Should Cubs Deal Either Kris Bryant or Willson Contreras to Retool for 2020?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 13, 2019

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - SEPTEMBER 21: Kris Bryant #17 of the Chicago Cubs struck out during the second inning of a game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field on September 21, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)
Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

The Chicago Cubs are gearing up for drastic changes, perhaps up to and including trades of 2016 National League MVP Kris Bryant or two-time All-Star Willson Contreras.

According to Jon Paul Morosi of MLB.com, Bryant is among a trio of superstars at the center of Major League Baseball's offseason trade market:

For his part, Contreras is a less obvious trade candidate who nonetheless has the attention of other teams in search of catching help, per ESPN's Jeff Passan: 

It's noteworthy that neither rumor sprang from Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein. Yet while speaking with Chicago reporters at this week's general managers meetings in Arizona, he was candid about being in charge of an untenable situation.

Courtesy of Tony Andracki of NBC Sports Chicago, here's a key quote:

"In an ideal world, you can enhance your major-league team and put a really compelling product out there — a team that has a legitimate chance to win the World Series and also take significant steps toward ensuring your future and make sure there's not that big of a dropoff after 2021. There's probably a series of moves that we could pull off that could bring that about, but it won't be easy and you normally have to make sacrifices one way or the other and operate in a world where there are real tradeoffs.

"So we'll have to see what's available to us. This is the start of that process, really seeing what are realistic paths we can take, not just these sort of idyllic paths that we try to create in our mind."

The pivot that's suddenly before Epstein and the Cubs is ultimately necessitated by several factors, including what's befallen them on the field since 2016.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - SEPTEMBER 14: Willson Contreras #40 of the Chicago Cubs reacts after striking out during the third inning of a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field on September 14, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Ge
Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

Three years ago, the Cubs went into the winter celebrating a 103-win regular season and the organization's first World Series championship since 1908. Their returns have steadily diminished since then, culminating in an 84-win flop this season that left them short of the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

Yet now is no time to rebuild. Chicago still has loads of talent, and the NL Central is in a winnable state. After swapping out Joe Maddon for old friend David Ross in the manager's chair, the Cubs just need to address their list of needs before they're in good shape for 2020.

Trouble is, said list is an extensive affair that includes starting pitchers, relief pitchers and potentially new starters at second base and center field. They could also use a boost for a leadoff spot that produced an MLB-low .294 on-base percentage in 2019.

Alas, the Cubs' hands are tied on the trade market because their farm system has been whittled down to one of the worst in baseball. And in free agency, they're limited by how bloated their payroll already is.

Per Jeff Todd of MLB Trade Rumors, the Cubs carried a payroll in 2019 large enough to trigger a roughly $8.5 million luxury-tax penalty. For 2020, Roster Resource already projects their payroll to be about $10 million north of the $208 million tax threshold. As second-time offenders, they would owe at least a 30 percent tax on whatever overages they finish with next season.

Could the Cubs nonetheless keep their core intact and empty their farm system and pockets of what's left? If they only cared about winning in 2020, sure. But since it's their goal to also win in 2021 and beyond, well, you get Epstein's insistence on "sacrifices."

A trade of Bryant is certainly the biggest sacrifice the Cubs could make this winter. Yet there's an obvious line of logic behind his presence in trade rumors: Moving him represents a chance to clear an $18.5 million projected salary and also recoup some much-needed young talent.

However, this notion is flimsier in reality than it is in theory.

In light of his MVP, Rookie of the Year, three All-Star nods and World Series ring, Bryant has all the trappings of a legitimate superstar with trade value that's measured in oodles. But that reputation has tarnished a bit over the last two seasons. The 27-year-old third baseman struggled with a bum shoulder in 2018, and he was still only about half as good in his resurgent 2019 as he was during his 2015-17 peak:

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference

If the Cubs can get a team to pay their price for Bryant, then they should seriously consider doing a deal. If not, it'll be in their best interest to keep him and bank on him reclaiming his status as one of the NL's best during his final two seasons under their control.

Contreras, meanwhile, probably represents a better chance for the Cubs to make a trade to their liking.

Though he's the same age (27) and traditionally a less productive player than Bryant, Contreras boasts an extra year of club control and the kind of offensive upside that other clubs would love to have behind the plate. He ranks fifth among catchers in OPS+ since 2016, and he's fresh off a career year marked by an .888 OPS and 24 home runs.

While the Cubs would miss Contreras' bat, trading him would be addition by subtraction on the other side of the ball. Per Baseball Prospectus' catching metrics, he rated as one of baseball's worst pitch-framers and overall defenders among catchers in 2019. Such things aren't helping the Cubs' declining run prevention.

One catch (sorry) of trading Contreras is that it would only spare the Cubs from a $4.5 million projected salary. Doing away with that wouldn't be enough to get them under next year's luxury-tax threshold.

Still, that's $4.5 million they could reinvest elsewhere after putting Contreras' role in the capable hands of Victor Caratini. There's also the possibility of the Cubs forgoing a major prospect haul and aiming for more savings by pairing Contreras with a less appealing player with a larger salary for 2020. 

For instance, outfielder Kyle Schwarber ($8.0 million), left-handed starter Jose Quintana ($10.5 million), right-handed swingman Tyler Chatwood ($13 million) or even closer Craig Kimbrel ($16 million).

In any case, probably the only Cubs who are safe are wizard-like shortstop Javier Baez, steady first baseman Anthony Rizzo, albatross right fielder Jason Heyward and veteran starters Jon Lester, Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks. 

Otherwise, it's shaping up to be an "anything goes" winter on the north side of Chicago. Bryant and Contreras, in particular, figure to be at the forefront until one of them is moved.

                                                     

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and Baseball Prospectus.

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