Lester. But he could be enticed by an opportunity to pitch closer to his Atlanta-area home if the Cubs don’t project him in their plans.
3. Other free agents
Infielder Daniel Descalso is expected to receive a $1 million buyout and become a free agent after missing all of the 2020 season because of an ankle injury.
Reliever Jeremy Jeffress could be the biggest free-agent priority among an internal group that includes starting pitchers Tyler Chatwood and Jose Quintana, left-handed reliever Andrew Chafin, infielder Jason Kipnis, outfielders Cameron Maybin and Billy Hamilton and catcher Josh Phegley.
Jeffress, 33, posted the lowest WHIP (0.943) of his career, and his value to the Cubs could soar if they elect to trade closer Craig Kimbrel or Rowan Wick doesn’t recovery quickly enough from an oblique injury.
But the Cubs are likely to seek upgrades through trades rather than by free agency. They haven’t splurged on a free agent since signing Kimbrel to a three-year, $43 million contract in June 2019, with about $6.25 million coming from the money saved from Ben Zobrist’s four-month leave.
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