Cubs should follow Braves' lead and lock up Hoerner, Happ


Last week, the Atlanta Braves announced yet another long-term extension for one of their core players — in this case rookie Michael Harris, who had played roughly 70 big-league games and wasn’t even on last year’s championship team.

Players across baseball took notice, perhaps none more than in the Cubs’ clubhouse, a place as haunted by the championship All-Stars recently departed in trades as it is alive with at least a few players the front office projects in its next competitive core.

“It’s impressive what they’ve done,” said shortstop Nico Hoerner, who could — and maybe should — be the test case for the Cubs trying to follow the Braves’ lead and doing with its next projected core what it couldn’t with its last.

What Braves president Alex Anthopoulos has done is nothing new; Cleveland’s John Hart did it in the 1990s with young players such as Carlos Baerga, Jim Thome and Kenny Lofton (and tried with Manny Ramirez).

But the Atlanta list is extreme even by Hart’s standard, including this year’s trade-and-sign of Matt Olson for $168 million and a franchise-record 10-year, $212 million extension for Austin Riley, before Harris’ $72 million deal.

“And they’re talking to [Dansby] Swanson,” said Willson Contreras, the three-time All-Star catcher who caught five World Series games as a rookie — and who’s likely headed to free agency in two months.

“They’ve got everybody locked up.”

That includes Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies, both of whom signed long-term deals in 2019 as pre-arbitration players.

Not that Contreras expects his own trajectory with the Cubs to suddenly change — or that anyone in that clubhouse pretends to know how a loss-skittish ownership and risk-averse front office in Chicago will react to what anybody else in the industry is doing.

But, as Contreras said, “This is a big team. It’s a big market. They have all the resources. Whether they want to spend it or not, I don’t know. I mean …

“I don’t know what they’re doing.”

The Cubs are typically among MLB’s top three or four teams in revenue annually, much more, even by conservative estimates, than the Braves, who are owned by a publicly traded company and consequently obligated to disclose financial reports (including $104 million in 2021 profit as measured by operating income before depreciation and amortization).

Bottom line: The big boys from the big market failed to achieve extensions with Kris Bryant, Javy Báez, Contreras and (a second one with) Anthony Rizzo — no matter who you choose to blame for that.

“We’ll see what happens with this group,” first-time Cubs All-Star Ian Happ said. “There’s been a lot of talk about the last group, but with this group I think there’s an opportunity to maybe have it be a little bit different.

“But as players, it’s out of your control. We’ll see if anybody else follows the [Braves’] lead. I don’t know.”

And that might be tomorrow’s bottom line: What happens with the Cubs’ next group? Will the team have any better success securing long-term deals with any of those desired players?

And who are they? When does that process start?

Happ, who (like Contreras) thought he’d be traded at the Aug. 2 deadline until the Cubs overplayed their hand and kept both, now wonders if that outcome puts him play for extension talks this winter.

“It’s definitely possible,” said Happ, who’s eligible for free agency after next season. “We’ll see what the offseason brings, what next year brings.”

Hoerner, the team WAR leader having his own breakout season, is eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter and looks like as certain a foundation piece for the next core as any player in the clubhouse.

Jumping the timeline on an extension for him could give the Cubs their best early-extension victory since Starlin Castro and Rizzo each signed seven-year extensions within months of each other in 2012-13.

“I love playing for the Cubs,” said Hoerner, who leads the Cubs in hitting at .291 after a three-hit night in the Cubs’ win over the Cardinals Wednesday night.

“I think that being here, being part of the next great team here would be one of the coolest things you could do as an athlete,” he said. “Being there from the quote-unquote rebuild, or whatever you want to call it, to the next championship would be an incredible thing to do.”

But Hoerner’s not going to talk about contract status or anything remotely specific, he said. No matter what the defending champs in Atlanta are doing with their All-Star roster.

No matter how much more money is in the game these days, no matter how much more the Cubs and other big clubs are able to put in the coffers these days compared to even 20 years ago.

“Obviously, what Atlanta’s done is impressive with getting their position-player core locked up, and when you have a group of position players that are — that seem like they’re good guys, too — it just creates a sense of continuity, especially knowing they’re all there for a long time.

“On a personal level,” he added, “it’s not a big part of where I’m at right now. Just not where my head’s at right now, playing in the middle of the season.”

It should be where team president Jed Hoyer’s head is at right now, during this sacrificed, rebuilding season.

Because if the Cubs actually assemble another championship core anytime soon and whiff again on extensions, it’s going to be a lot harder to blame the players the next time around.

Especially if Harris, Riley and Acuna are still winning in Atlanta while the Cubs keep making big-market coin in biblical proportions.

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